Tired of all the stuff about the Cuban kid who is rapidly being turned into the most pampered brat in the world? The press can be blamed, of course. As Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen writes, "We in the media are such self-important blockheads that we don't recognize our own role in screwing up Elián González's life. The fact that we're being played for suckers by a couple hundred noisy zealots also has conveniently escaped our attention."
Ah, the press can almost be forgiven; the temptations are great. Where else in America but Miami would reporters find a significant section of the population who--like those who wanted to touch the hem of Jesus' cloak--compete to touch Elián, fervently believing that his rescue from the sea showed him to be one of God's elect? And where else would you find a local professor who explains that it was quite natural--oh, just one of those lower-class Cuban things--for Elián's visiting grandmother to bite the tongue, unzip the pants and suggest measuring the penis of this 6-year-old boy as a way of showing affection?
As US cities go, Miami is, well, something special.
Why do US tourists waste money traveling to Mexico and to other Latin experiments in defective democracy when they can find the same social flavors, the same thrills, for a much cheaper air fare to Miami and adjacent points in South Florida? Heavy drug traffic, corrupt judges, corrupt police, corrupt politicians, corrupt bureaucrats, violent crime on a massive scale and greedy destruction of the natural environment--why, land's sake, Miami and its neighboring communities have everything you could ask for.
Many of the leading actors in this dark drama of life in cha-cha land have Latin names, which isn't surprising, since at least 60 percent of the residents of Dade County (that's Miami) speak something besides English, and mostly the other language is some version of Spanish. Cubans, born here or born there, are the largest "other" ethnic group, and because they dominate many aspects of Miami's culture and politics, Anglos have fled the area in great numbers. Most departed grumbling that Miami had been turned into a little Cuba, the same complaint heard from many Anglos who stayed. Asked for specifics, some gripe about such imports as the Santeria cult's belief in animal sacrifice, which sometimes results in the remains of chickens, turtles or even a headless goat lying about the landscape. Hiaasen, a native Floridian, writes, "For most of us, the killing of chickens is tolerable as a distant abstraction," when the end result is a meal. "On the other hand--call it hypocrisy, call it a cultural gap--most of us aren't too thrilled when one of our kids bursts through the door and says, 'Can I spend the night at Billy's? His mom's going to kill a rooster and drink its blood.'"
But it's doubtful that a culture collision had much to do with the split. After all, Miami was a very laid-back town, and a bit odd in various Anglo ways, long before the Cuban invasion. A little more weirdness shouldn't have bothered the old-timers. More important was the shift of political power to the newcomers, and how that power was used. With the shift came a new kind of intolerance.
Tourists who like the thrill of brushing up against a little Banana Republic bullying can find some of that in Miami, thanks to the Cubans, who have huge, rich and politically powerful organizations dedicated to forcing democracy on Cuba by suppressing it in South Florida--or at least suppressing the part of democracy having to do with free speech. In Miami, anyone who publicly advocates sending humanitarian aid to Cuba or easing relations with Fidel Castro had better watch out. Bombs have been thrown. Arson has been committed. A museum was forced to close after it insisted on showing art imported from Cuba.
Miami is also a good place to witness one of the little dramas that underscore the fact that the influence of Cuban émigré votes and money has shaped our immigration policies in grossly unfair ways. For instance, when a Haitian farmworker steps out of his leaky boat and walks ashore in Florida to look for some cheesy stoop-labor job, he is called an "economic refugee" and either imprisoned or sent back to Haiti. When a Cuban steps off a raft and walks ashore, he is greeted as a "political refugee" and embraced by our government--and if he is a baseball player with a 92-mph fastball, he is sent on his ballyhooed way to sign a multimillion-dollar contract with the Yankees.
The big advantage to getting your foreign thrills in South Florida rather than in, say, Bogotá, is that at the nearest newsstand you will have available the pre-eminent interpreter of a multicultural society. I've already named him: Carl Hiaasen. Readers outside Florida know him for his novels, three of which--Lucky You, Strip Tease and Stormy Weather--have made the New York Times bestseller list. (A new one, Sick Puppy, has just been published.)
