South Florida: Trouble in Paradise
By James Kelly. Reported by Bernard Diederich and William McWhirter/Miami
November. The days grow short, the nights cold. Time to reach for that travel brochure for, where else, South Florida, America’s favorite winter playground. Hmmm, let’s see now. Here is a picture of palm trees swaying gently under a cottony blue sky while a family frolics in the foamy surf. Here is a snowy white heron flitting along a river of sea grass in the Everglades, the mangrove and palmetto serene as a Sunday morning. There is a creamy stucco Palm Beach mansion, its red tile roof glinting fiercely in the sun and bougainvillea rioting, colorfully in the yard. And, of course, a couple of sunburned senior citizens of Miami Beach, he in a Hawaiian shirt and she in purple culottes, waiting their turn on the shuffleboard court.
Those snapshots of life in South Florida are as accurate today as they were a generation ago. But they are being crowded out by some altogether different scenes, a collection of photos not found in any Chamber of Commerce travel brochure. Here is a picture of a policeman leaning over the body of a Miamian whose throat has been slit and wallet emptied. There is a sleek V-planed speedboat, stripped of galleys and bunks and loaded with a half-ton of marijuana, skimming across the waters of Biscayne Bay. Here are a handful of ragged Cuban refugees, living in a tent pitched beneath a highway overpass.
South Florida—that postcard corner of the Sunshine State, that lush strip of hibiscus and condominiums stretching roughly from Palm Beach south to Key West—is a region in trouble. An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane. Those three forces, and a number of lesser ills, threaten to turn one of the nation’s most prosperous, congenial and naturally gorgeous regions into a paradise lost.
Consider what South Florida is up against:
> When the FBI issued its annual list of the ten most crime-ridden cities in the nation last September, three of them were in South Florida: Miami (pop. 347,000) was in first place, West Palm Beach (pop. 63,000) was fifth and Fort Lauderdale (pop. 153,000) was eighth. Miami last year had the nation’s highest murder rate, 70 per 100,000 residents, and this year’s pace has been even higher.
> An estimated 70% of all marijuana and cocaine imported into the U.S. passes through South Florida. Drug smuggling could be the region’s major industry, worth anywhere from $7 billion to $12 billion a year (vs. $12 billion for real estate and $9 billion for tourism, the area’s two biggest legitimate businesses). Miami’s Federal Reserve branch has a currency surplus of $5 billion, mostly in drug-generated $50 and $100 bills, or more than the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve banks combined. Drug money has corrupted banking, real estate, law enforcement and even the fishing industry, whose practitioners are abandoning the pursuit of snapper and grouper for the transport of bales of marijuana (“square grouper,” as fishermen call it) from freighters at sea to the mainland. About one-third of the region’s murders are drug-related.
> Since the spring of 1980, when Cuban President Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to those who wanted to leave, about 125,000 “Marielitos” have landed in South Florida. In addition, 25,000 refugees have arrived from Haiti; boatloads of half-starved Haitians are washing up on the area’s beaches every week. The wave of illegal immigrants has pushed up unemployment, taxed social services, irritated racial tensions and helped send the crime rate to staggering heights. Marielitos are believed to be responsible for half of all violent crime in Miami.
To a visitor. South Florida still looks like the Sunbelt’s shiniest jewel. New hotels and office towers are rising in Miami, and once sleepy towns near by are growing skylines of their own. The Rolls-Royces still roll royally along Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, and Fort Lauderdale is, as ever, where boy meets girl every aster vacation.
Over the past two decades, South Florida in general, and Miami in particular, lave undergone a Latin-flavored business boom that is putting much of the glitter back into the Gold Coast. Some 12.6 mildon foreigners, most of them Spanish speaking, visited the Miami area last year. At least 100 multinational companies now maintain their Latin American headquarters in South Florida. Though economic and political woes in Latin America are expected to slow the influx of tourists from the south, Miami will no doubt remain, as the late President Jaime Roldós of Ecuador put it, the “capital of Latin America.”
The Latins are gradually turning the region into their own colony. Of the 1.7 million residents of Dade County (Miami and environs), 39% are Hispanic (vs. 44% white and 17% black). It is estimated that by 1985 the Latins will become a majority in Dade, outnumbering non-Latin whites 43% to 42%. The Latin influence is so strong that the mayoral run-off election in Miami last week was a hard-fought battle between two Hispanics, Puerto Rican-born Incumbent Maurice Ferré and Challenger Manolo Reboso, a Cuban-born former city commissioner. Ferré was re-elected for a fifth two-year term.
