The term "Cuban exile" refers to the many Cubans who fled from or left the island of Cuba. These people consist of two primary groups loosely defined by the period of time occurring before and after the Mariel boat lift of the 1980s. The pre-Mariel group consisted of the mostly middle and upper classes of the island who fled due to fear of widespread reprisals after the communist takeover led by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s-1970s. The people in this group were mainly seeking political asylum. The second group consists of those peoples who emigrated from Cuba during and after the period of the Mariel boat lift of the 1980s. By and large, the majority of these people were, and are, economic migrants. The phenomenon date back to the Ten Years' War and the struggle for Cuban independence during the 19th century. In modern times, the term refers to the large exodus of Cubans to the United States since the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
The majority of the 1,172,899 current Cuban exiles living in the United States live in Florida (917,033 in 2014), mainly in Miami-Dade County, where more than third of the population is Cuban. Other exiles have relocated to form substantial Cuban communities in New York City (16,416), Louisville, KY (6,662), Houston, TX (6,233), Los Angeles (6,056), Union City, NJ (4,970) and others.
Most Cuban exiles in the United States are both legally and self-described political refugees. This status allows them different treatment under U.S. immigration statutes than immigrants who are not categorized as political refugees.
The first wave occurred after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro. Many refugees came with the idea that the new government would not last long, and their stay in the U.S. was temporary. Homes, cars, and other properties in Cuba were left with family, friends, and relatives, who would take care of them until the Castro regime would fall, however, this was promptly stopped by the Castro government, with the forced confiscation of all properties belonging to anyone leaving the country.
The CIA had spread rumors of a project by the communist government, to remove the parents' custody of their children to indoctrinate them. Consequently, between November 1960 and October 1962, over 14,000 children were sent to the U.S. by their parents in Operation Peter Pan. These children were taken under the care of the Catholic Church and placed in foster homes throughout the U.S until they could be reunited with their parents. Their parents sent them into the U.S in order to keep them from communist indoctrination, with many boys being sent to avoid getting drafted into the Cuban armed forces, and girls being put into the greatly politized Alphabetization Campaign.
Another wave began in 1961 amid the nationalization of educational institutions, hospitals, private land, and industrial facilities. Additionally, the Castro government began a political crackdown on the opposition, either incarcerating opponents or perceived opponents or executing them. At this point, after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Castro had gone from a self-proclaimed non-communist freedom fighter to a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist.
In 1961 the Central Intelligence Agency considered staging several terror events involving Cuban citizens to seek blame for Castro's government : "We could sink a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized."
28 September 1965, Fidel Castro announced that Cubans wishing to emigrate could do so beginning 10 October from the Cuban port of Camarioca. The administration of U.S. President Johnson tried to control the numbers it would admit to the U.S. and set some parameters for their qualifications, preferring those claiming political persecution and those with family members in the U.S. In negotiations with the Cuban government it set a target or 3,000 to 4,000 people to be transported by air. Despite those diplomatic discussions, Cuban-Americans brought small leisure boats from the United States to Camarioca. In the resulting Camarioca boatlift, about 160 boats transported close to 3,000 refugees to Key West for immigration processing by U.S. officials. The Johnson administration made only modest efforts to enforce restrictions on this boat traffic. Castro closed the port with little notice on November 3, stranding thousands. On November 6, the Cuban and U.S. governments agreed on the details on an emigration airlift based on family reunification and without reference to those the U.S. characterized as political prisoners and whom the Cubans termed counter-revolutionaries. To deal with the crowds at Camarioca, the U.S. added a maritime component to the airborne evacuation. Both forms of transport started operating on December 1.
From December 1965 to early 1973, under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, twice daily "Freedom Flights" (Vuelos de la Libertad) transported émigrés from Varadero Beach to Miami. The longest airlift of political refugees, it transported 265,297 Cubans to the United States with the help of religious and volunteer agencies. Flights were limited to immediate relatives and Cubans already in the United States with a waiting period anywhere from one to two years.
