The Rise and Fall of Miamiland

Way back in 1998 the citizens of Dade County rose up and declared themselves an independent republic. Then the hangover hit.

In recent days French and Canadian warships have begun conducting hostile maneuvers in the Bay of Fundy in support of the fledgling secession movement in northern Maine. Meanwhile, talk of statehood for Los Angeles once again dominates the California political debate. Though these developments might lead one to expect a national outcry for the status quo, there won't likely be any such thing.

Maybe the events of the past decade -- most notably the 2039 sale of Alaska back to Russia and the relegation of Hawaii to a commonwealth four years later -- have accustomed the U.S. populace to its own impermanence. But the national complacency also has much to do with the country's first successful secession story, whose semicentennial takes place next week. The 50th anniversary of Dade County's defection from the union comes at a dubious time in the life of the young nation, whose short but tormented history may contain valuable lessons for nouveau secessionists in the days and years to come.

While the proximate cause of the Dade Rebellion and the founding of the Independent Republic of Miamiland was Pres. William Jefferson Clinton's normalization of relations with the nation of Cuba on October 2, 1998, that daring stroke of international diplomacy (and transparent bid for the history books) was simply the spark that ignited a tinderbox of discontent and hubris.

Over the years, Dade County had come to feel less and less of the United States. Home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from South and Central America and the Caribbean, the area's economy, politics, and culture often had less to do with the rest of the nation than with points south.

Dade was further isolated by virtue of its geographic remove from other U.S. centers of power, and that physical separation had a psychological component as well: Dade was a place of self-invention, where people came to escape their pasts and start their lives anew. The burgeoning immigrant population aside, Dade in the late Twentieth Century was to the rest of the United States what California had been in the 1950s and 1960s and the Wild West a century before that: the Land of Opportunity. Everyone was welcome -- dreamers and scalawags, entrepreneurs and crooks. Because the place had little history of its own, a newcomer could rightly call himself a native within moments of crossing the border.

But despite all the ethnic variety and freewheeling social permissiveness, Dade also distinguished itself as one of the free world's most intolerant societies, where the U.S. Constitution wasn't always accorded the level of respect it got in the rest of the country. Free expression, for instance, was a malleable notion: Politicians, artists, and intellectuals (particularly those of Cuban descent) were often denied their rights under the First Amendment if they had failed to publicly denounce Cuban Pres. Fidel Castro. At times the rest of the Constitution also seemed negotiable.

Two seminal events during the fall of 1997 exemplified Dade's unique understanding of civil liberties and set the stage for the severance of the county's tenuous tie to the United States. One was the Dade County Commission's September 23, 1997, vote to sack a member of an advisory board who had publicly questioned an ordinance that forbade the county to deal with any firm that did business with Cuba. The board member, Peggi McKinley, had said that Cuban musicians should have been allowed to participate in a Latin and Caribbean music exposition in Miami Beach. Her ouster provoked fiery debate about the meaning and worth of the First Amendment in South Florida.

At about the same time, a Miami mayoral candidate made the then-radical suggestion that the city tinker with the Bill of Rights. Xavier Suarez, who had served two terms as Miami's mayor and was running for office once more after a hiatus of several years, proposed to eliminate bail, curb a person's right against self-incrimination, and amend search-and-seizure laws.

This was the fertile soil in which the secession movement would soon bloom like bougainvillea: colorful, thorny, and untamable.

Months before Clinton welcomed Castro to the White House, rumors were circulating throughout Miami's Cuban exile community that a move was afoot to normalize relations with the island and elevate it to most-favored-nation trading status. The scuttlebutt was borne out during the spring of 1998, when administration officials began polling key congressmen on the idea. There were several arguments in favor of the move: Chiefly, it furthered Clinton's desire to create a hemispheric common market and improve trade between the United States and Latin America. (And it would open up more good beaches to American tourists.)

Shortly after Labor Day, the issue was submitted to Congress in the form of a bill that proposed to end the trade embargo and establish normal diplomatic relations. Outside South Florida, public support for the plan was considerable (in fact, the only large U.S. newspaper to editorialize against it was the Miami Herald), and foreign governments contributed plaudits as well. Calling in every political chip at its disposal, the administration ran the bill through the relevant committees and on to the floors of the House and Senate with remarkable dispatch. The measure passed comfortably on October 2, 1998, and three days later the leaders of the two nations embraced at a Rose Garden ceremony. In his speech welcoming Castro, the president invoked the name of Cuba's most revered patriot. "In 1883, in a letter to a Cuban farmer, the great Jose Marti wrote, 'Mankind is composed of two sorts of men -- those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy,'" Clinton intoned. "In the spirit of Marti, we, the countries of Cuba and the United States, are putting decades of hate and destruction behind us to create a future of love and peace." (After the ceremony the men retired to the Blue Room, where they toasted the occasion with Cuban rum and Cohibas, which Castro had brought along as gifts. In return, Clinton presented Castro with a baseball bat autographed by Babe Ruth, which led to the day's only mishap. While showing off his switch-hitting skills, Castro accidentally splintered a double-warp satin-upholstered armchair designed by French cabinetmaker Pierre-Antoine Bellange and purchased in 1815 by Pres. James Monroe.)

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