Miami: the Capital of Latin America

  • By the time the first tourist hits the sand at Sunny Isles, Peruvian TV producer Jose Crousillat has been working the phones for hours, checking on his offices in Milan and Madrid. By afternoon he is in the Capitalvision studios videotaping Guadalupe, his latest Spanish-language telenovela, seen around the globe.

    Meanwhile, out on trendy South Beach, Dutch businessman Ger Vrielink is busy sorting a barrage of faxes from German catalog clients waiting for pictures from the latest fashion shoots. With six photography teams out, at $20,000 per team per day, he is a happy man. "There is no place in the world shooting more fashion than Miami today," he says, beaming, between calls.

    At day's end, as a fiery orange sun sets over the Everglades, Italian developer Ugo Colombo looks out from his 31st-floor office toward a distinctive circular white condominium tower, near completion, on Biscayne Bay. Developing real estate has made him a millionaire at 32. Half his buyers now, he says, are Latin Americans and Europeans willing to pay from $200,000 to $1.6 million for a condo in the hottest place to be at the moment: Miami.

    Yes, the rumors about Miami are true. Just ask Jose, Ger and Ugo. "Foreigners" have taken over. There are Brazilians buying condos, Frenchmen opening clubs, Nicaraguans selling TVs and washers, Italians building public rail systems. And the Cubans -- everywhere. Today half the population of Miami's Dade County -- a million people -- were born in a foreign country. Dade is the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. with a Hispanic majority. Nearly 60% of its residents speak a language other than English at home, mostly Spanish. In Miami even a deejay for the new Latin MTV channel must be fluent in two languages.

    While some Americans might look askance at the prospect of Hispanization, it is already a fact of life in Miami. In the 1980s the city's location made it the beachhead for nearly 300,000 refugees and immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. What seemed like a burden at the time, however, has become a business bonanza. Miami, once a town of tourists and retirees, is today being remade by its bilingual immigrants into a hemispheric crossroads for trade, travel and communications in the 21st century -- a sort of Hong Kong of the Americas.

    Sociologists and businessmen alike see Miami as a model for other American cities learning to cope with multiethnic populations and new economic realities. "Miami today is a laboratory for the U.S. -- if not the Americas -- of a new kind of city in terms of international business and ethnicity," contends John Anderson, who serves as president of Miami's Beacon Council, an economic-development group. "Other large metropolitan areas will be dealing increasingly with the social and ethnic challenges we are dealing with today."

    Signs of Miami's manifest destiny as a hemispheric power are evident. International trade through the city is a $25.6 billion business and growing by double digits annually, some 20% in 1992 alone. While the U.S. was reporting a trade deficit last year, Miami's port district recorded a surplus of more than $6 billion. Miami International Airport, now the nation's second largest international passenger and cargo hub, is poised to overtake New York City's Kennedy International Airport by 1995-96. It is already the world's fifth busiest cargo airport. Ships sail from Biscayne Bay to virtually every port in the world, from Barranquilla to Bombay.

    Tourism, long southern Florida's major industry, is also changing to reflect its new international role. For the first time last year, the number of foreign visitors to Miami (4.7 million) passed domestic ones (3.8 million), generating $7.2 billion in business. Foreign tourism was set for another record this year, until a spate of tourist murders -- three of them Germans on three separate occasions just this year -- revived worries about Miami's rate of violent crime, the highest in the U.S. Despite the bad press, European airlines like British Airways and Iberia Airlines of Spain have increased capacity to the city. Even the Russian airline Aeroflot makes money on Miami by picking up Florida-bound tourists at a stopover in Shannon, Ireland. And in 1992 a record 1.5 million tourists sailed from Miami, the cruise capital of the world, aboard 20 liners bound for balmy ports from Cozumel to Caracas.

    Miami's fate, it is often said, was sealed when Fidel Castro started reading Karl Marx at the University of Havana. The mass exodus of middle- and upper- class Cubans, driven into exile by communism in the 1960s, began a process that lifted the city from its utter dependence on domestic tourism into the global economy. The Cubans, given immediate political asylum and resettlement help by Lyndon Johnson and subsequent Administrations, prospered.

    Intent on returning home, however, those early exiles did not bother to assimilate into the American melting pot. Instead, they "acculturated," learning the American way of doing business while building a Spanish-speaking enclave unlike anything anywhere else in the U.S. "In Miami there is no pressure to be American," says sociologist Lisandro Perez, a Cuban-born immigrant and head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "People can make a living perfectly well in an enclave that speaks Spanish."

