Nelson Mandela, the lessons Miami learned the hard way


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Last week, as Miamians enthusiastically regaled our hometown heroes, the Miami Heat (composed mainly of African-American players) the calendar ironically marked the anniversary of one of Miami’s most racially divisive episodes. Twenty years ago, Miami City Commission, seconded by then Cuban-American Mayor Xavier Suarez, rescinded a proclamation for South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela after Mandela, a few days before his arrival in Miami, praised dictators Fidel Castro and Moammar Gaddafi as well as PLO head Yasser Arafat.

The “snubbing” of Mandela, as many labeled the city’s cold reception, was a raw, explicit example of the immense political, economical and cultural chasm that existed between the then quickly ascending Cuban Americans and the seemingly invisible African-American community. It also gave way to one of the most controversial yet successfully executed and effective protests in this city’s history — the black boycott of Miami or as one of its leaders, attorney H.T. Smith called it, “the Quiet Riot.”

In a town marked by riots, Smith and a group of African-American attorneys challenged the establishment and spearheaded a different type of protest, one that did not include violence. They proposed a tourism boycott of the Magic City.

“Our boycott was not directed at Mayor Suarez or any other Cuban American specifically,” Smith told me. “We didn’t necessarily agree with all of Mandela’s comments; however, the snubbing of Mandela was simply the last straw in a long list of disrespectful, exclusionary actions taken against the black community.”

Suarez was part of Miami’s Cuban empowerment movement of the 1980s, becoming the city’s first mayor of Cuban descent in 1985. He brought to the office Cuban-American sensibilities, his Harvard-honed leadership skills and a staunch sense of Catholic social justice. Ironically, during his term as mayor, Suarez made inroads with the African-American community like few before him had. This led to certain factions in the Cuban-exile community questioning Suarez’s allegiance to the black community. I remember hearing a caller on Miami’s Spanish-language radio refer to Suarez as a “ negrero” (black lover).

The Cuban political power base of 20 years ago was very politically and economically shrewd, but, unfortunately, they were not very progressive on social and racial issues. The Cuban-American mayor was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The conversation with Suarez about the anniversary of the boycott was understandably uncomfortable — one filled with regretful shrugs and empathetic nods. “It was the most difficult and hurtful point of my political career,” Suarez revealed.

Mandela’s comments about Castro, Gaddafi and Arafat were offensive to many in South Florida. However, the leadership in this community should have been mature enough to understand that for a very long time the United States’ policy toward South Africa was wrong. They could have respectfully agreed to disagree with Mandela but not opted to shun a man who means so much to so many, including a great deal of people here in Miami.

Former Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence put the incident in perspective: “Miami was and is a dynamic and sometimes volatile city similar to what New York was in the 19th century. The snubbing of Mandela was regrettable, and I think the city’s leaders learned some hard lessons especially after H.T. Smith’s difficult yet brilliant protest,” he explained.

The boycott lasted three years and according to some estimates it cost the city upwards of $50 million.

Although one can point to more black economic participation in Miami’s important tourism industry, I believe that many of the divisions that existed in 1990 sadly still plague our city.

The solution lies beyond political leadership. In recent conversations with H.T. Smith and Jamaican-American attorney Marlon Hill, I realized that I have more in common with them (we were all raised in Miami) than I do with a Cuban who arrived on our shores yesterday.

The goal should be to stop living and governing as minorities and to better understand, respect and be more equitable as Miamians.

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