May 3, 2000

Elian case secures Miami's bizarre image as banana republic and lunatic asylum

By Jim Loney, Reuters. Web-posted: 11:31 a.m. May 3, 2000

MIAMI -- A U.S. metropolis on the edge of Latin America, Miami is a city whose salsa spice gives it the moniker Gateway to the Americas, along with a fruitcake image as a banana-republic-cum-lunatic-asylum.

Awkwardly walking a tightrope between a microcosmic vision of America's multicultural future and a renegade republic run by corrupt megalomaniacs, Miami has cemented its rap as a playground of the bizarre over the past five months with its central role in the surreal saga of Elian Gonzalez.

Catapulted from a quiet life in rural Cuba into the Miami maelstrom, the 6-year-old castaway brought the city's simmering melting pot to the boiling point, sparked by 40 years of anger over Cuba's Communist revolution and growing antipathy between Miami's Cuban exiles and the region's non-Hispanic majority.

To locals and outsiders alike, Miami has always been a little different, a city where the strange seems normal and the outrageous merely odd.

The now-famous image of heavily armed, helmeted U.S. agents storming a private home to snatch a small boy from the arms of a family that refused to give him up may have shocked America's conscience but it was simply another "Miami moment" in a city well known for histrionics.

Miami last leaped to the center of the world stage in July 1997 when famous fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot to death on the front steps of his Miami Beach palazzo.


But the vision of a violent, racy hotbed of mayhem began in the early '80s when Miami was Dodge City, murder capital of the United States, where Colombian cocaine cowboys routinely shot it out with Uzis on the streets. A favorite bumper sticker of the day read: "Thank you for not shooting."

As drugs and refugees flowed through the city and the nearby Florida Keys in the early 1980s, U.S. agents blockaded roads for random searches. An outraged Key West, Miami's smaller sibling down U.S. Route 1, staged a mock secession in protest, declared war, surrendered without firing a shot and applied tongue-in-cheek for foreign aid.

Miami's carefully cultivated image as a tourist mecca has taken a bullet or two. The "Miami Vice" TV series prettied up the '80s sex-and-drugs trade in pastels and palms, but not infrequently Haitian and Cuban refugees, bales of drugs and dismembered bodies wash up on the beaches.

A tourist murder spree in the early '90s was framed in the lasting image of a German mother run over by muggers in front of her children. And in a city where most killers dispose of their victims in the wild Everglades, one left a woman's corpse under the bed in a hotel room where a German tourist spent a night before complaining to the manager about the smell.


The city's colorful religious mix of Catholics, Jews, Southern Baptists, Rastafarians and cults lends intrigue. In 1992, self-proclaimed black Messiah Yahweh Ben Yahweh was convicted of ordering members of his Miami cult to kill people and bring back body parts as proof of obedience.

Local practitioners of Santeria reeled in 1987 when the city of Hialeah -- spurred by the complaints of residents tired of the stench of dead chickens and goats in the streets -- banned animal sacrifice, a rite of the Afro-Cuban religion.

Santero priest Ernesto Pichardo took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a landmark 1993 decision that the ban violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.

Odd crimes stalk the city. Years ago, when a police officer approached a man carrying something under his arm, the man tossed it at the cop. It was the severed head of his girlfriend. The cop tossed it back.

Then there was the case of the phony plastic surgeon in Miami Beach who drugged his patients with animal anesthetic and botched cosmetic surgeries that left one man with female breast implants. And the fake dentist who practiced mobile tooth care from the back of his 1980 Ford Mustang with homemade drills.

Both cases garnered national headlines and made people wonder not only about the quality of Miami's medical care but the wisdom of its patients.

After losing a big drug case in 1996, Miami's top U.S. prosecutor, Kendall Coffey, quit a day after a newspaper reported that he was under investigation for allegedly biting a topless dancer in a post-trial visit to a bar. Now a private attorney, Coffey is representing Elian's Miami relatives.

Last August, U.S. agents arrested 58 suspects, many of them American Airlines baggage handlers, on charges of smuggling drugs and weapons through Miami International Airport -- after an investigation begun when a load of heroin smuggled onto a plane in coffee packets was brewed up and served to the pilot.

When Versace was killed in 1997, locals were stunned. When cops said the suspect was a gay prostitute spree killer who might have shaved his legs, plucked his eyebrows and put on a dress to escape detection, they shrugged.


When Miami's mayor won an election in which dead people voted, they chuckled.

Politics is rich fodder here. The voters of greater Miami seem fond of electing public officials who are under indictment for corruption. Public back-stabbing is a rite of passage.

At the height of the Elian Gonzalez saga, a local mayor said he would hold President Clinton responsible if U.S. agents enforcing the law led to violence in Miami's streets, a declaration viewed by many as an invitation to riot.

America looked wide-eyed: Had the strange city finally shed the last pretense of obedience to the rule of law?

From the moment Cuban exiles made Miami their home away from home after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, Cuba politics has shaped the city and its image. In 1968, exile Dr. Orlando Bosch was convicted of firing a bazooka at a Polish freighter at Miami's port in a symbolic attack on communism.

Many years ago, city fathers, stirred by their Cuban roots and shared hatred of communism and Castro, hatched a foreign policy, making Miami one of the first U.S. cities to have one.

That policy, enshrined in a local ordinance that bars government contact with companies or artists who deal with Cuba, has been costly to the city's image and coffers. Touted as capital of Latin culture, Miami in January lost a chance to host the first Latin Grammys because of its anti-Cuba politics. A National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences executive called Miami a "logic-free zone" on the issue of Cuba.

And last October, when Cuban super-group Los Van Van played Miami despite local officials' best efforts to block the show, concert-goers needed the protection of riot police who formed a wall against egg- and stone-throwing protesters.

Last weekend's competing protests crystallized the competing forces in Miami.

In Little Havana, tens of thousands of Cuban Americans waved signs reading "He's going back to a triumphant Castro" to protest the U.S. government raid that took Elian Gonzalez back to his father. Not far away, a smaller group favoring the raid waved American flags and a plane flew overhead with a banner proclaiming: "America, love it or leave it. Comprende?"

Copyright 1999, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.



...Prensa Independiente
...Prensa Internacional
...Prensa Gubernamental


...Cooperativas Agrícolas
...Movimiento Sindical


...News Archive
...News Search

...Photos of Cuba
...Cigar Labels

...About Us
...Informe 1998

CubaNet News, Inc.
145 Madeira Ave,
Suite 207
Coral Gables, FL 33134
(305) 774-1887