'So here I am in the USA at last,' I said to the man in immigration as I showed my visa.
'Don't you believe it,' he replied. 'You're in the Independent Republic of Florida now.'
Quite how independent I was to realise on the bus a couple of days later, when I found that all the black people sat at the back of the coach and all the whites at the front. I can't remember now if they had to sit that way by law, but I do remember the shock I got when we arrived at Jacksonville, Florida, and found that at the bus station there were two waiting rooms, one marked for whites and one for non- whites. I had never seen apartheid in action before, and I didn't want to again.
But that is not my main memory of Miami. When I think of Miami, I think of a strange conversation with a taxi driver in 1980, the only other time I have visited the Independent Republic of Florida. I had 36 hours to spend there while waiting for a plane connection on the way back from Peru, and wondering what to do with my spare day, I had skimmed through a 'What To Do In Miami' brochure in my hotel bedroom. The only thing that struck me as interestingly different was a small park on the water's edge, which, they said, preserved a bit of Miami as it used to be.
'Take me there,' I said to a taxi driver the next morning, showing him the brochure. He studied it.
'I never heard of it,' he said. 'You want to go to a park? Look I can show you better places. You want to go shopping? You want to see the waterfront and the boats? You want to see the big hotels?'
'Take me there,' I said.
He took me there. He waited while I went round the park. He got bored waiting for me and came round the park with me.
'Where are you from?' he said. 'You don't sound American.'
'From England,' I said. 'You don't sound American either.'
'No,' he said, 'I'm from the Lebanon. I have come here to get a job and make a new life and . . .'
He told me the usual story of lack of opportunity at home and the urge to carve out new lifestyle somewhere else, and as we wandered through the mangroves I asked him how he found America. He looked round as if he didn't want to be overheard, and said that the Americans were funny people.
'Funny in what way?'
'They drink a lot of orange juice, and have a lot of food and they grow up big and strong. But you know what? They have big bodies and big hands, because of all the orange juice, but they don't have very big minds. They don't give their minds orange juice. They don't know a lot about the rest of the world and what is happening, and they don't really want to know, which is funny, because they want to run the world without knowing very much about it. Not like us Europeans . . .'
It's the only time a Lebanese has put his arms round me and said 'Us Europeans', but although I had never really thought about the Lebanon as part of Europe, I did feel a sort of kinship with him, and when we parted we shook hands and he said it was be nice to meet another European, and he was glad I had introduced him to that little old park, which he had much enjoyed.
The last time I thought about him was in February when I was in Cuba, listening to Cuban jazz, and somewhere across the Caribbean, out of sight, was Miami. I can't help feeling that for the last 30 years American policy towards Cuba has been run by big Americans with big orange juice bodies and little minds, who are so determined to take their revenge on Cuba for being friendly with Russia that they have done their best to cripple the country with savage trade embargoes, so savage that when the United Nations last voted on the US trade embargo against Cuba, hardly half a dozen countries were willing to stand up and support the US, but plenty were willing to condemn it.
Sometimes, when a UN vote condemns a country, the US is quick to send in a punitive force. When the US is in the dock, nothing gets done. What a funny old world it is.Reuse content