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In 1959, the Cuban Revolution unleashed the largest refugee flow to the United States in history, with approximately 1.4 million people fleeing the island after the toppling of dictator Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro’s guerrilla fighters. Since then, Cuba has remained one of the top migrant-sending nations to its northern neighbor, and the Cuban exodus has been oriented primarily toward the mainland United States.
Cuba was the fifth-largest source of immigrants admitted to the United States for legal permanent residence during 2015 (more than 54,000 persons); just six countries had a larger immigrant population in the United States, with some 1,211,000 U.S. residents born in Cuba—nearly 940,000 of whom now live in Florida. In total, approximately 2 million U.S. residents are natives of Cuba or claim Cuban ancestry.
This massive and sustained flow—spawned not only by political and economic conditions in Cuba, but also by U.S. policies that have served as a magnet for this migration—has drawn substantial attention from scholars, journalists, and policymakers, particularly in the context of longstanding Cold War tensions between the two neighbors.
But the deterioration in U.S.-Cuban relations since 1959, together with faltering economic and political conditions on the island, produced a much more heterogeneous Cuban American population. Successive migrant waves drew deeper from the middle and lower strata of Cuban society over time, and more recent émigrés represent a wide cross-section of Cuban society. In addition, economic motivations became increasingly intertwined with political ones during the later migrant waves.