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Miami Showcased as `Capital' of Latin America

Latin Summit at home in this Latino city, hub for South American trade

ALONG Eighth Street in Little Havana, the smell of deep-fried plantains and Cuban black beans scents the air from restaurants where, for those who don't know the local dialect, menus are also printed in English.

Not far away in Little Haiti, the food and music is strictly Creole. Bricknell Avenue - Miami's Wall Street - hums with Gucci-clad Latinos who conduct their business in Portuguese and Spanish.

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As the heads of state of 34 nations from Canada to Argentina meet in this palm-fringed city today, most will be stepping into a place on foreign soil but not foreign in custom.

The Summit of the Americas, the first such hemispheric conference to be hosted in the United States, offers Miami a chance to buttress its position as the capital of Latin America - and erase its image as a crime-sullied metropolis.

Local officials know it.

In their primping for the meeting, they have been laying down fresh asphalt. Some 30,000 palm trees have been planted. Hotel staffs have been tutored in diplomatic delicacies, and the main press center is situated so that TV crews, if they so choose, can use a dramatic shoreline backdrop.

Miami could use a fresh coat of press.

Like the rest of the state, this sun-dappled tourist mecca has suffered in recent years from the perception of being a Miami of vice. A series of tourist killings - 12 in Florida in 1992 and 1993 - has scared off many foreigner visitors and some domestic. It doesn't help when the Federal Bureau of Investigation comes out with statistics, as it did last week, ranking Dade County - which includes Miami - first in the country in major crimes per capita among large cities.

A poll of British tourists released this week wasn't encouraging: It listed Florida, which attracts 40 million visitors a year, as one of the three most dangerous places in the world to visit. Only India and Vietnam are ranked higher.

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One three-day meeting of hemispheric heads, minus Fidel Castro Ruz, will not change all perceptions, of course. But local officials hope it will focus attention on another aspect of the city - as one of the continent's most diverse and thriving hubs and, they believe, a safe one.

Over the past 30 years, shifting demographics and massive immigration have helped transform Miami from a fading resort town into a vibrant multicultural city, mirroring how much of the US may look tomorrow.

``Miami's experience may not reveal to other cities the image of their own future, but forces that led to its transformation will surely manifest themselves elsewhere,'' Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick wrote in the book ``City on the Edge.''

Half of Dade County's 2 million residents are Hispanic. Some 600,000 of those are Cuban Americans and 105,000 Nicaraguans. A smaller number are Puerto Ricans and Colombians. There are 406,000 blacks and 379,000 Anglos.

Unlike New York or Los Angeles, where many Latinos are congregated at the bottom of the social ladder, Hispanic immigrants here own a majority of businesses and dominate politically. They don't need to learn English to succeed economically. Spanish is often more useful.

The transformation of this city into a vibrant Cuban enclave began with the seizure of power in Havana by Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries in 1959. Cubans soon started pouring across the Florida Straits.

From 1965 until 1972, the US organized ``Freedom Flights'' that brought in 250,000 members of the country's upper and middle classes. Many of them were skilled business people who flourished with the help of start-up funds from the US government.

The solid economic foothold planted by the first exiles boosted the chances for newer arrivals, including the 126,000 who came during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.

Political activism

Over time, the exile community here became politically active, both locally and in the affairs of their former homeland. Just how active will be in evidence this weekend, when as many as 100,000 Cubans are expected to march in the streets to protest their still-favorite nemesis, Castro.

Miami thrives as a crossroads for Latin American commerce. Many companies have moved their regional headquarters here in recent years. General Motors, for instance, transferred its Latin operations here two years ago from Sao Paulo, Brazil. AT&T covers South America and part of Africa from Miami.

One anecdote underscores the city's emergence as regional center. In 1992, Stephen de Kanter, president of Walt Disney's Latin America consumer products division, asked a large group of Disney licensees how many had visited the company's headquarters in Mexico City in the past five years. Two hands shot up.

Then, he asked how many had visited Miami in the past year. Almost all raised their hands. Not long after that, Disney moved its Latin office to Miami.

``Since we've been here, we've received more visitors from our licensees and prospective licensees in any one week than we did in any year in Mexico,'' Mr. Kanter told U.S./Latin, a trade magazine.

Now, if only the city can keep the tourist dollars coming in. To ensure that all goes smoothly for its three days of fame this weekend, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are mounting the city's largest security operation ever. More than 5,000 agents and police are on hand.

The hope, as Dade County Commission chairman Art Teele recently put it, is that Miami can use this ``unparalleled opportunity to redefine itself.''

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