    Today there is no other U.S. city in which so much of the day-to-day business is conducted in Spanish. "Almost everyone in international business here is bilingual, even the Americans," says Fred Brenner, general manager of SunBank's International Banking Division and himself bilingual. Unlike in New York or Los Angeles, where Spanish is primarily heard in the barrios, it is spoken in Miami not just by the exiles playing dominoes in Little Havana but also by businessmen in the boardrooms of Brickell Avenue.

    About a third of the country's 50 largest Hispanic-owned firms are located in the Miami area. "No place in the U.S. has a Latin community like Miami's. Here we are members of the power structure," boasts Telemundo TV boss Joaquin Blaya, the Chilean-born executive credited with updating and reviving Spanish- language TV in the U.S. Increasingly that power is political too: two Cuban-born Americans represent the immigrant community in Congress. And the Metro-Dade Board of County Commissioners, recently reshaped by court redistricting, now has six Hispanics, four blacks and three "Anglos." One of its first acts was to repeal the English-only law that prohibited local government from conducting business in Spanish or Creole.

    The prevalence of Spanish language and culture has become a lure to Latin visitors, who freely call Miami the capital of Latin America. In the past 10 years the Cubans have been joined by Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Guatemalans and Haitians. The Brazilians, who discovered Miami with a vengeance two years ago, now jokingly call it "Brazil's fastest growing city." Last year they were so ubiquitous that Portuguese became the predominant language among shopkeepers in downtown Miami. This year it is the Argentines who have arrived in droves. "At any cocktail party in South America, if you mention Aventura or Dadeland, they know you're talking major shopping malls in Miami," says economist Manuel Lasaga, a Cuba-born immigrant.

    But Miami is far more than just South America's shopping mall. From its Latin American headquarters in Miami, the telecommunications giant AT&T; covers one-third of the world, reaching as far as South America and sub-Saharan Africa. All the major record companies have Latin offices in Miami, and dozens of Spanish-language magazines are based there. General Motors, Latin America's No. 2 automaker, moved its Latin headquarters from Sao Paulo to Miami two years ago. Disney moved its Latin American consumer-products office from Mexico City; Inter-Continental Hotels moved its base for the Americas down from New York; and Iberia Airlines left Los Angeles. Miami's success has been its ability to use its immigrant population to offer American products and business savvy in a Latin environment. "As the Western Hemisphere becomes more Hispanic, Miami has become the frontier city between 'America' and Latin America," explains Guillermo Grenier, the Cuban-born head of FIU's sociology department. The city offers not just trade but also services that range from banking and insurance to medical care. Miami remains Latin America's Wall Street, with about $25 billion in foreign deposits, but now Latin Americans also come for kidnap insurance and trendy laparoscopic surgery on their gallbladders.

    With trade barriers falling and economies improving across Central and South America, economists are predicting that by the end of the decade, Latin America will be one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. And with 80% of Latin America located east of Miami, the city is poised to be a major beneficiary. "Miami's boom in the '90s will dwarf the flight capital from Latin America that came in the '70s," predicts economist Lasaga. "Real business is coming through now, not just bank deposits."

    Visible proof of that real business already flows daily through the city's seaport and airport: perishables from Latin America, electronics from the Far East, perfumes and alcohol from Europe. Going out are the goods -- everything from bulldozers to blenders -- that Latin America needs to rebuild its infrastructure after the dormant decade of the '80s. In return, Central America, Chile and Brazil send about 350,000 tons of refrigerated produce annually to Miami. The airport runs the largest cut-flower operation in the world, daily processing 15,000 boxes of buds from south of the border.

    Jose Suquet, the Cuban-born general manager of the Suquet insurance agency, notes that wealthy and sophisticated Latin American businessmen are now using Miami not just for hit-and-run business trips but also as a base of operations that offers a security they can't find in their own countries. (Even Miami's violent-crime rate pales by comparison with the kidnappings, terrorism and guerrilla warfare that many Latins face in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Medellin or Lima.) "Venezuelans, Brazilians and increasing numbers of Argentines are investing in Miami, developing hotels and purchasing malls," says Suquet. "They are setting up businesses here, buying homes in Coral Gables or Cocoplum, sending their kids to Gulliver Academy or Belen Jesuit Preparatory School."

