In the midst of the Mariel boatlift, Haitian migrants were simultaneously attempting to cross the Florida straits and reach the United States. But Haiti did not have a communist government and Haitians, unlike Cuban emigres of the 1960s, were overwhelmingly black and very poor. U.S. policy called for turning away Haitians. Bloated corpses of Haitian migrants began to wash up on Miami beaches. The African American community in Miami seethed; predominantly black Liberty City and Overtown were among the poorest cities in the United States. In the same year four white policemen were accused of beating a black man, Arthur McDuffie, to death. In May 1980 the officers were acquitted and Miami erupted in racial violence over four days, killing eighteen people and causing more than $100 million in property damages.17
The year 1980 was a turning point for Latino identity in Florida. It was the year when the clear inequities in U.S. immigration policy were laid bare, but it was also the beginning of a much more diverse Latino migration into Florida. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans began to flee the Sandinista regime, which like Castro’s, was unabashedly communist. But Nicaraguans did not receive the same open-armed welcome that Cubans had in the 1960s and 1970s. They had seen themselves as occupying similar circumstances as Cubans, but official policy did not reflect that perspective. Instead, Nicaraguans were left in a kind of legal and immigration limbo. In many instances unable to obtain visas or documentation, Nicaraguans were never able to achieve the kind of socioeconomic success that Cubans had.
The 1980s were also the years of Colombian cocaine in Miami. Billions of dollars worth of cocaine came through Miami, which was a porous harbor. Mayors and police welcomed the trade with virtually public smiles. Mayors were indicted. The city’s homicide rate soared. Miami became Murder, U.S.A., as so-called cocaine cowboys hit men for the Medellin Cartel, the principal operative
in the cocaine trade in the 1980s shot down people in the streets. Real estate values plummeted and tourists were warned to stay inside at dark. But at the same time violence in Colombia was worse. A lingering, decades-long, low-level civil war continued to claim thousands of lives and in the process thousands of Colombians fled the country for Florida. Today close to a quarter million Colombians reside in Florida, making them the fourth-largest Latino group in the state.
While the lurid stories of corruption, murder, and discos awash in cocaine made headlines, and while racial tensions boiled over to murderous mayhem in Florida in the 1980s, something else was happening. South Florida was increasingly looking southward to the Caribbean and South America politically, culturally, and economically. Banks sprang up like mushrooms in Miami in the 1980s as the need to launder drug money skyrocketed. General Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, was one of the principal operatives, staging a lucrative money-laundering scheme between Miami and Panama. In the end, of course, Noriega was captured by U.S. forces in an invasion of Panama in 1989 and extradited to Miami, where he was prosecuted and imprisoned in a U.S. prison. Also, after Mariel, the makeup of Cuban migrants, and Latino migration to Florida in general, changed. The 1990s saw the balseros, or rafters, from Cuba and, increasingly, widespread migration from South America pick up speed in the 1980s and 1990s. But apart from this, south Florida was also developing into a place where Latino migrants could arrive and not skip a beat, as it were. One could literally live and die in Miami without learning English. This meant opportunities for Latin American enterprises and for service industries.
By the end of the 1980s, crime levels in south Florida had dropped. Thousands of Latinos from all over Latin America came to Florida for education, work, family, political exile, economic exile, and to chase the enigmatic lure of Florida. Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, came to Florida for the same reasons people move from state to state within the United States jobs, career, education, family but given south Florida’s increasing reputation as a place open to Latinos, Puerto Ricans saw Florida as a viable and desirable option. The same could be said of Peruvians, Argentines, Colombians, and Dominicans they lacked U.S. passports but they came for the Latino presence and perceived opportunities. Much of this migration came from the middle classes, who saw in Florida economic or educational opportunities, familial ties, or career moves.