This article was originally published at Deep City Chronicles
MIAMI, FLORIDA – Miami’s “modern-day” transit system was born in the midst of the so-called cocaine wars, when Colombian cartels, small-time Cuban dealers and the hopelessly corrupt Miami PD all took turns gracing the front pages of local newspapers. As the city reeled from shocking acts of violence, millions of dollars flowed into the ‘regular’ economy from the inconceivably profitable drug trade. Bankers, real estate developers, brokers, lawyers. Everybody who was anybody was reaping the benefits and the signs of conspicuous wealth, that came to define Miami’s image around the world, took root.
Contrasting with the Ferraris and Corvettes sprouting like weeds on Miami’s new suburban home driveways, tens of thousands of Cuban refugees were crossing the Florida Straits and getting crammed into hastily-erected tents under I-95. The Mariel boat lift instantly produced a new demographic, which would shape the politics of Miami-Dade County for the next 35 years.
Enormous concrete columns were raised parallel to South Dixie Highway as construction began on an elevated rail system, harboring great promise for the rapidly growing metro. Almost four decades later, that hope would turn out to be as fleeting as a basuco high. Ronald Reagan derided the federally-funded Metrorail during a visit to the city in 1985, quipping that it would have been cheaper to buy everyone in Miami a limousine, instead. The criticism was in line with the radical right wing ideologues who surrounded Reagan and harbored deep contempt for government spending, so long as it benefited others.
Just three years earlier, Reagan was in Miami heaping praise on the results produced by a massive swell of federal law enforcement personnel to fight his war on drugs, which he had declared officially in National Security Decision Directive 221. The special South Florida task force created to wage it and headed by former CIA director and Vice President, George H.W. Bush, established Miami as the home base for federal counter drug operations. Posing in front of seized narcotics and a cache of weapons, Reagan called the dramatic expansion of law enforcement and intelligence assets in Miami a “brilliant example of working federalism”.
The DEA, already boasting a heavy presence in the region, added 60 new agents, 10 supervisors and 3 intelligence analysts. The FBI, which had until then remained on the periphery of drug trafficking cases, was given “concurrent jurisdictional powers” with the DEA and its director becoming the “general supervisor” of the war on drugs. 43 new agents were added to its payroll in South Florida. Similarly, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the IRS and several other agencies transferred dozens of personnel to Miami. Even the U.S. Treasury recruited 20 new analysts to handle cases of money laundering.
At that point, the Iran-Contra scandal had yet to break into mainstream consciousness and the role top officials of his administration were playing in the tons of cocaine moving through Miami was still an unfathomable conspiracy theory. But, by the time Oliver North and his Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, were sitting in front of Congress divulging as little as they possibly could about the covert coke-for-guns operation they’d been running with help from the CIA, Miami’s new political class was fully ensconced as the petty vice royalty of the new spook colony.
A Traitor at the Orange Bowl
Miami’s political future was born at the Orange Bowl on a cloudy day in 1962, where President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and 40,000 people attended a ceremony to welcome back the surviving members of Brigade 2506, who had been captured, imprisoned and eventually repatriated to the United States by Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Made up of more than 1,100 Cuban army defectors, volunteer exiles and a few mobsters recruited and trained by the CIA, several Brigade members boycotted the event. They blamed Kennedy for the operation’s failure after he refused to provide air cover to the counterrevolutionaries and from that moment on, Miami’s Cuban exile community would close ranks and become the most reactionary, right-wing political base in the country.
The very mention of John F. Kennedy would henceforth be proscribed in every household from the sprawling burbs of Kendall to Little Havana, where a monument in honor of the fallen at the Bay of Pigs stands and is the site of an annual commemoration when it’s not held at the posh Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. Likewise, Kennedy’s policies along with anything the Democratic Party put forward would also be shot down on principle rather than any consideration of the merits.
The same year the Brigade Commander, Pepe San Román, handed Kennedy a folded Brigade 2506 flag at the Orange Bowl, Kennedy had delivered his Special Message to Congress on Transportation. In it, he announced his intentions to deal with what he called the “chaotic patchwork” of “obsolete legislation” that was encumbering the nation’s various transportation systems, pledging drastic federal intervention to resolve the “inefficiencies, inequities and other undesirable conditions” that prevailed around the country, which was suffering under a disjointed network of private systems teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
After he was gunned down in Dallas, his successor, Lyndon Johnson followed through with the slain leader’s wishes and passed the Urban Mass Transit Act, which created the UMTA (Urban Mass Transportation Agency) opening up the federal government’s coffers to local county and city governments around the country to start buying up the failing private systems and operate their own public transit authorities.
The Radical Base
Dade County would take advantage of the opportunity in the early 70’s, when it took the federal grant and formed the Metro Dade Transportation Agency. In 1976, it applied for and later got $1.25 Billion in federal money to build the Metrorail system. But, by then, a largely unknown but powerful group of private interests were mounting a nation-wide movement against all forms of federal spending, public institutions and democracy itself. One of the leading minds of this movement was then promoting his business-friendly theories of law at the University of Miami and conspiring with one of the richest men in the country about how best to destroy the threats to “free market” economics.
