Miami is like a drug. Addictive, seductive, and all-consuming; being there is like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole, and it becomes almost impossible not to be sucked in, moving in time to Miami’s internal heartbeat, at least for a minute. I went to Miami an opinionated idealist with a strong head on my shoulders and definite ideas about the world and the people in it. When I came up for air three days later, I had held a gun and was considering trying a shooting range – “just for kicks” – I was questioning the knee-jerk nature of some of my left-wing political views, I was starting to believe in the hedonistic incarnation of capitalism and the ‘pull yourself up from the bootstraps’ explanation of disadvantage (in which the well-off tend to indulge), and was driving like a maniac, tailgating people down Ocean Drive with house music pumping from my slightly underwhelming pale-blue Hyundai Accent rental car. All I knew of Miami previously was Tony Montana’s infamous outburst in Scarface, as he goes nuts with his ‘little friend’ (and it was starting to seem not all that far off…):
Now, I am almost back to normal, after coming down from the high of the drug that is Miami, and am beginning to question what the heck happened to me in this enigmatic, swelteringly hot, tropical melting pot of a city.
Granted, my experience in Miami was heavily coloured by an extremely charismatic and philosophical Nicaraguan-American I met, who showed me around the city and introduced me to his world view and certain dogmatic ‘truths’ which he, being enlightened, was privy to and which it was ‘unfortunate’ that I could not accept. And granted, not everyone in Miami possesses fast cars, guns, mortgages, or a uniquely American sense of entitlement – South Beach, for example, appears bursting with earth-loving, pot-smoking, world-hugging, surfing-and-boating types who compete in looking and acting more-bohemian-than-thou. But there is something about this city which, to me, embodies the American myth of capitalism as the route to salvation; as the universal truth by which one’s dogged pursuit of one’s own economic self-interest is the best and only way to ensure a prosperous and happy society. Home to Cuban exiles who lost everything to Fidel’s “crackpot” socialist experiment, Nicaraguan former elites who were stripped of their assets by the Sandinistas, and Haitians who were disenfranchised, disempowered or demonised during Papa and Baby Doc’s sequential dictatorships, Miami, with its pristine beaches, gleaming skyscrapers, enviable weather, and sexy nightlife, epitomises the American capitalist promise of a ‘better life’, with only a little application, innovation and ruthlessness. Try to argue with a Miami resident about America’s inequality, lack of social services for the less-well-off, rampant gun ownership/use, and questionable foreign policy, and be prepared to answer the question: “Have you ever lost everything to a socialist dictator because of redistributive social policies, lack of civilian protection against their own governments, and the evils of the global socialist compact which America works hard to destroy?”. No? Didn’t think so. The irony of the fact that residents in America’s fifth least equal city in terms of the spread of wealth (25% of aggregate income goes to the top 5% of households) champion capitalism as the answer to all evils appears to be lost on those who are struggling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Even the bums and beggars in Miami are happier than the schmucks in Havana, Managua or Port-au-Prince, so I’m told.
Of course, not everyone’s visit to Miami will be as political or philosophical as mine, particularly if one does not mingle with the locals a little. In equal measure to sidling up to domino-playing, cigar-smoking old fellas on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, or getting your voudou on in a botanico in Little Haiti, your visit to the city could comprise of sipping mojitos on South Beach, manatee-spotting at the Miami Seaquarium, ogling the aesthetically-pleasing Art Deco buildings littered throughout Miami Beach, taking a drinking tour of Miami’s world class art galleries, mall-strip shopping for Victoria’s Secret bargains, and dancing to the latest progressive house beats at one of Miami’s world-famous and exclusive clubs (if your short is skirt enough to catch the bouncer’s attention…). But faced with a city so brimming with Latin culture, and with economic and political exiles from various hubs just across the Gulf of Mexico, a visit, in my opinion, is not really a visit without at least scratching the surface of Miami’s intoxicating political heartbeat, or at least dancing to a little salsa and reggaeton to approximate an authentic encounter with its Latin residents! My advice: just remember to come up for air before the Magic City sucks you in completely.