Miami was established in 1896 when Henry M. Flagler extended the Florida East Coast Railroad into what had previously been considered the rural backwater of southern Florida. In 1900, its population was only 1,700. Land speculation in the 1920s led to rapid growth (110,000 by 1930), though the Great Depression hampered development until after World War II (1939–45). Although few jobs were available, Miami provided a safe haven for political refugees from Cuba, including two deposed presidents (Gerardo Machado and Carlos Prío Socarrás).
With the advent of the cold war, Miami again became a haven, this time for refugees fleeing communist regimes, particularly in Latin America. Cuban immigration transformed the ethnicity and economy of the city, with nearly 300,000 Cubans settling in the Miami area since 1959. During the 1960s, Miami displaced New Orleans, Louisiana, as the principal financial and commercial link between the United States and Latin America. With more than 100 multinational corporations and banking services, second only to New York, New York, Miami had by the 1980s emerged as one of the world’s major commercial centers. Adapting to the rapid Hispanic influx, Miami-Dade County schools instituted the first public bilingual education program in the United States in 1963 and declared the area officially bilingual and bicultural in 1973. With the rapid influx of 125,000 Cubans during the Mariel Boatlift (1980–81), a backlash occurred, leading to a large outflow of Anglos to northern Florida and the advent of the “English only” movement. At the same time, there was hostility in the African-American community toward Cuban immigrants, who were perceived as competitors for jobs and recipients of program benefits (such as affirmative action) set aside for minorities. These tensions, sparked by cases of police abuse led to riots in 1980, 1982, and 1989.
While many Cuban immigrants prior to 1980 were of the middle and upper classes and helped to establish a strong Hispanic economic base, the majority of Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican, Dominican, and Bahamian immigrants since that time have tended to be poor, and their settlement in Miami controversial. The first wave of Cuban immigrants nevertheless established a cohesive enclave that enabled Cubans to rapidly integrate themselves into the local political community. There have been Cuban mayors of Miami, Hialeah, West Miami, Sweetwater, and Hialeah Gardens (all within the Greater Miami area) and strong Cuban representation in the state legislature. Because of the exile ideology fostered during the 1960s, Cubans have developed a strong political presence. Unlike most immigrant groups, they overwhelmingly vote Republican, supporting active measures aimed at undermining Fidel Castro’s rule in their homeland. This conservative political bent has contributed to tension between the Cuban and African-American communities.