Yet to many Anglos and Hispanics, South Florida is becoming a nice place to visit—but. Indeed, some of the would-be visitors are staying home. Though revenues from tourism are expected to rise by 1¼% this year, hotel occupancy rates in Dade County are down by as much as 25% from last year, and only by raising room prices by an average of 20% have many resorts managed to stay in business. The area’s real estate boom, which doubled the price of an average one-family house between 1978 and 1980, has virtually stopped dead. Even the environment, long the region’s most attractive asset, is showing signs of wear. Decades of economic growth threaten to outstrip the water supply; water is occasionally rationed in some parts of the area. “We’re at a crossroads,” says Jane Cousins, a leading Miami real estate agent. “No city in the world has ever had happen to it what has happened to us.”
What did happen? The answer lies partly in the region’s geography and partly in its history. The area is a natural Ellis Island for all those coming, for whatever reason, from the Caribbean and points south. The region’s benign climate and studied informality have long made it prime destination for Americans on the make, on the lam or on a pension. With it hundreds of miles of coves and inlets, the area is also an ideal port of entry for boat laden with drugs, or any other cargo wor thy of the smuggler’s interest.
When Ponce de León first sighted thi shores of what he believed was an island on a balmy March day in 1513, he named it Florida (full of flowers), in honor of the Easter season. The region was settled slowly, even reluctantly. South Florida, in particular, was terra incognita. The Florida land commission described it in 1823 as a place “of half-deluged plains, deep morasses, and almost inaccessible forests . . . a home only for beasts, or for men little elevated above beasts.”
One of those a bit more elevated was a young Cleveland widow by the name of Julia Tuttle, who moved to Miami in the 1870s. The city then was a makeshift village of shacks and sand trails hacked out of palmetto groves. When a freeze destroyed the citrus crop of central Florida in 1894, Tuttle picked a bouquet of orange blossoms untouched by the frost and sent it to Financier Henry Flagler as proof that South Florida was worth a look. Flagler, who was already building up St. Augustine, came, saw and was conquered; he built a railway to Miami and beyond, all the way to Key West. During World War I, the Government put a number of training camps in Florida, and after the war ended, some of the doughboys returned. The first great Florida land boom was under way.
Hundreds of thousands streamed into the state, some 2.5 million people in 1925 alone, to stake out their lot in the sun. Many bought their land sight unseen, and some found themselves proud owners of swamps and tidal marshes. The boom went bust in 1926 when Northern banks stopped writing mortgages on Florida lots and a savage hurricane lashed Miami, killing several hundred people. Florida’s fortunes ballooned again after World War II, in part because a new wave of doughboys hit its beaches. From 1950 to 1960 the population of South Florida doubled to 1.5 million, and during the 1960s swelled to 2.2 million. The wave has yet to crest. South Florida grew at an annual rate of 44% during the 1970s, four times the national average, to its present 3.3 million.
South Florida has perhaps grown too fast ever to grow up. “We are still longing for maturity,” says Miami Historian Arva Parks. “We have always been vulnerable to certain kinds of people, so that when opportunity knocked, exploitation answered.” Even today, most of those who live in the area grew up somewhere else, and their sense of community may extend only as far as the K mart down the street. “You can’t compare us to Boston or Denver,” says Mayor Ferre. “Our people’s roots are always somewhere else.”
By far the most visible problem in this rootless region is crime. South Floridians talk about crime the way people elsewhere talk about sports or politics. Listen, for example, to Carole Masington, the wife of an attorney, who lives in a well-to-do suburb of South Miami: “We had two manhunts in my neighborhood in one week. One friend was mugged, another was assaulted and raped. My favorite storekeeper was beaten and hospitalized, and my mother was robbed twice. And I am just one person.” Or hear the Rev. Paul MacVittie, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Miami: “My car has been broken into three times, my house has been robbed once, and my 15-year-old son was mugged.” His wife, Robin, was mugged, shot and severely wounded in a Coconut Grove shopping center.
