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.

Predictably, Miami erupted. The county commission and its municipal counterparts issued apoplectic denunciations. Radio call-in shows were dominated by cries for a tax revolt against the federal government. On October 6 a half-million people rallied in Bicentennial Park to demand a repeal of the bill. While ambivalent about the correct response to Washington, Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas arrived at the demonstration in a helicopter to deliver an address decrying the president's appropriation of Marti's words.

More than the usual amount of random gunfire punctuated the night.
That weekend 47 busloads of Dade Countians caravaned to Washington, where they commenced a round-the-clock protest outside the White House. Back home, demonstrators' shouts were soon drowned out by heavier artillery. A bomb exploded outside the Internal Revenue Service office, and someone fired a bazooka at the U.S. Customs Service building. The headquarters of Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park were burned to the ground. U.S. Postal Service employees were hauled from their trucks and beaten.

Then, on October 14, the popular film star Sylvester Stallone appeared on a television talk show to hawk his Miami mansion, which had been on the market more than a year. During the course of an otherwise vacuous interview conducted by host David Letterman, the following exchange occurred:

LETTERMAN: Do you have any political ambitions? I know you've got a lot of fans, not just down in South Florida but all over the country. [Applause] Yeah! Give it up for President Sly! [Band launches into an up-tempo version of "Hail to the Chief"]

STALLONE: No, not really, Dave. I just wanna keep doing my acting and, uh, you know, try to sell my house. I'm not a politician.

LETTERMAN: Do you have any thoughts about what's going on back in Miami? Natives are gettin' a little uppity, aren't they? Talkin' 'bout a revolution, huh?

STALLONE: We agreed you weren't going to ask me about that.
LETTERMAN: Sorry. I had to ask. We can go on to something else. How's your love life now that --

STALLONE: [Interrupting] No, you're right. I guess I got somethin' to say. Technically, what's occurring in Dade is not a revolution, Dave, at least in the Marxist sense -- revolution implies a totality of change in the values, political institutions, social structure, and leadership of society, and connotes the transfer of power from a reactionary class to a progressive one. In this case we're seeing just the opposite phenomenon. A more appropriate term is rebellion -- meaning a change intended to overthrow an existing government or political status quo.

And Dave, this rebellion isn't without merit. The Dade County citizenry believes it has been betrayed by opportunistic leadership in Washington. Besides Clinton's Cuba bill, there's a widespread feeling -- one that cuts across ethnic groups -- that concerns about crime and excessive taxation have been ignored. We are now witnessing the welling up of that cumulative discontent. [applause]

LETTERMAN: So, are you dating anyone?

In that brief TV moment, the feelings of Miami's various disenchanted populations had been crystallized. The effect was galvanizing. Despite his failing health, Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa assembled a multiethnic team of publicists to launch a massive media blitz with Stallone as its frontman. (Newly committed to his adopted hometown's cause, the celebrity took his estate off the market.) The thrust of the campaign was inclusiveness: There was room for everyone with a grudge against the federal government, whether they be poor families hit by welfare cuts, corporate titans irked by high taxes, or developers hamstrung by environmental regulations. The nascent uprising became something of a Rorschach for disaffection.

War was in the air. The aging paramilitary militias Alpha 66 and Brigade 2506 dusted off their camouflage gear and resumed secret exercises in the Everglades. The weapons chests at the Miami and Hialeah police departments were plundered -- reportedly the work of insiders -- and their contents distributed in the community. Additional military aid trickled in from the neighboring counties of Monroe and Broward. (That support wasn't entirely charitable: Keys residents believed fomenting a revolt in Dade would further their own long-held ambitions to establish a Conch Republic, while Broward residents had often wished -- sometimes even out loud -- that Dade might break away from the rest of the nation and slip into the ocean. And if both Monroe and Dade seceded, Broward would become the southernmost point in the continental United States -- a potential tourism windfall.)

Behind the scenes, the county's most valuable resource was hard at work. Armed with poll results showing that a remarkable 83 percent of the local adult population supported independence from the union, a corps of lobbyists descended on Washington and, lapel to Armani lapel with Dade's congressional delegation, feverishly worked the corridors and backrooms of Capitol Hill to win support for secession.

It didn't take long for Dade's glad-handers to realize that the battle had nearly been won even before they arrived. Besides a general sentiment that Miami's Cuban-American community held disproportionate sway over U.S. foreign policy, the area had clearly lost its luster as a tourist destination. Furthermore, the thinking in Washington was that an attempt to force Dade to remain a part of the union could easily backfire, with the county becoming a magnet for guerrilla groups of all stripes. Better to remove the cancer once and for all, strategists reasoned, than to risk having it metastasize. Within weeks the Dade delegation had hammered out the rough outline of a secession bill whose passage seemed a foregone conclusion.

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