    The Latin flavor that has attracted businessmen has also turned Miami into the capital of Hispanic TV and music, complete with a "Latin Hollywood" of resident stars like Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan. "Miami has become the meeting place of the Americas for the Spanish-speaking world," says Ray Rodriguez, the Cuban-born president of the No. 1 Spanish-language network in the U.S., Miami-based Univision. "Go to a restaurant like Victor's Cafe, and you know half the people -- the writers, the stars and the reps." Many of them live in Miami: the Venezuelan singing idol Jose Luis Rodriguez, known as El Puma; the Dominican merengue star Juan Luis Guerra; and Don Francisco, the pudgy, jovial host of Latin TV's most popular show ever, Sabado Gigante, based -- where else? -- in Miami.

    With so many Latin stars in residence, "Latin" Miami has gained the upper hand over "Anglo" Hollywood in attracting Spanish-language TV and film production from all over the world. Both the top Spanish-language networks in the U.S. base their productions in Miami. "Miami is a magnet. There's not a day goes by when somebody doesn't want to cut a deal with us -- Warner, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Argentine producers, Peruvians, Venezuelans," says Blaya.

    Not everyone is convinced of Miami's grand scheme for the future. The trade sector is, to a large extent, based on glorified mom-and-pop businesses offering low-paying service jobs. "Miami is not the capital of Latin America," German Consul General Klaus Sommer says dismissively. "The Germans have billions in Argentina, Brazil, Chile. You don't need an agent sitting in Miami."

    Even believers like Joaquin Blaya are worried that Miami will become another banana republic, bedeviled by huge divisions between the rich and the very poor. There is no doubt that waves of immigrants have put an enormous strain on Miami, both financially and socially. Roughly 140,000 Anglo residents have fled in the past decade, largely in response to the city's growing Hispanic character. Some areas of the city today resemble the Third World, with the homeless and immigrants living under highways or in matchstick houses along canals.

    Three times in the past decade, Miami has erupted in racial disturbances -- caused in part by blacks frustrated as each new immigrant wave passes them by economically. The black Cuban-American neighborhood of Allapattah now serves as an uneasy buffer between the blacks of Liberty City and the white Cubans and Nicaraguans living in Little Havana. But Dade County board chairman Art Teele, a black who won his job with the backing of the commission's new Latino members, doesn't see race as the problem. "There is some lingering resentment by the blacks," he admits, "but today they are just as resentful of the Haitians arriving."

    Much will depend on the city's leadership in the next decade -- a leadership that has been notoriously lacking in the past. "Miami has never had enlightened leadership. The Anglo establishment lives in the Miami of the '40s and '50s," gripes Maurice Ferre, the Puerto Rican-born county commissioner who shaped much of Miami's downtown skyline while serving as mayor from 1973 to 1985. As head of Dade's Destination 2001 panel, Ferre believes the key to the future is in the younger generation of Cuban Americans who live with one foot in each world. New surveys show, however, that the new generation, although bilingual, prefers to speak English. If they assimilate too well, they risk diluting the Spanish-speaking enclave that is making the city an international success.

    By the time they take over, of course, Miami may be well established as a hemispheric power thanks to the latest arrivals: the Europeans. The Norwegians have built a $1 billion stake in southern Florida, primarily in Miami's booming cruise business. The British are the second biggest investors from the Continent. Barclay's Bank regularly finances Washington's grain deals with Russia, not from New York but from Miami. The Germans are snapping up waterfront property along the beach and Biscayne Bay. The mysterious Munich investor Thomas Kramer even has visions of building something between a modern-day Manhattan and a reconstructed Portofino at the tip of Miami Beach.

    Miami has already become a chic hangout for the international set. Foreign photographers have turned Miami into the third busiest fashion spot, after Paris and New York. Italian designer Gianni Versace became so enamored during a brief stopover that he is spending millions to renovate a $2.95 million villa on touristy Ocean Drive in South Beach. "It was really love at first sight," he says. At the dinner hour one evening, Maguy Le Coze, co-owner of Miami's chic Brasserie Le Coze, was recounting tales of European friends who are investing in Miami, including a jet-set residential club on South Beach. "I don't know if the Americans believe in Miami," muses the French-born Maguy, "but the foreigners do. By the time the Americans wake up, perhaps it will be too late." Multiethnic Miami, tomorrow's business capital of the Americas, may well have the last laugh on its doubters.