The three Gibb brothers, known as the Bee Gees, live in a wealthy enclave in Miami Beach. Barry Gibb’s wife Lynda had her purse snatched. The trio’s father Hugh Gibb was mugged. “No woman should be alone in this city,” says Barry. “Or man,” adds Bee Gee Brother Robin. Residents of nearby Golden Beach obviously agree: the city council voted last month to close six of the seven streets leading into town, and place a gate and a guard at the seventh.
The bloodiest crimes tend to be committed by drug dealers and refugees, and often that warfare is intramural. One man was shot as he walked from his apartment building in Miami; injured, he was taken to Miami’s Mercy Hospital where he was again shot, this time fatally, in his bed. As Elio Gonzalez and his twelve-year-old son Eric were getting out of their car in front of their home in North Miami, another car raced by spraying machine-gun fire; both father and son were killed. (Twentythree percent of Miami’s murders last year were committed with machine guns, a favorite weapon of drug dealers.) So many bodies now fill the Miami morgue that Dade County Medical Examiner Joe Davis has rented a refrigerated hamburger van to house the overflow. “If you stay here, you arm yourself to the teeth, put bars on the windows and stay at home at all times,” says Arthur Patten, a Miami insurance executive. “I’ve been through two wars and no combat zone is as dangerous as Dade County.”
As terrified residents search for protection, the region is beginning to be as armed as a military base. In the past five years, 220,000 guns have been sold in Dade County—an average of more than seven guns for every new household. So far this year, gun sales in the county have risen 46% over 1980, to a record 66,198. It is easier to buy a pistol than an automobile in Florida, where the gun lobby has frustrated virtually all attempts at handgun controls. Even the Rev. MacVittie has purchased a revolver to keep in his home. “That is one hell of a way to live,” he says. Adds Janet Cooper, a legal researcher who lives in Miami: “I see people walking down the streets openly carrying guns, some in their hands, others in their holsters. You don’t dare honk your horn at anybody; you could end up dead.”
Besides buying such standard gear as pistols and window grates, residents are purchasing attack dogs, alarms that scream out “Burglar! burglar!” and even armor-plated cars usually made for export to the war zones of Central America. George Wackenhut, who heads a giant Coral Gables-based security firm that bears his name, has watched his business in South Florida grow by 22% this year. “When I was growing up, a murder story used to be good for ten days in the papers,” says Wackenhut, a onetime FBI agent. “Here a morning kill may not even make the afternoon news.”
South Florida is just beginning to be the crime capital of the nation, but it has been the drug capital for a decade. Smuggling dope into the region is about as difficult as buying a souvenir in Miami Beach. “They land it in everything but a bathtub,” marvels Patrolman Doug Morris of the Dade County public safety marine patrol, whose dozen men and six boats help patrol the 550 sq. mi. of county waterways. “Hell, they even fly coke in from a ship in one of those remote-controlled toy planes and land it on a bayshore condo.”
A favorite strategy of marijuana smugglers is for a drug-laden “mother ship,” usually an aging freighter, to sail from Colombia or the Caribbean and then stay bobbing 50 miles or so off the Florida coast. On long hauls, drug runners motor out to the mother ship in yachts and fishing boats to pick up the cargo and then shuttle back to the mainland, docking anywhere along some 3,000 miles of South Florida coastline; on shorter hauls, they roar out in souped-up racing speedboats, called “cigarette” boats after the tobacco-bootlegging vessels of the 1930s. Costing as much as $250,000 and able to reach speeds of up to 70 m.p.h., many of the cigarette boats are outfitted with such sophisticated equipment as radar scanners and infra-red night-vision scopes. Cocaine, however, is usually flown into the U.S. by airplane. Customs officials estimate that some 80 planes secretly land in the U.S. every night carrying cargos of white powder, most of them landing in South Florida.
Battling the dope runners are the combined forces of the U.S. Customs Service the Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as local lawmen. But they all are fighting a losing battle. Last year law enforcement officials seized 3.2 million Ibs. of marijuana, with a street value of $ 1.3 billion, and 2,353 Ibs. of cocaine worth $5.8 billion, in and around South Florida. So much dope was seized that the police began trucking it to the Florida Power and Light Co. to burn in its generators (732 Ibs. of marijuana equal 1 bbl. of oil, one of the odder statistics to emerge from the region). Yet officials estimate that perhaps as much as ten times the amount seized was smuggled into the region. At the moment, Bade County police have a stash of 162,000 Ibs. of marijuana waiting to be entered as evidence in court cases. The Customs Service has 200 seized cigarette boats and 50 airplanes, including a World War II-era A26 bomber that was, ironically, used by Customs agents on drug cases before it was bought by a marijuana ring.
