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Black, Cuban Racial Chasm Splits Miami

March 23, 1997|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — In any other American city, a spitting incident might be dismissed as a silly office spat between co-workers. But not here. Not now. Especially not when the alleged spitter is Latino and the person spat upon is black.

"We are very much on edge here, and it's getting worse because of the constant elimination of African Americans from jobs and political offices," warned Nathaniel J. Wilcox, executive director of a civil rights group called People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE. "They are becoming the oppressor."

In this case, "they," to Wilcox and many other blacks here, means Cuban Americans, who in the 38 years since the Cuban revolution have infused Miami's soul with an undeniable Latin rhythm while becoming the area's predominant ethnic group.

Throughout Dade County, Cuban Americans now occupy almost every top elected and administrative post. Cuban Americans hold the offices of mayor and city manager in Miami and Metropolitan Dade County, county school superintendent and Metro police chief as well as the presidencies of Florida International University and Miami-Dade Community College.

To many, the story of how penniless Caribbean immigrants found refuge in a new land and in less than two generations realized the American dream is nothing less than a testament to hard work and the virtues of capitalism.

Others, however, read that success story and see little more than a Miami spin on that oldest of American problems: race relations. "Now Cubans are in power and blacks are still second-class citizens," said Miami attorney H.T. Smith, a prominent activist in black causes. "And they have shown no intention of sharing that power."

On the streets of Overtown and Liberty City, this city's predominantly black sections, frustration and anger bubble very near the surface. The ascent of Cuban Americans, coupled with a history of mistrust and the perception that blacks are slipping even further down the economic ladder, have led to public rallies at which speakers decry what one recently called "a sense of isolation, a sense of disenfranchisement, a sense of not being connected to the community in a larger way."

Unemployment is high, welfare benefits are being cut back and many complain that an inability to speak Spanish denies American-born blacks even entry-level jobs. For the first time in more than three decades, there are no blacks--and four Cubans--on the five-member Miami City Commission.

Blacks too young to remember the horror of four bloody riots in the 1980s suggest that another urban uprising may be the only way to get the attention of Latino civic leaders. With a climate of resentment that some black leaders say is at flash point, even a rude joke that backfires could spark an explosion.

Take the spitting incident, for example.

According to local press reports, Eileen Valdes, who works in the Dade County clerk's office, walked by the desk of Nekesia Paschal and blew her a raspberry, also called a Bronx cheer. Paschal says spittle landed on her cheek.

The day before that Feb. 25 exchange, Paschal skipped work to take part in Blackout '97, a day of protest designed to call attention to the economic and political plight of blacks in Dade County. That protest had already ignited controversy because it coincided with the first anniversary of the day Cuban MIGs shot down two unarmed Cessnas piloted by exiles searching for refugees off the Cuban coast. Four young aviators were killed.

To Cuban Americans, who had a full slate of memorial observances planned, scheduling Blackout for the same day was insensitive and disrespectful.

Paschal said she was spat upon by Valdes in retaliation for taking part in the Blackout protest. Valdes said the gesture was innocent. She apologized.

The spitting incident, which is under investigation by county officials, has become to many blacks just one more straw in a back-breaking load of affronts that has accompanied what they see as a total Cuban takeover.

"Here you have a group of Latinos--Cubans specifically--who have realized in one generation a dream denied to blacks for 300 years," said University of Miami sociologist Max Castro. "So the problems of race--found everywhere in the U.S.--are aggravated here."

Of Dade County's 2 million residents, 55% are Latino, 25% are non-Hispanic white, and 21% are black. (About 1.6% are both black and Latino.) Of Latinos, about 60% are Cuban.

To be sure, the traditional power brokers, non-Hispanic whites, retain considerable influence in greater Miami. While assuming a lower profile, white men still predominate in the corporate board rooms and Biscayne Bay-front mansions.

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