Inside Florida, Hiaasen fans also have known him as a ferociously witty columnist for the Miami Herald since the mid-eighties. The columns collected in Kick Ass cover that decade and a half, leaving a trail of blood from Hiaasen's barracuda-like attacks on the spoilers of South Florida. Though they are entertaining, urban dwellers everywhere should read them as more than entertainment; they probably foretell many of the painful issues that await other overcrowded areas of America. Miami, like Los Angeles, is one of the nation's polyglot signposts (dented by bullets) into the twenty-first century.
What is the creative relationship of Hiaasen's books to his columns? My guess is that he became frustrated with the latter, in which he could attack only with insults, satisfying his moral outrage by calling a politician "a pernicious little ferret," for example, or a county commission "an oozing sludge bucket of corruption." So he turned to novels, where he has the satisfaction of terminating obnoxious politicians and developers in some wacky, ingenious ways--such as having one of them humped to death by Dickie the Dolphin in a theme-park whale tank.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to having once been employed as a political reporter for the Miami Herald, but that was long before Hiaasen came aboard. Our paths crossed only once, at a distance, when I wrote a critical profile of Miami for The New York Times Magazine twelve years ago. Miami leaders were so incensed that a squadron of them, after first setting up comfortable headquarters in the Waldorf, descended on the Times to complain. Hiaasen came to my defense, writing that my article if anything "was merciful for not dwelling on more current events," including the arrival of "a new group of international narco-assassins" and a police scandal so extensive you would "need a calculator to add up all the former city cops implicated in drug-rip-off murder schemes."
In fact, the main thing wrong with my piece was that Hiaasen hadn't written it. To adequately describe and deal with South Florida exotica, a writer has to offer up much more than colorful facts. He has to have a special attitude--Hiaasen's, which is an intelligent version of that cliché, tough love. He really does love that part of the world, which no doubt is why he is such an effective harpooner of its civic blowhards and merciless harasser of its thieves and cheats, especially those on the public tit.
It was Hiaasen, for example, who described Miami's municipal bureaucracy as "a Banana Peel Republic," in which city employees were "either the clumsiest bunch in the country, or the most brazenly dishonest," a conclusion he drew from the fact that one out of three had filed for workers' compensation. More than a hundred claimed they got hurt falling out of their chairs. As for the 254 employees who had made more than ten claims apiece, Hiaasen suggested they "wear bubble wrap to work."
Aside from his own talent and that of Herald reporters who keep digging up stuff to shovel his way, Hiaasen has the obvious good fortune to be sitting amid a motherlode of material--in a city he calls our "premier sun-gun-and-psycho destination," a city that has "a sewer-rat tradition of scummy politics." In short,
the best place in America to be a criminal. It is to hard-core felons what Disneyland is to Michael Jackson.... Dade has the worst crime rate in the country, and does the laziest job of putting bad criminals behind bars. ... Only 15 of 100 convicted Dade felons go to state prison; the national average is 46 per 100. Out of 24 major metropolitan areas, Dade is dead last in punishing serious crime.
By the mid-eighties, in fact, Miami cops were considered some of the crookedest and dirtiest (selling and using drugs, that is) in the nation. Drug use was so rampant that it became a fad for the city's elite--bankers, lawyers, even the Catholic archbishop--to pee in a cup for analysis, to prove they were clean. The streets were full of cocaine cowboys with arsenals. Some were exceedingly tough, like the one who was shot twelve times, including once in the forehead and twice in the chest, but kept firing until he had dropped seven FBI agents. It was the bureau's bloodiest shootout ever.
Events of that sort have given Miami great notoriety as a crime capital, and the Chamber of Commerce (whose chief executive once admitted keeping an Uzi in her bedroom for protection) has done its best to counteract that reputation by thinking up slogans, stunts and other diversions to make outsiders assume that what might be considered anarchy is just a joyful, carefree atmosphere. One of the best was "FLORIDA--The Rules Are Different Here." Hiaasen immediately capitalized on it:
RULE NO. 1: You must remove your Beretta shoulder holster before going swimming.