Anglos tend to work the marijuana trade, while the cocaine market is controlled by Colombians and Cubans. No matter what their specialty, the illegal entrepreneurs can be easily spotted. Young Anglos wearing scruffy Levi’s and T shirts, gold Rolex watches and ropes of gold chain sit around the marinas waiting for the next call from a mother ship. Current pay for one night’s work piloting a “cigarette” averages $50,000, while the wages for unloading the bales are $5,000 to $10,000 a night.
Cuban dealers favor Mercedes Benzes and bodyguards dressed in dark suits and carrying two guns (one under the coat and one strapped to the ankle). José Medrano Alvero Cruz, nicknamed El Padrino, always travels in a Rolls-Royce protected by cars full of bodyguards. Alvero, who is fond of listening to the theme song from The Godfather on his car stereo, never talks on the telephone and keeps himself insulated from any drug deal through relatives and friends. Nevertheless, he was recently convicted for tax evasion.
The Colombians are the most secretive of all, preferring to keep the business in the family. Officials estimate that there are from 50 to 150 top Colombian traffickers in South Florida, with another 200 or so middle-level managers. Wives, brothers, sisters and children all help out. That is one reason why narcotics agents have failed to break any of the big coke rings in the area. “Say I have 75 pounds of coke that has just come in,” explains “Bena-vides,” a Colombian-born drug dealer who lives in Miami. “Who am I going to trust better than my brother? I take it to his place. After all, I am paying the rent.”
Beyond the ties of kinship lurks the threat of death, and revenge killings among the cocaine traders certainly contribute to South Florida’s crime rate. Drug shootouts are becoming a frequent sight in certain parts of Miami. At a busy intersection in Coral Gables last month, for example, a Mercedes Benz was suddenly surrounded and its 30-year-old Colombian driver killed in a burst of machine-gun fire.
The billions in narcobucks, as police have dubbed the drug money, allow its recipients to buy, in cash, $1 million waterfront homes, $50,000 Mercedes and $400 bottles of wine. One drug kingpin alone has bought up some $20 million worth of prime Miami real estate. Says Miami Financial Analyst Charles Kimball: “Criminals have become conspicuous buyers of some of the best properties in South Florida.”
Most, if not all, of Miami’s 250 banks have drug money in their accounts. As many as 40 banks still neglect to report cash deposits of $10,000 or more, as required by law. And at least four banks, according to law enforcement officials, are controlled by drug dealers. Treasury Department investigators have long suspected that some smaller banks, known as Coin-o-Washes among both cops and criminals, were founded primarily to launder money for the drug trade (see box).
Perhaps the most valuable commodity bought by all that cash is freedom. Once caught, suspected drug dealers are often released on bail of $1 million or more. They typically pay it within hours, sometimes in cash, and skip town. Dealers regard the forfeited bail as merely a cost of doing business. If a prosecutor’s case is airtight, money can sometimes pry it open. “We pay for what we need as we need it,” one lawyer bragged to TIME. “If we can’t bribe the cop, we try to bribe the prosecutor and, if we can’t get the prosecutor, we try to buy the judge.”
Next to crime and drugs, South Florida’s most pressing problem is refugees. The 125,000 Marielitos who fled Cuba last year have strained the area’s economy and aggravated its racial tensions, perhaps irretrievably. Nothing infuriates South Floridians as much as the deeds of the convicts and mental patients Castro sent along with the rest of the fleeing Cubans. Officials estimate that as many as 5,000 Marielitos are hard-core criminals. This year 53 refugees have been arrested in Miami for murder, and many more have been jailed for rapes and robberies. Fifty-one Marielitos themselves have been killed in Miami this year, most of them by other Marielitos. More than a quarter of those in Dade County jails are refugees.
The innocent Marielitos constitute a different kind of burden to South Florida. Some 25% are without work: their numbers helped raise unemployment in Dade County from 5.7% to an estimated 13%, though they are not included in the official figure of 7.4%. Welfare rolls have jumped by a third, while some 16,000 refugee children have crowded into the classrooms of Dade County public schools. Yet the budget cuts planned by the Reagan Administration are expected to shave refugee aid to Florida in this fiscal year, leaving the county with an added tab of $30 million for its unexpected guests.
