When Nelson Mandela announced he would visit Miami only four months after spending 27 years as a political prisoner in South Africa, it sparked a series of exchanges in Miami-Dade County between the black and Cuban-American communities that made national headlines and caused economic hardship, but eventually led to significant economic change.
“We really were looking for something to ignite and unify us,” attorney H.T. Smith, who spearheaded a three-year boycott of Miami by black businesses and organizations, said Thursday.
It began in May 1990 when Mandela, who had spent almost three decades in prison, announced he would visit Miami a month later. Miami politicians planned a proclamation.
But a week before his planned June 28 visit, Mandela appeared on ABC TV and acknowledged his support for Moammar Gadahfi, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro — setting off a string of events that people still recall more than two decades later.
The day after Mandela’s comments, Miami Commissioner Victor DeYurre demanded the city rescind its proclamation. Other commissioners agreed.
“It was an unfortunate situation because here you have someone that stood for so many positive things. You see the struggle he went through, and that is something Cuban-Americans can relate to,” DeYurre said this past summer.
Three days later, five Cuban-American mayors — including Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez — signed a letter saying Mandela’s comments were “beyond reasonable comprehension.”
The same day the head of the local chapter of the NAACP warned that “to reject Mandela is to reject us.” Two days later, a day before Mandela’s visit, Smith warned Miami commissioners he would call for a boycott if Mandela wasn’t honored not only with a proclamation, but with a key to the city. After local politicians rejected his demands, Smith began Boycott Miami, which affected Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County as well.
Boycott Miami demanded more black representation in the tourism industry and for single-member districts in Miami.
On June 28, 1990, Mandela spoke before 6,000 people at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Smith later admitted he had been looking for a reason to call for a black boycott of Miami because of its treatment of the black community, and the snub of Mandela gave him the opportunity.
A month later an organization of black lawyers, the National Bar Association, canceled a convention planned for 1993 in Miami. Other organizations followed suit, and many black-owned businesses refused to come to Miami.
Six months after issuing his initial statement, Suarez backtracked, saying that the “pain that our actions or omissions may have lessened the pride or affronted the dignity of our black brothers.” On Thursday, while in a meeting at Miami-Dade County Hall, Suarez said he was unavailable for comment.
The Greater Miami area ended up losing millions of dollars in convention and tourism business.
Almost two years after Mandela’s visit, on April 27, 1992, Miami declared Nelson Mandela Day. Smith called it the first significant step since the Mandela snubbing and called off planned pickets. When a court ordered the county to create single-member districts, Smith persuaded the lame-duck commission to vote for a proclamation for Mandela.
The boycott finally ended on May 12, 1993. Smith credits the boycott for the rise of business entrepreneurs like Robert L. Johnson, a hotel developer, and Andy Ingraham, president and chief executive of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners and Operators.
Yet, only a few months before Mandela’s death, DeYurre said he could never forgive Mandela for supporting Castro.
“I see him as somebody who stood for something we stood for,” DeYurre said this summer. “I respect the struggle he went through, the pain that he went through, and he got to be the kind of thing that movies are made of. He became president. You have to respect that.”
Shortly after Mandela’s death Thursday, Miami-Dade Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa announced his passing from the dais, and called for a moment of silence.