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All summer long the ghost of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela has haunted Miami as surely as a bearded wraith named Fidel Castro has deviled the city for three decades. Like Cuban Miami's absentee archvillain, black Miami's imported superhero is now a touchstone and tuning fork for local reality, a lens required for viewing life at the end of America.
No matter that Mandela is home across the Atlantic after a quick visit here in June, or that Castro, from across the Florida Straits, thinks less about Miami than Miami thinks about him. Judged by the degree of passion they inspire, the two international figures might spawn a new religion for Miami - with Mandela the gatekeeper of an Overtown heaven and Castro lord of a Calle Ocho hell. But if Miami's exiled Cubans still view Castro as pure evil, they now see the deputy president of the African National Congress as a fallen angel.
Mandela's tumble from grace occurred the week before his arrival in Miami, on ABC's Nightline. Having emerged from a South African prison after 27 years in confinement, the aging former guerrilla leader refused to repudiate his old allies Fidel Castro, Yasir Arafat, and Moammar Gadhafi.
Overnight, Dade's Cuban-American mayors, including Miami's Xavier Suarez and Hialeah's Julio Martinez, signed a statement denouncing Mandela. And before Mandela arrived on June 27, Suarez and Miami City Commissioner Victor De Yurre withdrew their support for a proclamation honoring him. Mandela never received an official welcome from Miami, Miami Beach, or from the government of Metropolitan Dade County.
The local governments' response enraged Miami's black community. And that rage was deepened and complicated by the violent arrest of 62 Haitian demonstrators on July 5 at the Biscayne Plaza shopping center on the edge of Miami's Little Haiti. The demonstrators had been protesting the alleged mistreatment, a week before, of a Haitian customer at a Cuban-owned clothing store.
The lasting effect of Mandela's Miami visit is a well-organized boycott of Dade's tourism industry, which injects an estimated $5.7 billion into the local economy each year. Fifteen local, state, and national black groups have so far canceled meetings and conventions in the Greater Miami area, or said they are considering doing so. They include the National Bar Association, the National Medical Association, the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, the National Conference of Black Mayors, the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, and the National Association of Black Journalists. By various estimates, the boycott - chronicled nationally by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today - has already cost the county from five to twelve million dollars.
The organizers of the tourism boycott - Dade's Black Lawyers Association and representatives of fourteen local black groups - threaten to keep the pressure on until their four demands are met. The demands: a public apology by elected officials for their failure to welcome Mandela during his visit; a federal investigation of the July 5 arrests at the Biscayne Plaza shopping center; a review of U.S. immigration policy, which boycott organizers say favors nonblack immigrants; and substantial reforms in Dade's tourism industry to allow increased employment and business opportunities for blacks.
Since the boycott began on July 17, its inventor and spokesman, Miami trial lawyer H.T. Smith, has refused to negotiate with public officials or business leaders, saying Miami's or Dade County's politicians must meet the first demand before any talk of resolving the boycott can take place. Elected officials have refused. Though Smith's handling of the boycott has been criticized by some black leaders, their willingness to do so appears to be fading. On the other hand, Cuban business and political leaders show no signs of acquiescing to the demands of the boycott organizers. Instead of a new religion, the twin specters of Castro and Mandela have spawned a bitter dialectic for Miami's ethnic politics.
Though a comparative unknown among Miami's recognized black leaders, H.T. Smith has had little trouble mustering support for the boycott from the black community, a fact he attributes to the unusual developments of the past three months, and to his own background in local anti-apartheid efforts. More and more, the attention and the political power created by the boycott comes to rest squarely on Smith.
"It's kind of interesting when people tell me they haven't heard of H.T. Smith," says Johnnie McMillian, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I don't see it as this young man coming out of the blue. He in fact has been out here for a long time."
"We have decided to follow his lead," says the Rev. Victor Curry, pastor of the 2800-member Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Liberty City. "H.T. Smith knows exactly what he's doing. He may have not been as visible as some of the other leaders, but he has certainly been a dedicated and effective leader in the past."
In a recent interview, Smith talked with New Times about the growing economic-sanctions movement he calls a "quiet riot."
The idea of a boycott was conceived several days before Mandela arrived in Miami. On behalf of the South Florida Coalition for a Free South Africa, you delivered a letter to Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, demanding that he and his fellow commissioners provide an official welcome for Mandela. You wrote that such a welcome would "at the very minimum include a key to the city and an official proclamation." You also warned that a failure to do so could result in "a black boycott akin to the one last year against the State of Arizona for its refusal to declare the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday." What was the response?