Perhaps the saddest dilemma facing South Florida is the plight of the refugees from Haiti. Law enforcement officials pick up about 500 Haitians a month on Florida’s beaches, but probably just as many slip in without getting caught. The 600-mile journey from Haiti is often arduous, a measure of how desperately Haitians want to leave their country. Many sell all their possessions and hire professional smugglers, who often starve them, beat them, or even dump them overboard. Others pool their money to buy a makeshift boat and then hire a local fisherman, who may know little about navigation, to bring them to America. The trip can easily end in tragedy, as happened when a rickety 30-ft. sailboat carrying 63 Haitians was swamped in the Florida surf last month, claiming the lives of 33.
Still they come, for Haiti is both a desperately poor country—its per capita income of $260 a year is among the world’s lowest—and an oppressive dictatorship, ruled by Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier. The Reagan Administration holds that nearly all the Haitian refugees are fleeing their country to escape poverty, not repression, and are thus not eligible to be admitted as political refugees. Others believe that many of the refugees are indeed entitled to political asylum, and cite evidence of those returned being beaten and tortured in Haitian prisons. As Father Gérard Jean-Juste, a Haitian exile leader, puts it, “There’s a song being sung in Haiti now: ‘The teeth of the sharks are sweeter than Duvalier’s hell.’ ”
Some 1,000 Haitians are in Dade County’s Krome Avenue North Detention Center, which is designed for no more than 530 people. The fortunate former detainees who have been released to sponsors are likely to be found in Little Haiti, the neighborhood north of 36th Street in Miami. “The Haitians take care of each other as well as they can,” says Fernand Cayard, owner of a local supermarket. “No one is sleeping on the streets.” Jean François, a 25-year-old Haitian, shares a three-bedroom wooden frame house with 19 fellow refugees. “Everyone sleeps in shifts,” explains François. “He who works gets the shift of his choice. Those who can pay help pay the rent.”
Not all the foreign newcomers to South Florida are poor. Inspired by the Nicaraguans who fled their country after the downfall of President Anastasio Somoza in 1979, wealthy families from El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Argentina are nervously preparing a South Florida refuge in case their own governments totter. They are pouring their fortunes into Miami banks; it is estimated that as much as $4 billion in Latin exile money is socked away in Miami.
Hope Somoza, the widow of the Nicaraguan President, lives in Key Biscayne. Nicole Duvalier, who opposes her brother Baby Doc, owns a sumptuous home in southwest Miami. The son of the late Fulgencio Batista, former President of Cuba, works as a model in Fort Lauderdale. A retired leader of the Tonton Macoute, the Haitian secret police, lives in Miami. Says one leading political exile, alive and well in Key Biscayne: “God, all I have to do is go out to the pool and I find everyone I knew there here. They are all speaking Spanish and walking around in their bathing trunks.”
The most visible exiles remain the Nicaraguans, and along with their bank accounts they have brought a distinct brand of right-wing politics. As they mingle in South Florida society, they become the sad spokesmen of old allegiances and lost causes. “Juan Carlos,” an exile who once ran a match factory in Nicaragua, now commutes from Honduras to Miami in search of funds for his guerrilla forays into his old homeland. “What they are doing is putting on a road show that they hope someone will see and support,” says a veteran political exile. “The Bay of Pigs was born in Miami, and they can’t help feeling another Bay of Pigs is being prepared for Nicaragua.”
The Latin tinge that now colors South Florida is still primarily Cuban. The refugees who began arriving from Castro’s island in the early 1960s were largely middle-class professionals, and over the past two decades they have transformed Miami from a resort town into an international city where “buenos dias” and frijoles negros are as familiar as “good morning” and hamburgers. The signs of Cuban influence are everywhere. Miami’s Little Havana, the epicenter of the Cuban community that stretches along Eighth Street (or Calle Ocho,) is a foreign land. In Antonio Maceo Park (named for a black Cuban patriot), old Cubans pass the time playing dominoes or reading Spanish-language newspapers that carry headlines like THE PLAN TO INVADE CUBA IS READY. The Miami Herald, the city’s largest newspaper, is printed daily in Spanish as El Herald. Its circulation: 421,236 in English; 60,000 in Spanish. Three television stations and seven radio stations in South Florida broadcast Spanish programs. There are six Spanish legitimate theaters, two ballet troupes and a light opera company. Some stores in Little Havana even carry the helpful message: Habla inglés.
