Twenty-three years ago, Nelson Mandela came to Miami, stumbled into a quagmire of Cuban exile politics, got exploited by racial equality organizers and left South Florida a little better than it was before.
It was the summer of 1990. In South Africa, apartheid was cracking up and dissolving. Mandela, finally out of prison after 27 years, was beginning a triumphant world tour to thank everyone who had supported and encouraged him. The thank-you list was a long one. It included characters such as Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and -- unfortunately for Mandela, as he landed in Miami -- Fidel Castro.
South Florida, meanwhile, was getting some hard facts about its tourism industry. Basically, it was discovering that while black travelers and conventions were a mainstay of Miami tourism, the industry had few ownership, management or even employment opportunities for African-Americans.
Twenty percent of the conventions that had come to Miami the year before Mandela arrived were black, recalls H. T. Smith, a lawyer with deep Miami roots. It was a market segment worth hundreds of millions of dollars and local blacks couldn't even get hired as waiters or bartenders, he said.
"Some of us realized that the plight of black Miami in terms of economic and business opportunities was awful, even compared with the rest of the cities in America," said Smith, now a law professor at Florida International University.
"We needed something to get national support. We were looking for something to ignite a movement."
But it seemed unlikely that American blacks, most with problems equal to or worse than Miami's in their own hometowns, could be enlisted in a Miami cause.
And that's when Mandela appeared with his thank-yous for Fidel Castro.
The city of Miami had been preparing an official welcome for the South African hero. But when Mayor Xavier Suarez, later joined by four other Cuban-American mayors, demanded that Mandela denounce Castro as the price of welcome, Mandela loyally refused.
The proclamations were rescinded. The Cuban-American leadership withdrew from all appearances and ceremonies.
The great Nelson Mandela had been snubbed in Miami.
'Count Us In!'
To Smith and a small committee of top African-American lawyers, the snub was a mortal insult. But mostly, it was a gift. They already had what seemed at the time a doomed plan to launch a black tourism boycott of Miami. But now, the national black community might pay attention.
"When we were able to communicate around the country, 'Can you believe this? The politicians here have snubbed Nelson Mandela!' They said, 'What? Are you serious? Tell us what you want us to do! Count us in!'
"We couldn’t keep up with requests to join the boycott," Smith said.
Anger was widespread, in and out of Miami. Ceresta Smith (no relation to H. T. Smith) had just started her teaching career in Miami after spending her college days campaigning against apartheid at Washington, D. C.'s American University. Mandela had been disrespected to satisfy a point of local exile politics and she was furious.
"It was totally ridiculous," she says today. "This was an international hero, a man who had sat in prison for 27 years because he was fighting for what was right. Everybody worldwide acknowledged that but this small little community here that had power and control."
The Thousand-Day Boycott
The boycott, with Ceresta Smith's full support, was launched. It lasted 1,000 days and the black visitors stayed away. According to several estimates, it cost the region somewhere between $20 million and $50 million. And it ended with a comprehensive agreement to include blacks as full partners at the tourism table. There were 20 points in the pact and they covered everything from hiring to management opportunities to groundwork for black development and ownership of tourist hotels.
And that's how Nelson Mandela improved black lives in South Florida as he had done in South Africa, but not on purpose. He just had to show up, take a principled stand and say "no."
Miami's political physics would take care of the rest.