It was supposed to be another routine event in the series of regular book presentations organized by Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute: on the podium, a respected scholar authoritatively presenting her most recent research. In the audience, a few attendants asking polite questions.
Instead, the presentation Friday evening of “Cuban Privilege, the Making of Immigrant Inequality in America,” a book claiming that Cuban immigrants in the United States are not genuine refugees nor exiles, turned into an emotional rebuke of that premise by activists and members of the Cuban-American community who feel the book denies the tragic history of those fleeing communism.
A few protesters and police officers were among the first things those attending the event saw before going inside FIU’s Wertheim Performing Arts Center. Inside the packed venue, members of the public at times erupted in applause at mention of the achievements of the Cuban American community as others questioned the central assertions in the book.
In her presentation, the book’s author, Boston University sociology professor Susan Eckstein, summarized what she called “unique entitlements” for Cuban migrants for decades, including a path to U.S. citizenship and access to welfare benefits. Eckstein told the audience that the immigration policies favoring Cubans were rooted in the Cold War as successive American presidents aimed at defeating Fidel Castro. In later decades, she added, the reasons to continue treating Cubans differently shifted to domestic politics as Cuban Americans became a significant voting bloc in Florida.
“No other groups have ever received such benefits,” Eckstein said.
She argued that some of those benefits were undeserved, and that Cuban immigrants cannot legitimately claim to be refugees since most did not leave the island because they faced persecution.
Eckstein shared the stage with Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, a longtime Cuban American human rights activist and author who was asked by the FIU organizers to provide a counterpoint and made his own presentation rebuking the conclusions in the book.
“You would have to ignore the massacres, the extrajudicial killings, the political prisoners, the civil war in the countryside, the concentration camps…. Only then you can conclude Cuban exiles were not persecuted,” Gutierrez-Boronat said.
That the discussion took place at all, as a debate between diametrically different points of view, was the result of a negotiation between FIU’s leaders and members of the Cuban American community.
Despite intense criticism by local politicians and on social media, where the book was labeled “anti-Cuban” and offensive, FIU resisted pressures to cancel the event, citing academic freedom. Eckstein was originally scheduled to talk about her book at an event at Books & Books in Coral Gables, but FIU changed the venue to one of its own auditoriums after the outcry. In a statement, FIU President Kenneth A. Jessell said the institution was “using these recent events as an opportunity to improve our processes and ensure we create programs that meet the highest academic standards while remaining sensitive to our community.”
In his opening comments, Professor Jorge Duany, the Cuban Research Institute director who brought Eckstein to FIU, said an invitation to present a book was not a university endorsement of its ideas.
And the event reflected that.
“I think that the book is deficient as social science,” Gutierrez-Boronat said, adding that the author failed to acknowledge the totalitarian nature of the regime installed by Fidel Castro and the insidious ways in which repression was embedded in everyday life, pushing people to leave the country.
“You didn’t need Eisenhower and Kennedy to tell [Cubans] to come” to the U.S.,” Gutierrez-Boronat said. “They were fleeing because of the massive oppression they were facing.”
The book also advocates ending immigration benefits for what it labels “privileged” Cuban migrants as an effort to make immigration policies more equal.
During the question-and-answer section of the event, Eckstein denied having called for the elimination of such benefits.
“I never said that Cubans should not have received what they have gotten, but shouldn’t the Haitians receive the same treatment?” she asked.
Other audience members said her work was based on faulty research.
Radio host Ninoska Perez Castellón attended the event and after speaking about her experience and that of her parents fleeing Cuba called Eckstein’s work “insulting” to the community. An FIU student asked why the Cuban Research Center deleted comments on its Instagram account that had been critical of the book. Audience members shouted “Freedom for the political prisoners” and “Patria y Vida “ — Homeland and Life, which has become the slogan of Cuban anti-government protesters.
As the audience became more agitated, Eckstein said she found some of the comments offensive.
“I didn’t intend for the book to be political,” she replied to a question posed by a student. “I find some of the comments to be offensive and not related to the discussion. This is supposed to be a book talk.”
She insisted she was not giving a personal opinion of whether Cubans were legitimate refugees, but using a recognized definition of what a refugee is supposed to be.
“I am a daughter of refugees, my parents were persecuted,” she said.
But to many, the subject of her research was too personal.
“The fact that someone in America has actually written a book saying that we are privileged is remarkable. We have lived under a communist dictatorship for over 60 years and not one thing has been done,” said María Capote, one of the protesters standing outside the auditorium as the debate unfolded. “I’m extremely insulted that she would come here to the heart of the exile community and present this book.”
Inside the venue, an FIU student asked why some of the views expressed in the Cuban American community are so extreme.
“It’s the trauma, the pain,” Gutiérrez-Boronat replied.
Those were not the last words Friday evening.
As the event was ending, members of the audience shouted, “Down with communism! Freedom for Cuba!”
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Cosme Torres contributed to this report.
This story was originally published December 9, 2022 10:18 PM.