Yet just beneath that cosmopolitan veneer, ready to erupt, are tensions between the Cubans and their fellow Floridians. Dade County voters last year approved, 3 to 2, an ordinance that forbids the spending of its public funds to promote bilingualism. The bad blood has risen dramatically since the arrival of the Marielitos last year. Whites in particular resent picking up the tab of caring for the newcomers, but the animosity spills over on all Cubans. “I wonder who really upsets whites the most,” says Monsignor Bryan Walsh, who ran a resettlement program for Cuban children in the 1960s, “the poor Cuban on welfare or the rich Cuban with three Cadillacs and a Mercedes out buying the county.”
The blacks are upset by both kinds of Cubans. Stuck on the bottom rung of South Florida’s economic ladder, they have always resented the more prosperous Cuban minority. With the arrival of the Marielitos, blacks feared that they would lose out in the scramble for the few low-skill jobs avail able in the region. Even in Liberty City, the black enclave in North Miami where 18 people died in last year’s riot, the Latin influence is apparent. White store owners who abandoned their businesses are being replaced by Latin landlords. “The only things blacks have in Miami are several hundred churches and funeral homes,” says Johnny Jones, a former Dade County school superintendent. “After a generation of being Southern slaves, blacks now face a future as Latin slaves.”
Ironically, the Cubans themselves are a divided community. La Comunidad, as the older Cubans are called, fears the Marielitos will tarnish the reputation they have labored so hard to build in South Florida. “I tell my employees that if a black comes here asking for money, give it to him,” says one prosperous Cuban gas station owner in Little Havana. “If an Anglo comes to rob us, give it to him. But if a Marielito comes here, kill him. I will pay for everything.” The older Cubans also find themselves in a cultural and political split with the younger ones, who tend to split with the younger ones, who tend to be less conservative and less committed to the homeland than their elders. While an older Cuban might listen for hours to a Spanish-language station blasting out anti-Castro messages, the younger one is more inclined to tune to a rock station.
The shocks of crime, drugs and cultural tensions have already spawned the beginnings of an Anglo exodus from Miami and its environs. Some 95% of election registrations now being canceled by citizens leaving the region come from white voters. Says Jeff Laner, 26, a native of Miami who moved this year to work as a stockbroker in Kansas City: “I was going to be damned if I had to learn a foreign language to get a job where I had lived all my life.”
South Floridians dedicated to easing the strains within the region found little comfort in this month’s mayoral election in Miami. The campaign managed to avoid nearly all the major issues and instead dwelt on which of the two major candidates was more Latin: Mayor Maurice Ferre, or Manolo Reboso, who took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Reboso courted the votes of Cubans, while Ferre made his strongest pitches to Anglos and blacks. The results of last week’s runoff election show just how bitterly Miami is polarized. Reboso drew 70% of the Cuban vote, while Ferre attracted an astounding 95% of the black vote (the pair split the Anglo vote about evenly). The Anglos were so alienated by the race that only 38% of those eligible to vote bothered to do so, while 58% of the Latin voters and more than 50% of the blacks went to the polls. “We’ve become a boiling pot, not a melting pot,” says Mayor Ferre. “The Anglos can’t adapt. They can’t take it, so they’re moving.”
South Floridians tend to compare their current woes to such earlier cataclysms street the 1 926 hurricane that devastated Miami or the colossal land failures of the late 1920 that turned millionaires into paupers overnight. The region’s present agonies, they argue, are due more to a random run of bad luck than anything that could have been prevented. “The people’s attitude is, ‘Damn it, I am down here to avoid problems, not have them,’ ” says Governor Bob Graham, a Dade County native. ” ‘Now I have them.’ How do you deal with these issues in a political climate that demands instant gratification?” Says Dan Paul, one of Miami’s most prominent attorneys: “There is no real interest here in preserving or creating a quality of life. I don’t think there is any real community outrage about the drug trade. I push at the junior lawyers here to join civic groups instead of playing racquetball. They’re not interested.”
