Mayoral battle puts the vice back into Miami

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The Independent Online
HOLLYWOOD might call it Miami Vice, the Real-Life Sequel. Just as the city was starting to recover from highly publicised tourist murders and pulling back from the brink of bankruptcy, it has been torn apart by a ferocious row about corruption.

Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, a Cuban-American sometimes known as Hurricane Xavier or Mayor Loco (the Crazy Mayor) for his gung-ho style, won last November's mayoral election. The man he beat, fellow Cuban exile Joe Carollo, cried fraud, the case went to trial and Cuban-Americans went to war.

Mr Carollo, the incumbent since 1993, finished well ahead of Mr Suarez, mayor from 1985-93, but fell 155 votes short of the 50 per cent required to avoid a run-off. In the run-off nine days later, Mr Suarez won. On both days, absentee ballots swung the vote in Mr Suarez's favour.

For the past two weeks, Miami judge Thomas Wilson, who can decide whether to re-run the election or hand it to Mr Carollo, has heard daily evidence that Suarez aides launched a campaign, particularly in the city's "Little Havana" area of Cuban-Americans, to capture or fake absentee ballots. Manuel Yip, who voted for Mr Suarez, was found to have been dead for four years. A basketball coach with the Suarez campaign described how he handed out $10 to poor residents of the Overtown black ghetto to get their vote. A 92-year-old Cuban exile, Alberto Russi, persuaded more than 90 of his domino partners in Little Havana to post fake absentee ballots. More than 100 convicted felons voted, which is illegal.

Even before the trial, Mr Suarez had got off to a bad start. He tried to sack popular police chief Donald Warshaw, a white non-Cuban, and replace him with a Cuban-American. Mr Warshaw refused to go and, backed by non- Cubans, won the showdown.

Then the mayor showed up alone, shortly before midnight, at the home of a middle-aged woman who had written him a critical letter. "He looked mad, really, really mad," said Edna Benson. She grabbed her .38 revolver, loaded with hollow-point bullets, and told him to go away. He did.

Later, upset by daily criticism from the local newspaper, the Miami Herald, Mr Suarez decided that a telephoned threat to pull all city advertising might shut them up. Unfortunately, the Herald taped the call and broadcast it on local television. "Politically, it wasn't a bright thing to do," he conceded later.

But it was a nationally seen report by the CBS 60 Minutes programme last week that really stirred things up. Commenting on the alleged voter frauds, Florida professor Dario Moreno, himself a Cuban-American, described Miami as "almost a Third World banana republic", and said that Cuban exiles had "perfected fraud to a fine art".

Many of his fellow Cuban-Americans were outraged, calling him a "sell- out Cuban". Some tried to have him kicked out of Florida International University. Others support him, saying Cuban exiles should stop name-calling and focus on the corruption. The feud fills local airwaves and newspaper letter columns.

In his Miami Herald column, best-selling novelist Carl Hiaasen, author of Striptease, is having a field day. Commenting on the re-election of a Suarez protege, 35-year-old Cuban-American Humberto Hernandez, to the city council, Mr Hiaasen noted that Mr Hernandez was currently under indictment on 23 counts of various banking and mortgage frauds and money laundering.

"In most law-abiding American cities, Hernandez wouldn't have had the nerve to run for re-election - or, at the very least, he would have been jeered out of the race," wrote Mr Hiaasen. "In Miami, naturally, he won by a landslide."