RULE NO. 2: You must not be alarmed to discover that two entire floors of your hotel have been rented out to the Federal Witness Protection Program.
One reason criminals find South Florida a cushy place to operate, of course, is that the judges have proven hospitable to bribes. Occasionally they show real imagination. A lawyer was accused of bribing a judge by picking up $10,000 worth of the judge's dinner tabs. The judge often ate squid. Hiaasen saw it as a case of "squid pro quo."
Some Miami juries also seem a bit odd. In the early nineties, three sitting judges and a former judge were charged with taking bribes to fix cases, and, as Hiaasen wrote, "The FBI had a helluva case, too--videotapes, phone taps, marked money. It looked like a cinch."
The judges faced fifty-three charges, but the jury, feeling exceedingly kind, convicted on only three of those. One judge got off by pleading he was a drug addict. What! Should judges who have filled Florida's prisons with drug-addicted criminals receive such mercy? (It could have been worse. One woman on the panel wanted to free all the judges of all charges because the money shown being passed on the FBI videotape didn't look green to her.)
But what can you expect? After all, juries come from the general electorate, and look how that performs. When one of the Miami city commissioners went to prison for taking payoffs, voters replaced him with Humberto Hernandez, who was shortly thereafter indicted on twenty-seven counts involving bank fraud. Later, he was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote, and his strong turnout helped push Xavier Suarez to a victory in the mayoral race--a race resplendent with ballots cast by convicted felons, out-of-towners and folks in the poor section of Miami who were paid $10 a vote.
At first Hiaasen was outraged:
Is this really the kind of political system Thomas Jefferson envisioned, a system in which people sell their ballot privileges on the streets?
Of course not. But neither could Jefferson nor any of the founding fathers have envisioned a place such as Miami, where pretty much everything and everybody has been up for sale at one time or another.
Cooling down a bit, he began to see the positive side. If politicians took payoffs, why shouldn't poor voters? Furthermore: "Purists argue that bribing voters can taint the political process. That might be true in other cities, but in Miami the practice actually could lead to cleaner elections." Bribed live voters are a step up from forged dead ones.
Next door to Miami is Hialeah, where the municipal government kept a squad of FBI agents busy for years. In 1993 Hialeah voters elected a convicted extortionist, Raul Martinez, to be mayor--again. He won by 273 votes, many of which were gathered in convalescent homes for the mentally and emotionally disturbed; the signatures on some ballots were obviously forged. Eventually a court threw out the election, but, asks Hiaasen, so what? What if Martinez had been left in office? Years of endless graft had drained the city of most that was worth stealing. Zoning madness had created an aesthetic mess that only a major hurricane could improve.
Since the vote had shown Hialeans didn't give a rap who was in charge, it might have been instructive to leave Martinez in office to establish the city, Hiaasen wrote, "as a unique sociopolitical experiment of the 1990s--a sort of biosphere of sleaze. The rest of Florida can watch and learn.... Even if Martinez went hog-wild, what difference would it really make? How much worse could it get?"
Some would say that question could be asked about several other parts of South Florida.
Even if all judges were honest and all juries had good sense, there would still be the problem of getting the bad guys into court. That's where the state attorney's office is supposed to spring into action. But as it goes now, says Hiaasen, "almost every significant bribery case in Florida is investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by the US government.... If it weren't for the feds, many of South Florida's most celebrated sleazeballs might still hold office." In Miami, he sees a particularly irksome paralysis of justice:
Dade's reputation as the crookedest place in America is secure, thanks to Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle....
When it comes to pursuing corruption, Rundle's record is even more pathetic than that of her see-no-evil, hear-no-evil predecessor, Janet Reno. That's one reason so many crooks flock to public office here--they know nobody's watching....
In some places, prosecutors would be embarrassed if their communities were so visibly a-rot with corruption. In some places, prosecutors actually send out investigators to hunt for dishonest public officials.
And in some places, when wrongdoing is uncovered, indictments are drawn, trials are held and an actual attempt is made to punish the crooks. Can you imagine?
Here in Dade, the task of ferreting out graft is left to the FBI or the media. It's an icky little business, and the state attorney would prefer not to get involved.
