From Publishers Weekly
Miami Beach proves a multilayered topic for Posner: investigative journalist, bestselling author (Case Closed
) and denizen of America's most decadent city. Posner examines how Miami Beach turned from a quiet resort into the interconnecting site of crime, finance and politics (which one mayor described as a blood sport). The author gives a penetrating look at the sun-drenched history of South Florida
, the swampland and scoundrels, rumrunners and smugglers in speedboats from Prohibition on, a major military training center during WWII and the glitzy playground of mobsters. The book comes alive from the start with an account of South Florida overwhelmed in 1980 by the influx of 125,000 Cuban refugees, followed by gritty segments on the coke wars, South Beach fun and frolic, the gay glam party life and the revitalization of key areas of the Beach. Corruption in City Hall and immoral real estate moguls conclude this thoroughly entertaining analysis of one of the original American pleasure domes and the good times that continue to roll. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Oct. 13)
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Ï»¿ Chapter 1 "Gasoline on a Fire"
April 1, 1980, in Havana was oppressively hot and humid; Miamians would have called it a "steamer." That afternoon a speeding bus manned by five Cuban hijackers smashed through the gate of the Peruvian Embassy. The guards sprayed the bus with machine-gun fire; one guard was killed in the crossfire. Once inside, the Cubans received political asylum. Fidel Castro demanded that the men be turned over to federal authorities so they could be charged in the guard's death. Peru refused. If the Peruvians were willing to accept five Cubans, Castro decided he would test their resolve with many more. Word spread via chismoso, the Havana "bush telegraph," that the guards at the embassy had abandoned their posts, and by Easter Sunday, April 4, some 10,000 Cubans jammed into the embassy's grounds. Then the Cuban soldiers returned and blocked all access. Conditions quickly deteriorated. There was little food, water, and few adequate bathrooms. But Castro rebuffed the Red Cross's requests to provide assistance. "Our hearts go out to the nearly 10,000 freedom-loving Cubans who entered a temporarily opened gate at the Peruvian Embassy just within the week," said President Jimmy Carter. He called on Castro to let the people leave the island. Two weeks later, he issued a Presidential Memorandum granting asylum to 3,500 Cuban refugees. Political prisoners had priority; second were relatives of Cubans already in the United States
; and third, refugees seeking political asylum. Castro saw this offer as an opportunity to purge his country of many undesirables including political dissidents, hard-core criminals, and the mentally ill. "They want them," he is reported to have told his brother, Raúl, "then they can have them. I will flush my toilets." Castro announced to Florida's Cuban Americans that they could claim their friends and relatives for transport to the United States at Mariel Harbor in western Cuba; no announcement was made to the Cuban public. In Miami and Key West, exiles hired everything from fishing trawlers to dinghies to old wooden skiffs. Hundreds of makeshift "freedom boats" sailed to Mariel, and on April 21, far more than 3,500 refugees started arriving on Florida's shores. Some boats capsized. "We'll never know exactly how many people we lost during the entire boatlift," says former Coast Guard captain Jim Decker. There were steady reports of bodies and parts of boats floating all over the Florida straits. As the days wore on, the soÂ€‘called freedom flotilla burgeoned. By April 29, another 1,700 vessels crammed into Mariel Harbor awaiting the processing of thousands of refugees. "This was a very erroneous policy of the Carter administration, to consider everyone who wanted to leave Cuba for the United States as a heroic dissident," said Cuban vice president Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. "The United States
is now paying the consequences." By May, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials pleaded in vain for more workers to process the new arrivals. When a tugboat arrived in Key West on May 7, packed with six hundred refugees, there was life-saving equipment for only a third of the passengers. No U.S. official complained about the numbers arriving or expressed concern about the capability of local communities to absorb them. In mid-May, Carter announced that no further arrivals from Mariel would be accepted, but Castro ignored him. At gunpoint, Cuban Officials Ordered
one vessel's crew to take on 354 refugees with only 80 lifejackets aboard. Carter called up 600 Coast Guard reservists, but instead of intercepting boats and turning them back, they spent their time saving people at sea and towing dangerously overcrowded boats to safe Florida ports. When Castro Finally Closed