Between April 15 and October 31, 1980, during the Carter administration, probably one of the most significant waves of exiles occurred during what became known as the Mariel Boatlift. The mass boatlift occurred after a number of Cubans drove a bus through the gates of the Havana Peruvian Embassy and requested asylum. One embassy guard died as a result of friendly fire when another guard machine gunned the incoming bus and hit the first one accidentally. When the Peruvian ambassador refused to return the exiled citizens to the authorities, Castro removed the Cuban guards from the embassy, basically opening the door to the 4,000 plus asylum seekers that came into the embassy within the next few days. Reacting to this sudden exodus, Castro stated, "Anyone who wants to leave Cuba can do so" and declared that those who were leaving the country were the "escoria" (scum).
This resulted in an even larger exodus through the port of Mariel, where an improvised flotilla of Cuban exiles from Miami in small pleasure boats and commercial shrimping vessels brought Cuban citizens who wished to leave the island. Within weeks, 125,000 Cubans reached the United States despite Coast Guard attempts to prevent boats from leaving U.S. waters for Cuba. As the exodus became international news and an embarrassment for the Cuban government, Castro emptied his hospitals and had prison inmates rounded up as "social undesirables", and included them among the other refugees. The Cuban Communist Party staged meetings at the homes of those known to be leaving the country.[according to whom?] People were intimidated by these "repudiation meetings" (mitines de repudio), where the participants screamed obscenities and defiled the facades of the homes, throwing eggs and garbage, for hours. Labeled as "traitors to the revolution" those who declared their wish to leave became the targeted victims of the attacks, their rationing cards were taken from them, their jobs were terminated, or they were expelled from schools or university. Towards the end of the crisis, the repudiation meetings were ended. The scale of the exodus created political difficulties for the Cuban government, and an agreement was reached to end the boatlift after several months. Out of more than 125,000 refugees, a number from as low as 7,500 to as high as 40,000 were believed to have criminal records in Cuba, though many of their crimes would not qualify as crimes under U.S. law. Some 1,774 of the refugees were classified as serious or violent criminals under U.S. law and denied citizenship on that basis. The majority of refugees were young adult males, 20 to 34 years of age, from the working class: skilled craftsmen, semi-skilled tradesmen, and unskilled laborers. In 1984, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement to resume normal immigration, and to return to Cuba those persons who had arrived during the boatlift who were "excludable" under U.S. law.
To divert the Cuban people from seeking democratic change, the government of Cuba has resorted to an unconscionable tactic of letting people risk their lives by leaving in flimsy vessels through the treacherous waters of the Florida Straits. Many people have lost their lives in such crossings. We urge the people of Cuba to remain home and not to fall for this callous maneuver. I want to work with all concerned including the Cuban American community to make sure the message goes out to Cubans that putting a boat or raft to sea means putting life and limb at risk... To prevent this from happening again, the Coast Guard has mounted an aggressive public information campaign so people know that vessels... may be stopped and boarded and may be seized. Individuals who violate U.S. law will be prosecuted in appropriate circumstances.
President Clinton, trying to stem the flow of Cuban rafters, pressed a dozen Latin American governments to provide internment camps that officials hoped would prove more attractive to refugees than the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Although the refugees at Guantanamo were held behind barbed wire, to many, the base was less forbidding than a foreign internment camp.
As a result of bilateral migration accords between the two governments, in September 1994 and May 1995, the status quo of U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants was altered significantly. The U.S. granted Cuba an annual minimum of 20,000 legal immigrant visas and, at the same time, determined that Cubans picked up at sea would be sent home just as any other group of illegal immigrants. President Clinton's agreement with Cuba resolved the dilemma of the approximately 33,000 Cubans then at Guantanamo. This new agreement had two new points. The United States agreed to take most of the Cubans detained at Guantanamo through the humanitarian parole provision. Cuba agreed to credit some of these admissions toward the minimum quota of 20,000 migrants from Cuba, with 5,000 charged annually over the years. Secondly, rather than placing Cubans intercepted at sea in a camp, the United States began sending them back to Cuba. Both governments promised to follow international agreements to ensure that no action would be taken against the people returned to Cuba.
