Miami has been transformed –and spiced — over the years by waves of immigrants from Latin America and Caribbean. First you read about turmoil in one country or the other –economic, political, or both — and after a fairly short interval you begin to see an increase in that population in Miami.There is an easy way to measure where the newest wave is coming from and I’ll get to that below.
Of course, the biggest influx has been the Cubans. They have come, basically, in three waves: the hundreds of thousands who fled the island in the first decade after Fidel Castro and his cohort took charge in 1959; those who fled in 1980, during what came to be known as the Mariel boatlift –about 125,000 in a matter of a few months; and many more thousands who have come after winning visas in lotteries for Cuban citizens staged by the U.S. government. In the first 35-40 years or so after Castro took power, many people also took to rafts and tried to ride the Gulfstream current from the north Cuba coast to Florida. Back then, if the U.S. Coast Guard encountered rafters at sea, those refugees were taken aboard, brought to the U.S. and in short order were granted legal residence. It was part of the U.S.’s absolute position against the Castro government. But during the administration of President Bill Clinton —1993-2001—that policy changed. In order to keep Cubans from risking their lives at sea, the U.S. instituted a policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which is still enforced today. That means that if Cuban rafters – balseros— are encountered at sea, the Coast Guard returns them to Cuba. If they make it to shore and step on dry U.S. soil –or sand– they have the right to stay. This has been strictly enforced by U.S officials. Rafters wading ashore and just yards from the beach have been detained and sent back to Cuba. This drives some Cuban exiles crazy. The policy has also led the local head of our American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a leading human rights watchdog, to joke that Miami is the only place where the U.S. Constitution is interpreted differently depending on whether it’s low tide or high tide.
The various waves of Cubans arriving in Miami have been augmented by a smaller but steady stream of Haitians over the years because there has always been terrible poverty –the worst in Western Hemisphere—and also political violence in Haiti. In addition, Nicaraguans who considered themselves enemies of the left wing Sandinista Front arrived in Miami in considerable numbers after the Sandinistas took power in 1979. It’s interesting to note that El Salvador was in the midst of a left wing guerrilla insurgency in the 1980s, which was answered by violent and sometimes savage repression by the Salvadoran Army and its death squads. Miami does have a small Salvadoran population, but the great majority of refugees from El Salvador from that time did not come to Miami –which was considered a place full of conservative Latinos. Those Salvadoran refugees went primarily to California, which was seen as a haven for people of left of center sympathies. The Salvadorans were following in the footsteps of thousands of Chileans, who in 1973, when the military government of General Augusto Pinochet came to power, fled to California rather than to Miami. Why? Well, because many anti-Castro Cuban exiles openly spoke of their great admiration for Pinochet, despite his death squads and the killing of many unarmed civilians. He was a staunch anti-communist who had condemned Castro and that was all that mattered.
A good number of Guatemalans –mainly Mayan Indians– who were fleeing the violence caused by that country’s long civil war ended up on both coasts. The Guatemalan military, if it thought a village was sympathetic to the leftist guerrillas, was capable of killing off entire villages, especially in the Mayan highlands. A report completed after the end of the civil war by the Catholic Church in Guatemala concluded that some 200,000 people were killed during more than 30 years of conflict –more than 90 percent by the Guatemalan military and about 5 percent by the guerrillas. The Mayans who fled to Florida didn’t fit in Miami for political reasons. They ended up 70-100 miles north in the area of Palm Beach County, where there are fewer Cubans and Nicaraguans.
Over the past two decades, Miami has received waves of Argentines, who have fled economic turbulence in that country; waves of Colombians fleeing drug cartel violence and kidnappers; and Venezuelans who oppose the leftist government of President Hugo Chavez. Like the Nicaraguans and Cubans they have established their enclaves –their barrios. Those differing diasporas and their neighborhoods are the milieus I write about: my first two books set in “Player’s Vendetta” and “The Ultimate Havana,” were set among the Cubans; the next, “The Lady from Buenos Aires,” involves the Argentines; and the newest, “On Hallowed Ground,” the Colombians.
Back in the 1980s, I was living in San Francisco when Salvadoran refugees started to arrive. I remember a friend telling me how more and more of the security guards working in the city were Salvadorans. It was a low-wage, entry level position that often required little or no English. Over the years, here in Miami, I’ve tried to gauge the influx of different nationalities. I live in Miami Beach and given the large hotel, resort and nightclub industry in my neighborhood, I have found a good way to figure out who the new arrivals are: I question the parking valets. The Cuban and Nicaraguan parking valets of years past have given way over the years first to the Argentines, then the Colombians and the Venezuelans. We’ll see who’s next.