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Armageddon Or Shining City Of The Future?


Cover Story

ARMAGEDDON--OR SHINING CITY OF THE FUTURE?

Drive west along Miami's N.W. 62nd Street, and it's easy to see the impact of immigration. Gracing the shores of Biscayne Bay are apartments, condos, and houses inhabited by affluent whites. West of U.S. 1 is Little Haiti, home to most of the city's estimated 75,000 Haitians. Continue past I-95 to Liberty City, one of Miami's black American centers, where signs of economic life are returning after riots 12 years ago. Farther west in Hialeah, Dade County's second-largest municipality, storesigns switch to Spanish in a city of 188,000 that is 87% Hispanic.

No other area in America has been so transformed by immigrants as Miami. A sleepy tourist area 30 years ago, this metropolis with a Latin beat now has more foreign-born residents than any other major U.S. city. Indeed, Hispanics constitute 49% of Dade County's 1.9 million population. "We're the new Ellis Island," says Marvin Dunn, professor of psychology at Florida International University.

PAST TENSE. But in the aftermath of these changes, Miami has become a troubled city. Uncomfortable in the newly ethnic milieu, thousands of whites moved north to neighboring counties in the 1980s. Miami has exploded in a fury of riots three times over the past 12 years. The shooting of a black motorcyclist by a Hispanic police officer sparked the last riot, in 1989. And the ethnic frictions haven't subsided. Between black Americans and Haitian immigrants there is tension over jobs, language, and culture. But in front of the Winn-Dixie supermarket in Liberty City, J.A. Alex says the real conflict is between blacks and Cuban immigrants. "Nobody's backing up. Blacks aren't going back to the 1950s, and Cubans are not going to go back to Havana."

Miami's immigrant transformation began with the waves of Cuban refugees in the 1960s and 1970s and culminated with the 1980 influx that brought about 125,000 Cubans and Haitians to Miami within just two months. Nicaraguans, Peruvians, and scores of other Hispanics fleeing war and economic upheaval at home soon followed. And more Haitians keep trying to get into the U.S., despite the Bush Administration's goal of sending Haitian refugees back home.

The first waves of Cuban immigrants were mostly middle-class. Some had squirreled away capital to start up businesses. And as their numbers grew, Cubans drew on a ready market connected by language and culture for the businesses they established. Economic gains were matched by political triumphs: Miami's mayor is Cuban, the city commission is controlled by Cubans, and one-third of the county's state representatives are Cuban.

A large part of the tension between Miami's black and Hispanic community stems from the perception among many blacks that the Cubans' gain came at their expense. Indeed, a 1990 study on immigration's impact by anthropologist Alex Stepick of Florida International University notes that it was Cuban immigrants, not blacks, who won the lion's share of public and private money available for minority economic development after the 1960s civil rights movement.

BOYCOTTS AND BRIDGES. Miami's racial tensions are exacerbated at times by the role of geopolitics in local affairs. Black leaders have waged a two-year boycott of Miami as a convention site after the city snubbed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in 1990 for thanking Cuban leader Fidel Castro for support during his imprisonment. The boycott has cost the city 28 canceled conventions. And attorney H. T. Smith, who has led the boycott effort, says he has had hundreds of requests by blacks to start a Cuban business boycott, an effort he hasn't supported. Now that Cubans are the new power elite, they "have the opportunity to rule over the model city of the 21st century or Armageddon," he says. "It's that serious."

There have been attempts at building bridges between blacks and Hispanics. Hotel and tourist companies are making a determined effort to hire more blacks in management positions and sales jobs, and black businesses are getting more floral, catering, and other contracts. A Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce committee is working to promote Hispanic-black co-ventures. Says Nicaraguan banker Roberto Arguello, a co-chairman of the committee: "The tension is there, but leaders are working to decrease it." But with all Miami's problems, that's going to take a long time.Gail DeGeorge in Miami


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