One of the devices used to this end was the Cato Institute, a radical conservative think tank designed to promote policies that play into the larger goals of its de facto founder and largest benefactor, Charles Koch, along with his billionaire-class friends. Just one among dozens of similar foundations and front groups created by the Cato Institute’s anti-communist framing of practically every discussion of public assets was catnip to Miami’s Cuban exile community and helped shape much of their political views. Whatever the Koch-network wanted, Miami Cubans were easily brought on board simply because it meant rebuking the bearded protagonist of all their nightmares.
In 1991, the Koch-funded Cato Institute published its Cato Policy Analysis No. 162, entitled “False Dreams and Broken Promises: The Wasteful Federal Investment in Urban Mass Transit” which claimed to reveal the “cold hard lesson” of subsidized public transit systems around the United States over the previous two and a half decades since the creation of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. The libertarian think tank puts forward 9 “myths” that support federal subsidies of public transit and proceeds to ‘debunk’ them.
Many of the same tropes our City and County officials use to cut transit funding are present in Cato’s analysis. The old con that people only use public transit “when they have no other reasonable choice” and constant cries of declining ridership are weaved together with barbs against unionized transit workers and feeble attempts to undermine the environmental benefits of mass transit; the latter two being mainstays of Koch-network propaganda, which continues to be deployed against public transit.
The attacks against Miami’s public transit began almost from its inception, but it wasn’t until the leaders of the radical Cuban base were fully ensconced in power that concerted efforts to undermine, sabotage and ultimately re-privatize it began in earnest. Their rise to the top of Miami politics was not the result of an organic process, but rather the product of an allegiance with powerful elements in the intelligence community and an identification with the existing, and racially oppressive power structure that ruled the city.
Racial inequality in Miami has been historically high and it was openly so even in the post-civil rights 60’s and 70’s, before the Cuban emigres started to figure prominently in the political and social ranks.
The defunct Miami PD was notoriously racist and routinely engaged in brutal beatings of Blacks, who were considered less than human by the mostly White police department, recruited mainly from Southern Georgia’s “cracker” population. Things in Miami came to a head in 1968 during the Republican national convention, which was being hosted at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. The nation-wide race riots that gripped the country did not spare Miami and the added component of Spanish-speaking Latinos forming an increasingly larger proportion of the population made the Miami PD the last bastion of white, Southern bigots”.
This was an image problem, which contemporary city leaders had to deal with and led then Miami City Manager, Mel Reese, to look for a police chief who could transform the ingrained racist culture of a police department required to deal with an increasingly diverse community. The city commissioned the International Association of Chiefs of Police to initiate a national search for suitable candidates. When none of the proposed names came through, Reese traveled in secret to Tucson, Arizona to try to recruit the “dean of American Police”, Bernard Garmire.
Garmire had earned national acclaim due to his progressive approach to police management. He was the first chief of police to require his officers to attend college courses and had successfully overseen the growth of the Tucson police department from 157 to 450 officers in just the span of four years. By the time Reese paid him a visit, Garmire was a widely recognized member of the law enforcement community and a deputy director of US Customs in Arizona.
Colleagues at the International Association of Chiefs of Police warned him not to take Reese’s job offer, informing him of the Miami PD’s terrible reputation and how the infamous Miami chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police had launched a $10,000 investigation into his background. Garmire ended up taking Reese’s very generous package, which included an executive retirement plan and a 50% salary increase. He became Miami’s Chief of Police on June 15, 1969.
Chief Garmire did his level best to root out racist attitudes and professionalize the Miami Police Department, but was met with fierce resistance at every turn. As his efforts to improve relations between his charges and the community at large failed, morale deteriorated. When Reese, who was his only support in Municipal government, was replaced after the 1974 elections, Garmire’s days were numbered.
38-year old Maurice Ferré was inaugurated as the city’s first Cuban Mayor and rapidly took the side of Miami PD’s old guard versus his Chief of Police. Ferré would run Garmire out of town after a grand jury was convened, that put him on the spot to answer questions about the city’s crime rate. The Mayor then organized public hearings at Miami City Hall to address Garmire’s supposed “malfeasance” based on the grand jury’s report, itself reliant on testimony of dissidents within his own police department. The renowned police man resigned before the third hearing and blamed his enemies at city hall and his department for causing his wife’s stroke.
The old “cracker” guard would take the young Cuban recruits under their wing, showing them how things were done in the Magic City. Just six years later, the brutal murder of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of Miami police officers would set off the most violent riots in the city’s short history. The fatal blows, it was determined, were delivered by the only Cuban among the 7 officers indicted and subsequently acquitted of the heinous act of police brutality.
Pinko Commie Transit
Racism in Miami is a more nuanced affair than in most other parts of the country, but it is prevalent nonetheless and is a pivotal issue in its public transit system; intertwined with the problems that plague it and with the County’s continual efforts to privatize it.