Rarely in these pages does Hiaasen show such bitterness, cold anger and pure contempt for an individual or office. He had two good reasons for feeling that way. The first dates from the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
More than 160,000 people were left homeless by that hurricane. Many homes in the older South Florida neighborhoods withstood the winds rather well--even new homes built by Habitat for Humanity survived the blow ("That," Jimmy Carter told Hiaasen, was because "we used nails")--but thousands of new homes were blown away like so much straw. Obviously, homeowners had been screwed. The building industry began offering excuses. The Latin Builders Association came up with a full-page ad arguing that shoddy workmanship wasn't widespread and that Andrew's "supernatural" gusts "were humanly unstoppable."
Hiaasen's reply: "Especially if your contractor didn't bother to fasten your roof to your house."
He saw the system poisoned by
greed, politics, corruption and ineptitude.... The vaunted South Florida Building Code was deliberately weakened to allow faster, cheaper work. Staples instead of nails? Great idea! Waferboard instead of plywood? Hey, give it a try.... What were these idiots thinking?
The criminal collusion within the industry was completed by bribe-hungry building inspectors who would get out of their trucks to inspect new construction just long enough to allow a nice $100 bill to land in the front seat.
Not one inspector who approved the shoddy work was punished. In one subdivision, 147 of the 184 homes were considered uninhabitable after Andrew. But even after a two-and-a-half-year investigation that found hundreds of examples of "trusses without braces, braces without nails, corners without brackets," the Dade State Attorney's office decided prosecutions were not justified.
The contempt Hiaasen felt for State Attorney Rundle after Andrew was a good foundation for the superstructure of contempt he felt for her quiescence five years later, when confronted by a massive paving scandal. In a random examination of three dozen repair jobs, the Herald--with no help from Rundle--documented truckloads of missing materials, projects paid for but not done and hundreds of thousands of dollars of overcharges. Typical: sidewalk repairs that should have cost $20,000 were billed at $166,024. Once again, Rundle seemed reluctant to investigate, much less to prosecute the crooks.
All the work was done for the local government as part of a huge contract with the firm headed by "the loud and politically influential exile leader" Jorge Mas Canosa. And because politicians were intimidated and enriched by Mas Canosa, Hiaasen held out little hope that an official investigation would ever be made of the looting. But it was obvious that "somebody is simply robbing taxpayers blind."
Saying that, Hiaasen stepped on the biggest and most sensitive toes in the Cuban community.
Of course, it didn't take guts for Miami Herald reporters to uncover this dirt in the Mas Canosa business or for Hiaasen to comment so insultingly about it. But it is rather unusual in US journalism. Not many cities are blessed with reporters and columnists who are allowed by their corporate bosses to attack--repeatedly, that's the key--the offensive conduct of the most powerful political grandee in town.
Not long after the paving scandal was written up, Mas Canosa died of lung cancer, and the power of the empire, including the communications company MasTec (10,000 employees, $1 billion annual revenue), was shaken. But for decades prior to his death, he was looked upon as the emperor of the Cuban government in exile. When he called the White House, Presidents promptly picked up the phone. As much as any other person in America, it was Mas Canosa, backed by his Cuban-American National Foundation's wide political influence and money, who persuaded federal officials to establish and maintain the ridiculous embargo against Cuba. And because the Herald editorially talked a softer and more reasonable line, he hated it and made life as uncomfortable as possible for it. This, some think, was one reason Knight Ridder, parent company of the Herald, moved corporate headquarters from Miami to Northern California, saying it needed to be in Silicon Valley and close to the Internet technology.
Hiaasen easily saw through that excuse:
Yeah, right. The truth is, Knight Ridder's gone soft. Thrown in the towel. ... It isn't tough enough to handle Miami anymore.
So good riddance, cyberweenies. Enjoy your vineyards and your "majestic" redwoods and your scenic Pacific Coast Highway. We'll be just fine down here in the oppressive heat and the gunfire.
For too long South Florida has done back flips to impress major firms, only to have them desert the place or go bankrupt (sometimes more than once). It's time to focus more positively on a steady, dependable, homegrown enterprise.
