Where the Stars and Stripes only flutters to deceive

MIAMI DAYS
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The United States has been suffocating. Not through the heat, which has been remarkably benign in most areas, but the God-bless-America patriotism.

The Olympics were bad enough, but what did it was the party conventions. The Stars and Stripes ties, shirts, sequined waistcoats the delegates wore; the speeches about the American Dream, about America the greatest country in the history of the human species, America "the last best hope for mankind", and so on.

Desperate for a breather, I flew south to spend a couple of days in Miami. Now, yes, of course, it does say on the map that Miami is a part of the US. But it actually isn't. It's the capital of Latin America.

Don't be fooled by the sight of the enormous US flags that flutter alongside the highway leading out of the airport into town. It's all show. A pretence the natives put on to pacify visitors from the north, whom they commonly refer to as "stupid gringos". Look at the street signs and you'll read names like Granada, Sevilla, Ponce de Leon. Turn on the radio and see if you can find any variation on the salsa theme. The closest you get is Gloria Estefan singing English lyrics to a Latin beat.

In Miami, the lingua franca is Spanish. The staff at hotels and restaurants speak just enough English to accommodate the needs of tourists - just as in Mexico. But try to explain to a bellboy that the plumbing doesn't work, or ask for your waiter to expand on the ingredients in "tonight's specials", and you'll get dumb stares.

The people who run the city, from the mayor down, are Cubans. The Miami Herald has a Spanish supplement called El Nuevo Heraldo which is fatter than the rest of the newspaper. The other Miami newspaper, published in Spanish, is called El Diario de las Americas.

I was told by a friend I had last seen on a previous trip to Miami eight years ago that the Hispanic stranglehold had tightened in the intervening years. The number of people who speak Spanish at home had risen to more than a million, or nearly 60 per cent of the population. And unlike Los Angeles, or other border cities where Hispanics live in great numbers, those on the top economic rung are Spanish-speakers.

Which reminded me of a high society party I attended in Miami on my earlier visit. I remember thinking that if you were of European descent and would like to have a flavour of what it was like to be black in Potgietersrus, Northern Transvaal, under apartheid, this was the place to be. It wasn't that I was scorned or sniffed at. It was worse. It was as if I wasn't there.

I caught a glimpse of the local aristocracy last week as I was checking in at my hotel. Behind me in the spacious lobby, an olive-skinned girl in her teens was posing for a photographer alongside a pillar and a vast bouquet of flowers. She was wearing a long, off-the-shoulder satin gown - a wedding dress in pink. But she was too young to be getting married. Too young to be assuming a demeanour so haughty for the camera.

I'd never seen this anywhere else in the US, but I knew, having lived most of the Eighties in Latin America, that the girl was celebrating her 15th birthday. Evidently, somewhere else in the hotel, a big party was being held in her honour.

In Latin American countries it is a very big deal when a girl reaches 15. Parents will go to great lengths to make sure they mark this female variation on the bar mitzvah in appropriately splendid style. I once attended such an event in Mexico. The family were poor but they were hosting a banquet fit for a pharaoh. Someone explained to me that the father had, as the Mexican saying goes, "thrown the house out of the window". Which meant that he had spent every last penny he had to convey the required impression of affluence and paternal devotion.

It's this kind of attitude towards money that makes countries such as Mexico great in spirit, but bankrupt - congenitally incapable, it would seem, of the thrift on which the wealth of its mighty northern neighbour is built. However, once those same people come to the US, it appears that they sober up and start behaving according to local rules. Otherwise how to explain the opulence of Miami?

How, for that matter, to explain a giant electronic screen on Highway 95 ("la Noventa y Cinco") advertising holidays in Alaska? It could only have meant one thing. Alaska is an even better place than Miami to escape the claustrophobia of American campaign politics, two months of which we shall be obliged to endure between now and 5 November.

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