Many African Americans came to Miami in the 50’s and 60’s escaping pernicious Jim Crow laws in their home states and took the only jobs that were available to them: bus drivers and teachers. All the “good” private sector jobs were still reserved for the White majority, but the public sector, which was facing pressures from new Civil Rights legislation, offered these rural folk the employment opportunities they otherwise lacked.
Just when LBJ’s Kennedy-inspired UMTA started buying up bankrupt private transit agencies around the country, Miami’s bus drivers and public school teachers began to unionize and demand a better standard of living. In the late 60’s, thousands of new transit jobs came online and transformed the economics of South Florida’s Black workers, which resulted in the creation of a small professional class of African Americans, not only in Miami but in many other Southern cities with public transit systems.
The promise represented by the creation of MDTA and all it entailed for the city’s economic development was soon beset by internal sabotage by the agency’s director in league with County officials who engaged in a campaign to privatize the system and bust the TWU Local 291 union, whose workforce operated the buses and the recently completed Metrorail.
Downtown business leaders met with the then Chair of the Transportation Committee, Clara Oesterle to discuss ways to “fix” public transit and concluded that reducing worker wages and phasing out the County’s obligation to maintain a transit system were the answers. Oesterle and a fellow Commissioner then met with the largest private transit management company in the world, ATE, to go over potential privatization scenarios. One month later, the Commission launched a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Transportation with Oesterle and MDTA Executive Director, Joe Fletcher, and Chamber of Commerce officers on the Committee.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force’s recommendations, issued in May of the following year, included a 20% reduction in wages, forcing the union to strike and replace vacancies with new employees, a drastic reduction in bus service and a 33% spike in bus fares. The union issued its own report, in which it revealed manipulation and distortion of statistics by the Blue Ribbon Task Force and called it a “crude attempt by Dade’s business leaders to embroil the County Commission in a union-busting venture, remove control of MDTA from the accountability of voters and elected officials, and hand over a valuable public asset to special business interests.”
The Set Back
The only thing that saved Miami’s public transit from being completely privatized at that time was the bomb that was about to drop when nearly a third of the city’s infamous police force were discovered to be stealing cocaine shipments, confiscated cash and murdering the people they were supposed to be bringing to justice in the city’s “cocaine wars”. The sensational case of the Miami Seven, so called, exploded onto the national and international stage.
The half-dozen Little Havana midnight shift officers caught trafficking in stolen narcotics proved to be a microcosm of the rampant corruption in the city. The whole affair threw a tourist-dependent South Florida into damage control mode and it would be a few years until the stench of the real-life Miami Vice saga would fade. In 1989, not long after the Miami Seven trial, Alex Marrero, the officer who had been acquitted of murder in the Arthur McDuffie case ten years before was caught in the Everglades burning incriminating documents.
But, something even more devastating to Miami’s freshman political classed happened that year: The Berlin Wall came down and the imminent break-up of the Soviet Union undermined the entire basis for the ongoing Cuban embargo, which besides starving Cubans on the island, maintained a robust anti-Castro media industry in Miami, not to mention the very premise of their presence in American politics. Barely three years later, a catastrophic hurricane would further change the dynamics of the city, even convincing a few of the hard core Cuban political club of the benefits of a working public transit system.
The devastation left behind by hurricane Andrew was as clear as it was heartbreaking under the jet blue, cloudless sky that taunted Miami the day after it tore through the area. Never before had a storm of this magnitude hit Florida or any other place, for that matter. The hurricane’s track had been misjudged and had made landfall further south and west than initially predicted. Official death tolls are missing thousands of migrant farmers who perished in Homestead, but whose dubious legal status left them unaccounted for.
In the sprawling suburbs of unincorporated Miami-Dade County, the shoddy building practices of unscrupulous real estate developers were exposed by the ferocious storm, as the roofs of entire mid-luxury home developments were blown away. FP&L discovered just how fragile their infrastructure really was and power remained down for months in large swaths of the County. With gas shortages to boot, the absence of a genuine transit system was made apparent to everyone.
Four years later, a new proposal for transit expansion was brought to the ballot box and this time, the people voted for it in overwhelming numbers. The result, however, was worse than the first go around, producing only a short extension of the Metrorail to the airport and a completely unnecessary, and hugely expensive terminal to go with it; a terribly designed boondoggle of epic proportions, that took over ten years to complete.
Once the memory of Andrew faded, the County Commission started humming an old tune and pointing to declining ridership of a system they refused to improve in any significant way, as an excuse to implement service cuts throughout Miami-Dade. But, the public’s desire for an expanded transit system was slowly becoming unassailable and no politician running for a seat in County or City government could ignore it.The pressure has been increasing over the years and has, by now, become the single most important political issue in Miami. It will define the upcoming election for County Mayor, an office occupied for the past ten years by a man with no scruples who has shown no compunction about lying directly to the people of the County.