The region’s political map seems almost giddily drawn to avoid grappling with any such problems. Community boundaries dart haphazardly: they were often drawn by developers who wanted to run their towns as well as build them. The 2,042-sq.-mi. area of Dade County, for example, is now governed by 27 separate and often rival municipal governments. Dade County attempted to draw some order out of its political chaos in 1959 by combining such common services as transportation and sewer systems. But the 27 towns still raise their own taxes, pass their own zoning ordinances and run their own fire and police departments. The result is that the region confronts major crises that could break the will of many communities, while being cursed with a political system that hardly functions well in the best of times.
Some steps are being taken: the Dade County public safety department is now beefing up its 1,726-member force with 1,000 new recruits (starting salary: $17,800). Another 100 U.S. Customs Service agents have been assigned to the region to chase down drug smugglers. South Florida can also look for help from Governor Graham. He is constantly lobbying Washington for more aid, and earlier this year he met with Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti to discuss ways to staunch the flow of refugees. He lent 100 additional state troopers to Miami this year, and hopes to assign 115 troopers to Dade County permanently by the end of 1982.
Meanwhile, local officials are busily attempting to woo more companies to the region and to turn Miami into an interna tional tional trading trading center. center. Rolls-Royce Rolls-Royce Inc. Inc. opened an aircraft engine part machining plant at Miami International Airport this year, and a number of electronics, pharmaceutical and medical-equipment companies are moving into the region. The Miami Free Zone, one of dozens of free-trade districts in the U.S. where imported goods can be stored and assembled with out being subject to Customs duties, has handled over $326 million worth of goods this year, up from $171 million in 1980. To celebrate its hopes and achieve ments, Miami is throwing itself a $5 million cultural party next June. Billed as the “New World Festival of the Arts,” the extravaganza will feature 30 “world premieres” of operas, ballets and symphonies. Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson have agreed to write plays for the occasion, and a new Miami ballet troupe will give its first performance. But no one pretends that a cultural blitz will gloss over South Florida’s woes. Its ultimate salvation rests in its citizens’ ability to unite and face the problems they have managed to avoid so long. In the past, South Florida’s people have never failed to rise to the challenges that have confronted them. “It’s a magic place, it always snaps back,” says Mitchell Wolfson, a prominent businessman and member of one of Miami’s founding families. Says Historian Arva Parks: “We have overcome so much already in our his tory. We have never been one for small crises. This is one more thing to overcome.” On a warm evening, as the soft Caribbean breeze stirs the hibiscus blossoms and the peal of the surf can be heard faintly in the distance, it is difficult to dwell on South Florida’s problems.
“When I take visitors around in my boat at sunset, they are just awed,” says Stephen Muss, whose family owns the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel in Miami Beach. “Where else can we ride in an open boat in winter, looking at a skyline on the horizon, cruise ships slowly turning around in the harbor, jets passing overhead, with the day ending in full color in the blue water of our bay? This is just a sensational place to live.” One image from the travel brochure that still rings true, an apt metaphor for a region blessed by God and not yet ruined by man, is the sturdy mangrove. It is found nowhere in the U.S. but Florida. With its gnarled roots stretching down into salty water that would kill most other plants, the mangrove traps silt, shelters wildlife and otherwise improves whatever it touches. Through boom and bust, hurricanes and real estate development, the mangrove has stood its ground. South Floridians surely will too.
Letter From Miami: There’s Trouble–Lots Of It–in Paradise
Jewelry, an actress once said, takes people’s minds off your wrinkles. So too has Miami’s necklace of pearl beaches and aventurine waters long distracted residents from the city’s notorious imperfections. Crime and corruption were a small price to pay, people told themselves, for an otherwise affordable existence so near paradise.
That logic may no longer apply. Crime is down, but the city’s old dysfunctions have been joined by acute new economic pressures on Miami’s middle class and retirees. Now that the city’s jagged growth spurt is showing signs of sputtering, regular Miamians are taking stock of their new city: traffic jams, half-built high rises, struggling schools. And more than ever, they are voting with their flip-flops. They’re leaving town.