I'm talking about corruption. That's the wave of the future. That's where the jobs are....
Unlike newspapers, corruption is a growth industry. Knight Ridder's pullout will cost the area fewer than 150 jobs, a blip compared to what would be lost if there were no bribery and racketeering to fight.
Think of the many millions of dollars trickling into the local economy as a result of every corruption probe--gas for the undercover cars, videotapes for the surveillance cameras, file cabinets for the plea-bargain agreements. And don't forget those hefty hotel and restaurant bills run up by conspirators, co-conspirators and snitches....
When you're talking graft, you're talking jobs.
Hiaasen's admirers have likened him to such column-writing legends as Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken. There are similarities. Bierce once said of railroad magnate Henry Huntington, "He deserves to hang from every branch of every State and Territory penetrated by his railroad, with the sole exception of Nevada, which has no trees." Hiaasen, a devout environmentalist, would not want to desecrate the forests with rail moguls, but I think he would gladly hoist polluters and developers.
And though he seems sometimes almost willing to agree with Mencken, who believed that "all government is evil and trying to improve it is largely a waste of time," Hiaasen's basic good humor pulls him back from that cynical abyss. We know this from one of his last columns in Kick Ass, where he says, "Is there any hope for Florida? Maybe a shred."
Clinging to that shred is part of his strength as a commentator.
The other part, the strongest part, is his intense love of the natural Florida. Obviously, Hiaasen somehow hopes to harass, ridicule and shame the powers that be into restoring some portions of South Florida to the primal magic it possessed, particularly in the vastness of the Everglades, when he was a youth and roamed its wildness. The Everglades were, and are, his El Dorado, as you can see from the way he writes about that portion designated a national park:
Visually, its beauty is of inverse dimensions [to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon], for the Glades are as flat as a skillet, the trees mostly tangled and scrubby, the waters slow and dark. The monotony of its landscape can be a deception, as endless and uninviting as arctic tundra.
But for anyone finding themselves on that two-lane road to Flamingo when the sun comes up, there's no place comparable in the universe.... Buffaloes are grand, but name another park that harbours panthers at one end and hammerhead sharks at the other. Name another park where, on a spring morning, it's possible to encounter bald eagles, manatees, a jewfish the size of a wine cask, an indigo snake as rare as sapphire, and even a wild pink flamingo.
But the Everglades are dying, largely from the same pestilence that is ruining so much of South Florida: unchecked urban sprawl. It was this that prompted the Sierra Club recently to rate South Florida as one of the most blighted places in the country. Much of the Everglades' troubles come from the pollution of Big Sugar--US Sugar and Flo-Sun, the latter controlled by two Cuban brothers (heavy contributors to both political parties) who own 170,000 acres of Okeechobee cane. As Hiaasen says,
Big Sugar gets all the water it wants for practically nothing, dirties it with tons of phosphates, then spits it back at nature.... For 40 years the natural marsh was diked, dammed and diverted to benefit farmers and developers. Today 4 million people in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties rely on the Everglades system for their drinking water. Nature's plumbing can't handle it.
So Big Sugar is indeed a threat to everyone, but, as Hiaasen hastens to add, "Overdevelopment has done more to destroy the Everglades than all the cane and dairy farmers put together." When you're talking overdevelopment, you're talking people. Every day more than 300 acres of green space in Florida are paved for shopping malls and subdivisions. The "greed-head mentality" is turning the state into a parking lot.
The eighties saw Florida's population grow by 31 percent. The bad news for the nineties isn't in yet, but Hiaasen is depressed:
Florida continues to draw new residents like a dead marlin draws flies. It's a disaster in the making, an avalanche with which our state has no prayer of coping. But no matter how crowded or crime-ridden this state becomes, it'll always look better than a dying factory on the shore of Lake Erie in the dead of winter. Florida is where folks come when things get unbearable back home. It's been that way since they invented air-conditioning and bug spray.
So how do you reduce the population? Well, it's not likely you can. But you can try. One group (mentioned favorably by Hiaasen) calls itself the Florida League Against "Progress." It distributes bumper stickers that say: Leaving Florida? Take a Friend.