Mariel on September 26, more than 125,000 Cubans had flooded into South Florida. Two sprawling tent cities served as the first stop for the refugees, one in the parking lot of Miami's Orange Bowl stadium, and the other under the shadow of an elevated stretch of Interstate 95. To avoid generous resettlement financing, the INS denied the Marielitos "refugee status" and instead created a special category for them. INS officials photographed and fingerprinted every arriving Cuban and issued them flimsy IDs with no picture. Counterfeit Mariel IDs were soon on sale in Little Havana, and as the refugees were processed and released, almost 20,000 chose Miami Beach as their new home. The word was out: the cheapest housing in all of Florida was the dilapidated waterfront property south of Sixth Street, a neighborhood that Miami Beach's government had set aside to be razed and redeveloped. The federal government rented blocks of dirt-cheap, run-down apartments for the newcomers. Almost none of them spoke English. In a town of 85,000 residents, two-thirds Jewish and less than 10 percent Hispanic, the Marielitos changed the demographics overnight. Joining them were thousands of Haitians. Correctly gambling that with the U.S. Coast Guard overstretched they could avoid being intercepted at sea, an estimated 35,000 made the grueling 600-mile journey to Miami, packed aboard hundreds of barely seaworthy vessels in what locals dubbed "the poor man's Mariel." Scores of Haitians drowned off South Florida
's shores, often in view of tourists. U.S. Customs established a special unit to retrieve bodies that washed ashore. But the risks were worth it to escape a country with one of the world's lowest per capita incomes ($260) and an oppressive dictator, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. A popular exile saying was, "The teeth of the sharks are sweeter than Duvalier's hell." In Miami's Little Haiti, there was a sharp increase in fires attributed to all-night Voodoo services, complete with candles and burnt sacrifices meant to help the newcomers arrive safely. Florida's Governor Bob Graham pleaded in vain with the federal government to resettle or deport the Haitians. Over 1,000 were crammed into Dade County's Krome Avenue North Detention Center, designed for no more than 530 people. The flood of illegal immigrants pushed up the county's unemployment from 5.7 percent to 13 percent, taxed social services to the breaking point, and exacerbated racial tensions. Whites resented an influx of poor immigrants they suspected would soon be on welfare. A local newspaper report about how some of the Marielitos had quickly mastered food stamp fraud fed those worries. Blacks, stuck on the bottom of South Florida's economic ladder, feared losing low-paying, nonskilled jobs to the newcomers. And even Cubans who had arrived twenty years earlier in the great exodus after Castro's revolution were concerned that the Marielitos could tarnish the reputation they had so carefully cultivated. That same May, in 1980, adding to the tension, Miami suffered its worst race riots after an all-white jury acquitted several white police officers in the beating death of a black Marine Corps veteran. Black neighborhoods like Overtown and Liberty City erupted. A curfew was imposed, but after three days, 18 were dead, more than 400 injured, and over 1,000 arrested. The city suffered $100 million in damage.
Early INS processing revealed that while most of the Marielitos were decent immigrants who had been politically bothersome to Castro, a sizable number were either career criminals or mentally ill. Some arrived still wearing hospital wristbands. About 24,000 had criminal records; 5,000 were "hardened criminals" and more than 100 had murder convictions. A Miami Detention Center was set ablaze when authorities tried to deport some career criminals back to Cuba. The New York Times
estimated that "only 30 percent of the refugees on each boat are relatives. The remaining 70 percent included not only criminals [but] prostitutes, delinquents, and mildly retarded people that the Cuban government has sought to get rid of." During the first year of resettlement, fifty-three Cuban refugees were arrested for murder; many more were jailed for rapes and robberies. Within twelve months, a quarter of Miami-Dade's jails were filled with Marielitos. As some resettled in other parts of the country, trouble followed. In Las Vegas, where 3,000 Marielitos had moved, they would account for about 25 percent of the narcotics trade four years later, and 23 out of 100 homicides. In Los Angeles, several hundred criminal Marielitos boosted the city's crime numbers, especially in robberies and drug busts. "That first year was like a war zone," says Charlie Seraydar, then a Miami Beach homicide detective. The Beach had been slowly declining for more than a decade and crime had been rising. Cheap air travel and package tours to Europe, Hawaii, and new lush Mexican and Caribbean resorts had siphoned off hordes of tourists. With legal gambling and newer hotels, Las Vegas had supplanted the Beach for travelers who wanted topflight entertainment. There was little political leadership and the city's tourism promoters were stumped as to how to revive the town's fortunes. "We went from being a seasonal tourist town to suddenly dealing with seasoned criminals who had nothing to lose," says Seraydar. "No matter how badly we treated them, no matter how low they lived, it was better than the jails they called home in Cuba. That first year, our crime rate went up 600 percent. Our entire police force was smaller than a single New York City precinct. It felt like we had been invaded and were losing the battle." Alex Daoud was only five months into his first year as a Miami Beach commissioner when the boatlift began. He watched as the Beach buckled under the influx of the Marielitos. "Mariel was like pouring gasoline on a fire," he says. "Murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping, assault and battery, muggings, home invasions, we were reeling out of control. Our police force was overwhelmed. The city's services were besieged. Narcotics were being dealt openly in the park, on street corners and in the backs of stores. We ranked among the top ten citi...
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