The Rise and Fall of Miamiland

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.)

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.

Back in Dade, Mayor Penelas organized a November 9 conference call that connected the county commission with the mayors of the county's 30 municipalities. Many delegates came to the so-called TeleCongressª already committed to declaring Dade independent from the United States; others wanted to break into subcommittees and debate the issue further.

It fell to Penelas to build consensus. He described the fruits of the secret Washington negotiations, noting that the secession agreement most acceptable to all sides would

*cede to the United States all the Dade territory west of the North-South Levee, including Everglades National Park

*guarantee U.S. foreign aid for the new nation
*ensure U.S. support for formal recognition of the new nation in the United Nations

*divide Coconut Grove into two sectors, east and west, with the dividing line drawn in the middle of Virginia Street, between CocoWalk and Mayfair (the West Grove would remain a U.S. entity, surrounded by a twenty-foot-high concrete wall)

*cede Aventura and Golden Beach to Broward County
In short order, a clear majority of the TeleCongressª voted to secede, after which debate about what to name the new nation-state raged into the wee hours.

All that remained was a declaration of independence. On Thursday, November 12, 1998, the delegates assembled on the steps of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami. Under the glare of the klieg lights, with TV news satellites beaming the event around the world, Penelas flipped open a laptop computer that sat on a velvet-draped table and began to type: "We, the representatives of the Independent Republic of Miamiland (formerly known as Metropolitan-Dade County), do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of this county, solemnly Publish and Declare, That this is, and of Right ought to be, a Free and Independent State; that it is absolved from all Allegiance to the United States of America...." Then, as a hush fell over the crowd, the mayor solemnly pushed the 'send' key and the e-mail was on its way to the White House.

Though the politicians had overlooked the small matter of naming a general, a ragtag militia mobilized on its own, and the land echoed with a battle song penned by Mas Canosa's team of publicists (its lyrics a product of extensive focus-group research):

Come on, boys, grab your rifles
'Cause this fight is for more than trifles:
Whether you say "hola" or "howdy,"
Let's get rowdy, boys, let's get rowdy!

Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
AOle, muchachos, ole!
From Opa-locka to the Redlands,
From the 'Glades to Biscayne Bay!

In a subsequent TeleCongressª, Penelas presented a governmental blueprint for Miamiland. Devised by Mas Canosa the previous year while he lay in a hospital bed, the plan called for the division of the country into 157 states and the formation of a governmental structure that resembled the tripartite American system. Penelas was tapped to lead a provisional government comprising every sitting mayor and commissioner, municipal and county. The assembly also agreed to adopt the U.S. Constitution practically wholesale, save for a few alterations to include Xavier Suarez's suggested modifications, plus minor changes to the First and Second Amendments. (The First Amendment was made to read: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievance, except if said 'freedom' is repugnant to Congress, and especially if it portrays Fidel Castro as anything more evolutionarily advanced than fungus." The reworked Second Amendment read: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms and fire them indiscriminantly whenever they get worked up, such as on New Year's Eve, shall not be infringed.")

In addition, Florida's so-called Sunshine Law, a statute that prohibited two or more elected officials from discussing official business outside a public meeting, was inverted to permit precisely such activity.

Passage of the Miamiland Compromise in Washington wasn't as smooth as had been expected. A strong environmental lobby protested the loss of Biscayne Bay and demanded that the national park remain a part of the United States. The enviros aligned with a group of unionists who predicted -- correctly, as it turned out -- that allowing Dade to secede would set an irreversible precedent.

Secession was narrowly approved on December 16, largely as a result of a shocking speech by Sen. Jesse Helms, a previously staunch anti-Castro North Carolina Republican who now rose to call Miami "a swampy, overrated tourist trap" and its power brokers "arrogant pains in the ass."

The provisional government wasted no time making its mark. Income and corporate taxes were abolished, and further financial incentives were instituted to persuade companies and private investors not to leave. Major corporations quickly realized that as long as they remained politically neutral, they could continue to do business in both Miamiland and the United States. Broward-based multimillionaire Wayne Huizenga became the Armand Hammer of the peninsula, moving freely between the two nations. His sports teams prospered in their individual bayfront stadiums. And tourism flourished after receiving a boost from two legislative acts: the legalization of gambling and, in the State of South Beach, prostitution.

The development industry, which had stagnated under U.S. rule, boomed. "Careful but steady" became the watchwords of Miamiland's Secretary of the Interior Armando Codina, who lobbied the provisional government to repeal height limits and to authorize the filling and paving of Biscayne Bay. (In response, Marjory Stoneman Douglas assembled a guerrilla unit that launched several successful sabotage missions on bay development projects. It was on one such midnight foray that the environmental icon -- by that time blind, doddering, and nearing 113 years of age -- was shot and killed by a security guard.)

Local pop artist Romero Britto was commissioned to design a flag that would convey "an upbeat image" for the republic, and the triethnic songwriting team of Barry Gibb, Philip Michael Thomas, and Albita (Gloria Estefan had fled into exile in the United States soon after independence was declared) got the nod to compose a multilingual national anthem. No one has ever learned all the words.

All the trappings of harmony were but paper-thin contrivances. Promises of representation gave way to mild totalitarianism. The provisional government made the most of the new Sunshine Law by closing all meetings to the public, and, citing national security concerns, officials seized control of the media, prompting a flight of the democratic-minded to Broward County.

As had been the case in Dade County, the predominantly black states were the most abused, in particular the State of Overtown, Liberty City-State, the State of Opa-locka, and Little Haiti-State. In 2005 those regions exploded in riots, rage that continued for three and a half weeks before the Miamiland military was able to quell it, at great loss of property and life. Amnesty International received numerous reports of human rights abuses during the disturbances and successfully campaigned for a United Nations censure of the young sovereignty. Widespread rioting erupted again in 2009 and 2015, with each outbreak prompting waves of upper-middle-class migration from Miamiland to Broward. In 2022 an international team of independent observers declared the country's national elections a fraud, prompting the United States to cut off foreign aid. As suddenly as it had a century earlier, the development boom went bust.

Today, amid social discontent and a near-bankrupt economy, Miamiland finds itself in dire straits. In recent months some of the country's more progressive commentators and political scientists have publicly -- and at great personal peril -- broached the subject of readmission to the United States. Revanchists in Washington are already mobilizing support for the beleaguered nation's return to the fold, and it now appears that Miamiland, a mere 50 years into its existence, may not live to see the centennial of the Cuban revolution, only a decade away.

This report was gleaned from notes compiled by former New Times staff writer Kirk Semple.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >