This is Part 3 of an examination of a piece published in The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine in 1988. The piece was written as a fictional look back over the 20-year period between 2008 and 1988. As we have seen some of the events described by the author, John Dorschner, have actually come to pass. Part 1 is available here and Part 2 is here. There’s also an intro to how the piece was written, here.
In the next section of the piece, Dorschner gives more texture to something he introduced earlier, “El Grupo”.
THE RISE OF “EL GRUPO” AND OTHER TALES OF POWER POLITICS
These days, some hostilities remain among the peoples of South Florida — notably the poorer Hispanic groups, who have a festering resentment of the established financial and social power of Miami Cubans. But mostly there seems to be a remarkable tranquility. Miami’s various ethnic-racial groups seem to be getting along better than at any time since the 1950s — in fact, better than at any time in the area’s history, since the pre-Castro era had been marred by an odious pattern of racial segregation. In 2006, in probably the most encouraging sign of racial-ethnic harmony, Dade voters elected a Black mayor, Don Horn, a prosperous lawyer who started his career in the state attorney’s office.
We haven’t seen overt racial tensions like what we witnessed in the 1980s, so in a certain sense Dorschner is again correct here. I can’t say that I’m aware of any rift between poor Hispanics and richer Cubans. In 2004, [Miami-]Dade voters elected a second Cuban-American mayor, Carlos Alvarez, who had previously been the county’s police chief. We have yet to elect a Black county mayor.
Horn’s election was noted in newspapers across the country, but it did not obtain the same headline-screaming publicity that some of South Florida’s more ignominious political escapades received in the past. Many of the most notorious episodes, especially the debate about the Orlando Bosch Expressway and the “painting of Miss Bulgaria,” had larger headlines in the Northeast and Europe than they did in Miami, where they were regarded as minor aberrations.
Such aberrations, of course, should have been expected, given the huge changes in South Florida politics. Consider the situation 20 years ago, when Hispanics were just beginning to achieve power:
They had 3 of the 5 seats on the Miami City Commission and 5 of 7 on the Hialeah Commission, but only 1 in Coral Gables and none in Miami Beach. Though the county was an estimated 44 percent Hispanic,**8 there was only 1 Hispanic — a Cuban — on the Metro Commission. In Broward, where by the late ’80s Hispanics already accounted for nearly 25 percent of all home purchases south of State Road 84,**9 no Hispanic sat on the county commission.
But behind the scenes things were beginning to happen. Members of 2 Cuban organizations, the Cuban American National Foundation and the Latin Builders Association, had jumped into local political battles with remarkable results. Able to control massive financial support for favored candidates, the group forced the permanent retirement of one-time mayor Maurice Ferre and Jose Carollo (who was then calling himself “Joe”), both of whom seemed to thrive in an atmosphere of racial-ethnic strife.
Dorschner predicts political episodes that would be embarrassing for South Florida (more on that later) and he predicts the retirement of Joe Carollo. Joe still goes by Joe as far as I know and though he’s not currently in the political scene he did serve in two stints as Mayor of the City of Miami. Ferre unsuccessfully ran for County Mayor in 2004. The disappearance of Ferre and Carollo had nothing to do with CANF or the Latin Builders.
Don Horn would end up prosecuting the case of William Lozano, the Miami cop who shot and killed a suspect touching off the Overtown riot of 1989. He never ran for County Mayor but is currently listed as the Chief Assistant State Attorney for Administration. Dorschner’s imagination began to get carried away with a couple of things, but we’ll forgive him, he’s been pretty close on a lot of this.
These new power brokers consisted mainly of older, conservative, prosperous Cubans. For years, they had been intent on solidifying themselves in business and lobbying in Washington against Castro, but in December 1988, in a secret meeting in Key Largo, several Miami Cuban leaders concluded that Cubans should “take their proper place” in Dade’s power structure. To accomplish this, they created a new political group, including several younger Cuban-Americans and 2 non-Cuban Hispanics (a Puerto Rican and a Nicaraguan) to broaden their representation. They called themselves the Hispanic Leadership Conference, but a newspaper columnist dubbed them “El Grupo” — an intentional dig at the Anglo power structure, which had coyly styled itself “the Non-Group” — and the name stuck, until even HLC members began using it.
El Grupo came on the scene at a crucial time in local politics, because governments were being forced into grim austerity programs, caught between the ’89 recession and a new wave of Cuban immigration following the ’87 Immigration Pact. Local services were desperately overburdened, at least until the new arrivals were able to earn their own way. In the late ’80s, an average of 18,000 new Cubans arrived in Dade each year, almost doubling the county’s annual population increase.
Many social services had to be cut back, and some proposed improvements — such as a Miami Beach trolley and the so-called “bullet train” — were canceled. Government funding for the poor dropped to the lowest levels since the Eisenhower era.
Dorschner’s crystal ball started to get cloudy here. The whole “El Grupo” thing sounds like something out of a Carl Hiaasen novel. Could that be the columnist he was thinking of? There was no recession in 1989 and no immigration pact with Cuba was signed…until 1994. In that year, the United States did in fact agree to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans each year. The cutbacks in social services never came. In fact South Florida would experience a real estate boom that created a flood of new tax revenues to local governments. Of course all of the new money didn’t solve any of the problems it was being spent on. In fact, a Herald investigation about a public housing program would offer just a peek at how taxpayer dollars are wasted and stolen.
Several hybrid and electric buses run residents and tourists up and down the beach but 20 years later the bullet train and Beach trolley are still a dream.
Part 4 here.
8. Present estimate of Dade Planning Department
9. Based on studies of Tom Powers, Broward economist.