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MIAMI THE PERFECT LATIN AMERICAN METROPOLIS : Miami: City of the Future by T. D. Allman (Atlantic Monthly: $22.50; 422 pp.) : Going to Miami by David Rieff (Little, Brown: $16.95; 240 pp.)

July 19, 1987|John Rothchild | Rothchild is a Miami-based writer.

It's been a great year for Miami contributions to political upheaval. A Miami woman, in unintended collaboration with the local newspaper, toppled the Democratic presidential front-runner. On the Republican side, half the trapdoors of the Irangate scandal seem to lead to Miami, where contras connive and Southern Air transport takes off on murky missions.

All this sounds suspiciously reminiscent. Fifteen years ago, the Cuban exile "plumbers" and their Miami-based CIA bosses did the undercover job that toppled Nixon. There are persistent nasty rumors of a Miami connection in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Political undermining, Miami style, is becoming a national bete noir.

Meanwhile, two journalists have done their own investigations into Miami, and a third report is forthcoming.

It's the quantity that first impresses: Miami, suddenly, has become a three-book town. A decade ago, the city suffered one censure after another for its part in the drug trade, then through "Miami Vice," the drug trade became fashionable, and Miami made its pastel color statement, and now, via this intellectual trilogy, the city is elevated to serious thought.

The condo swimming pools are atwitter with the same nervous speculation that followed the first episode of "Miami Vice": Will all this attention be good or bad for tourism?

Allman's book hit the stands first--to the great delight of the local non-Cubans, a.k.a. Anglos. In fact, local Anglos are seen clutching their copies of "Miami: City of the Future" with the same hopefulness that 5th-Century Romans, whose city was set upon by alien hordes, supposedly clutched St. Augustine's "City of God."

The message of both these city books is essentially the same: Though current events are disturbing, everything will work out according to plan.

What disturbs Miami Anglos these days is the overwhelming presence of 700,000 Cubans, plus thousands of Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, etc., all speaking in Spanish. Allman's reassurance is that this is the traditional immigrant scenario--Miami the tropical Ellis Island, enriched by the energetic Spanish-speakers, whose offspring will soon be speaking only English.

Allman knows enough history to be uncertain whether the American success story is one of pluck, luck and sacrifice, or greed, boodle and chicanery. But the simple fact of his thinking that it's an American story pleases the Miami Anglos, who are tired of being reminded they live in Casablanca or Havana. In fact, Allman half-jokingly concludes that Miami reminds him of New Hampshire.

Leaving specifics aside, the trouble with Allman's book is that he and his theory spend too much time together in hotel rooms and in the library, and not enough time on the streets to make a wholly convincing case. Also, his engaging account of having slept on a rug full of cocaine flakes seems to subvert his argument that there are more interesting things to discuss about Miami than its drugs.

David Rieff's book is structured the same as Allman's--both men fly down from New York for periodic visits; both cover the same ground, and both put themselves in the narrative.

But Rieff gets closer to the Cubans, and he finds nothing that resembles New Hampshire. Instead, he finds a Second Havana, the result of a Cuban conquest of Miami that is not only linguistic, economic, and political, but also "atmospheric." That Miami is mostly Latino is well-known, but Rieff tells the emotional story, splitting his time between Anglos and Cubans, reporting on opinions from both sides of the rancorous cultural divide.

From the Cubans, we learn that Miami is the perfect Latin American metropolis: an economic paradise with no leftists. The Anglo part of Miami--which includes U.S.-born blacks as well as whites--might just as well not exist.

"If the Cubans want Anglo," Rieff says, "they go to New York"--just as they did from the old Havana.

In Rieff's Miami, we have the first example of a U.S. city controlled by people who imagine they are someplace else, and who view the rest of the country to which they are nominally connected as "foreign."

In New York or Chicago, wave after wave of immigrants was introduced into a diverse urban population, but Miami was a hick town when the Cubans arrived, and in one huge wave, it was transformed. Congratulating the Cubans for having made it big in America--a common theme of Allman and of many others--would, in Rieff's view, miss the point.

Miami isn't American anymore. No doubt the early refugees made it big in America, but with familiar mercantile and political liaisons soon established, the rest of the Cubans have made it big in another Cuba.

Miami Anglos are very angry about all this. Rieff reports the bitter grousing and grumbling among the disenfranchised English-speaking natives. This grousing goes beyond the usual xenophobic bigotry. In fact, it's not uncommon to hear Miami Anglos praise the Haitians, the Russians, the Salvadorans or the Jamaicans, and still damn the Cubans.

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