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.
But during three decades of steady immigration to South Florida, Cubans have prospered. While median household income has declined for the 27 million Latinos in the United States, Cuban Americans are the exception. The average median income of Cuban Americans is slightly higher than black Americans in Dade County, and Cubans--most of them in South Florida--account for 40% of the 80 people topping Hispanic Business magazine's list of the richest U.S. Latinos.
Over the years, ethnic and racial insults--real and perceived--between African Americans and Cubans have piled up like tinder. Three of Miami's riots in the last decade were touched off by the fatal shootings of black men by Latino police officers. On a long list of other controversies are everything from Cuban American snubs of two visiting dignitaries--South African leader Nelson Mandela and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young--because of their contacts with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, to election day defeats and the closing of a neighborhood swimming pool.
Now even the slightest of slights seems charged with explosive potential.
"Under normal circumstances, something like this would not become a community issue," said civic activist Smith. "But with our history, neither side is prepared to give the other the benefit of the doubt. So instinctively, we are ready to assume the worst. It's a very volatile situation.
"The major problem," Smith said, "is that Cubans have not made the mental transition from poor minority to extremely powerful majority. So we now have a group of people with economic and political power who unfortunately act as if they believe they are entitled to 100% of the power, 100% of the time. That is a formula for ultimate anarchy."
Aggravating the mistrust between Cubans and blacks is a mutual impression that neither group understands the history of the other. As immigrants, Cubans owe some of their success here to government-backed minority programs brought about by the black-led struggle for civil rights, Smith said.
Now ascendant, Cubans "should not have such short memories," he said. "They have power because of alliances with blacks.
"They are like young ponies trying to find their legs. But while doing so, Cubans have to understand they don't get to eat all the hay. They have to share."
Said Wilcox, of PULSE: "There are some Cuban brothers who want to see the right thing happen, so it's unfair to stereotype all. But those in power are abusing their authority. So it won't take a whole lot to reach the flash point."
Race is also a factor. Although 62% of the 11 million people in Cuba today are either black or of mixed race, Cuban Miami is overwhelmingly white. According to the 1990 census, 92% of Cubans in greater Miami describe themselves as white.
Why the disparity? The first wave of people to flee Cuba in the early 1960s came chiefly from the white, well-off middle class whose property was being confiscated by the Castro government, according to historians. Successive migrant waves, driven by family ties, have followed that pattern.
Many Cubans in positions of power admit inequities. Earlier this month, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo announced formation of a panel to study redistricting the city to ensure black representation on the City Commission. And Metro Mayor Alex Penelas has come up with an economic plan that targets urban redevelopment and job creation in the black community.
But Carollo's actions came only after PULSE sued the city for denying blacks adequate representation.
And Penelas made his urban action proposals only after the announcement of Blackout '97 galvanized the black community's outrage over economic and political impotence.
Metro Commissioner Barbara Carey--one of four blacks on the 13-member county governing board--said that blacks must emulate Cuban success. "They understand that in this capitalistic society, power is having the means to economic survival," she said. "I don't fault the Cubans. The Anglos created the model and Hispanics followed it. I just wish African Americans had been able to do the same thing."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.