As a result of these migration agreements and interdiction policy, a "wet foot/dry foot" practice toward Cuban immigrants has developed. Those who do not reach dry land are returned to Cuba unless they fear persecution there, but only those who meet the definition of asylum refugee are accepted for eventual resettlement in a third country. Those Cuban rafters who do reach land are inspected by Department of Homeland Security and usually are allowed to stay in the United States. From May 1995 through July 2003, about 170 Cuban refugees were resettled in eleven different countries, including Spain, Venezuela, Australia, and Nicaragua. Since March 2003 the State Department has not been allowed to monitor the treatment of the immigrants returned to Cuba. The wet foot/dry foot was abruptly ended by President Obama days before he ended his second term in 2017, which sparked controversy for the Cuban Exile community 
There is a large exiled Cuban-American population living in the United States, especially in and around Miami, FL and Union City, NJ. Those who oppose the communist government are represented in part by the Cuban-American lobby, which supports the U.S. embargo against Cuba and presses the communist government for political change.
Other Cuban-American groups, some of which are anti-Communist, advocate different policies, opposing the embargo and favoring more cultural and economic engagement. Most prominent of these groups are the Brigada Antonio Maceo, Alianza Martiana, Miami Coalition Against the Embargo of Cuba, Alianza de Trabajadores de la Comunidad Cubana, Cuban American Defense League and Rescate Cultural AfroCubano.
The Cuban government accuses Miami-based exiles of organizing over 700 armed incursions against Cuba over the past 40 years such as machine-gun attacks on the Guitart Cayo Coco Hotel by Alpha 66 in 1994 and 1995.
The Cuban government has long contended that some South Florida Spanish-language journalists are paid by the U.S. government. On September 8, 2006, it was revealed that at least ten South Florida journalists, veteran reporters and a freelancer including some associated with the El Nuevo Herald, received payments totaling thousands of dollars over several years from the U.S. government for programs on Radio Martí and TV Martí, broadcasts aimed at undermining the Cuban state.
In November 2006, U.S. Congressional auditors accused the development agency USAID of failing properly to administer its program to promote democracy in Cuba. They said that USAID had channeled tens of millions of dollars through exile groups in Miami, which were sometimes wasteful or kept questionable accounts. The report said the organizations had sent items such as chocolate and cashmere jerseys to Cuba. Their report concluded that 30% of the exile groups who received USAID grants showed questionable expenditures.
Acts have occurred in U.S. regions and at least sixteen other countries, carried out by groups such as Alpha 66,Omega 7, and the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations. A series of bombings in Miami in the mid-1970s led to hearings before a U.S. Subcommittee to investigate internal security. Notable cases of violence targeting individuals include that of Luciano Nieves, who was murdered after advocating peaceful coexistence with Cuba, and WQBA-AM news director Emilio Milian who survived a car bomb but lost his legs after he publicly condemned Cuban exile violence. In 1992 Human Rights Watch released a report stating that hard-line Miami exiles have created an environment in which "moderation can be a dangerous position."
Prominent exiles have included writer José Martí, who spent many years in Spain and the United States in the 19th century raising support for Cuban independence from Spain. Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl spent a year and a half in Mexico (1955-1956), after being amnestied from prison. Fidel briefly visited the United States during his tenure in exile to raise support for the Cuban revolution. Since the revolution and its subsequent imposition of a communist government, and among waves of mass emigration in the hundreds of thousands, some prominent exiled figures have included Carlos Franqui who relocated to Italy; Huber Matos, who was imprisoned by Castro's government for twenty years after resigning his governmental position in 1959 before relocating to Miami; Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a prominent Cuban writer, who fled to the United Kingdom; and many more. Reinaldo Cruz was one of the five first Cuban rafters. Including Ángel Padrón, Mario Benítez, Marcelino González, Nelson López Estévez. These were the first true Cuban rafters to flee the communist country on a home-made raft consisting of 8 truck inner tubes and bamboo poles tied together. They left Cuba on July 31, 1964 to then be rescued by a fishing boat named the KAL on August 6, 1964. They were surrounded by sharks said Ken Lowry of the KAL. When Ken spotted the men floating just 25 miles (40 km) East of West Palm Beach he notified the US Coast Guard. He was directed by the USCG to board them and bring them directly to Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale. Once on board Ken asked "where are you going" one of the men Reinaldo Cruz said "Miami".