When Brenda Powell, 61, retires next year, she plans to leave Miami, where she has lived for 30 years, and perhaps head for North Carolina. A retiree moving away from Florida might seem as odd as an Everglades egret flying north for the winter, but Powell, an administrative assistant, says she has had enough. “Miami has become an overcrowded mess,” she says. “It takes me an hour to drive less than 10 miles.” Joseph and Teresa Burke and their four children are also moving to North Carolina. Although the 2006 hurricane season, ending in a few weeks, has been merciful, insurers have been less so. Premiums have been going up as much as 1,000% since 2000 for some home- and business owners. The Burkes watched hurricane and other insurance costs on their Miami Beach house skyrocket from $3,500 a year in 2000 to $17,000 today. “I’m leaving everything I’ve known my entire life,” says Joseph, 43, who runs a small ocean-freighter business. “But if the rest of the country was based on the same out-of-whack economic-fluid levels Miami’s on these days, America would be a Third World banana republic.”
Census Bureau data show that in each year since 2000, on average over 20,000 more residents have left Miami (which includes the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, pop. 2.4 million) than have moved there from other parts of the U.S.
Immigrants from other countries, especially Latin America, are the only reason Miami’s population is still growing. Ironically, as more Latin Americans migrate to Miami, couples like Fred and Linda Adam may be switching places with them. The Adams just sold their home near Miami Beach, and are moving to more affordable Honduras. “We could hold on to our house,” says Fred, 57. But Miami’s spiraling cost of living means “we couldn’t afford the other things we like to do here,” such as scuba diving. “We’d be twiddling our thumbs.”
Today Miami is the least affordable metropolitan area in the U.S. It has one of the highest median house prices ($372,000) and the nation’s wealthiest community (Fisher Island, where luminaries like Oprah Winfrey have had homes). But a heavy reliance on the tourism industry and its attendant low-wage service jobs has given Miami one of America’s lowest household median incomes ($33,000) and the country’s highest proportion of renters and homeowners who spend 30% or more of their pay on housing.
It probably doesn’t help the morale of working-class residents that Miami has a way of shaking its wealthy side in your face. On many mornings, rush-hour drivers on packed causeway bridges between Miami and Miami Beach have to idle their engines a bit longer as the drawbridges raise for yachters on their breakfast cruises from nearby celebrity islets.
The competition to stay afloat hasn’t improved ethnic tensions, either. For all the vibrant, cross-hemispheric diversity in Miami, its Latino, black and white enclaves remain segregated and mistrustful of one another. The Cuban exiles’ dominion over much of Miami politics (remember the Elián González uprising?) has bred resentment in some quarters. This showed in the outcry earlier this year when the Miami-Dade school board, whose system has a dismal 45% graduation rate, announced that it would spend tens of thousands of dollars in court to ban a kindergarten book about Cuba that it says isn’t tough enough on Fidel Castro.
Even though the city of Miami has the third worst poverty rate in the nation, there have been few credible attempts to help the lowest earners find housing. One problem is weak government oversight of development–a sign, some complain, that Miami’s sun-soaked complacency has addled its political leaders as well. “Planning is disdained as the enemy here,” says Gihan Perera, director of the Miami Workers Center. Local anger boiled over recently at a housing scandal that Perera’s group helped the Miami Herald expose: Miami-Dade’s government housing agency paid millions of dollars to politically connected developers for low-income projects that were never built or were used to construct private condominiums instead. “This is a greedy city,” says Yvonne Stratford, 52, an unemployed seafood-warehouse worker who had hoped to live in one of the new low-income units.
Imagine Miami, a private community-development project, recently asked some 1,600 randomly selected residents to list what they thought were the top “Miami values.” What was the No. 1 value? Corruption. “[Miamians] don’t trust their leaders or each other,” says the group’s founder Daniella Levine.
When it comes to that problem, and to many others, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez says he knows where to start. “The structure of government here often doesn’t work,” he told TIME. “[Miami] gets ruled in the end by an unwieldy, unaccountable bureaucracy.” Alvarez argues that the citizens of Miami are ready to help take their city back. He points to a recent $3 billion bond issue that voters approved for massive infrastructure improvements, a half-penny tax to build up their virtually nonexistent public-transit system, and a new $400 million downtown performing-arts center. And a majority of Miamians support Alvarez’s efforts to reduce the inordinate powers of their county commission–which include housing-agency oversight–especially since its members have long run Miami-Dade like a collection of venal fiefdoms. A judge has ordered the commission to schedule a referendum on the issue. But in the meantime, Miamians are likely to see more of their neighbors winging north.