Miami finds it's not easy being an international crossroads

Miami: In some ways it is an American Oz - a city where it seems dreams could come true and few things are what they appear. Once not much more than a giant motel for winter-worn Northerners, it has become a cultural and financial crossroads. Part of the United States, it's nonetheless closer to Venezuela than to Dallas, to Peru than to Los Angeles.

It's a boomtown, where a banker gives directions to his office by telling you to come to the tallest building not still under construction. But the same banker also says the city's financial flowering has been nipped in the bud by a debt crisis in Latin America.

Very little is produced here. Yet Miami is a multibillion-dollar commercial center, processing loans by European banks to US companies doing business in Brazil, transshipping microwave ovens made in Tokyo to consumers in Caracas.

Human contrasts here can be even more stark. Lebanese jet-setters romp on manicured grass tennis courts while a few miles away Haitian immigrants crowd into tiny, squalid bungalows. A wrong turn out of the parking lot of a kitschy Coconut Grove boutique lands you in a low-income Bahamian neighborhood.

In a little over two decades Miami has been transformed into an international city, cut in the pattern of New York or Los Angeles, but with a flair all its own. The city is estimated to be 58 percent Hispanic. A dozen varieties of Spanish can be heard on a stroll through a downtown department store - plus Brazilian Portuguese, thick Trinidadian English, and Haitian Creole.

Being a crossroads is one thing; coping with the problems that brings, however, is something else again. Arrivals of illegal aliens, drug trafficking (bales of marijuana sometimes wash right up among the catamarans in Biscayne Bay), and other crimes defy easy solutions.

''You just can't get away from the fact that the same things which induce good things in Miami - such as geography - induce some bad things,'' says the Puerto Rican-born Mayor Maurice Ferre.

Despite its problems, Miami seems infused with a sense of its own potential, an optimism that defies much of the bad publicity heaped upon the city in recent years.

It's as if the people here know they're riding the crest of a wave into America's future, a wave that will land them there first.

Doing business with Latin America is a little bit like dancing with a bear: You keep hoping nothing upsets it.

Miami, however, is deep in the clutches of a stumbling beast: The Latin economies that have made this city thrive are some of the shakiest in the world.

Currency devaluations, trade restrictions, and monetary controls are making it increasingly difficult for Latin Americans to do business here. Oil-producing countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador have been especially hard hit because of falling petroleum prices on the world market.

The most visible impact has been in Miami's retail and tourist trade. In 1981 , visiting Latins spent more than $1.5 billion and their numbers were increasing at a rate of 20 percent a year. But last year the number of free-spending Latin tourists fell by 6 percent and is expected to continue to decline.

''Retailers got fat and happy with the easy Latin business,'' says Roy Kenzie , head of Miami's Downtown Development Authority. ''They liked the quick sales - no window shopping or returns.''

Now, store clerks and hotel managers talk nostalgically of the days when wealthy South Americans were buying everything in sight with wads of unwrinkled dollars.

The housing market has also been hit by the slump, especially the lush condominiums that line the waterfront.

''The bloom is definitely off the . . . rose,'' says Charles Cheezem, developer of Brickell Key, a luxury condominium complex not far from downtown. ''The wealthy foreign buyers are having second thoughts because of economic hard times at home.''

During the peak of the spending binge, about half of all new luxury condominiums in Dade County were being snapped up by foreigners, most of them from Latin America. Brickell Key was no exception; about one-third of its units are owned by foreigners - mostly Colombians, Equadoreans, and Venezuelans.

''It made sense, since they were working and vacationing here and could also make some money on the deal,'' says David Darby, a real estate analyst with Appraisal & Real Estate Economics Associates. As a result, he says, developers rushed to build condominiums that they're now having trouble selling.

Meanwhile, the Latin financial pinch is also affecting the flow of foreign trade through the Miami customs district - which amounts to about $10 billion a year. Columbia recently clamped import restrictions on 2,000 items, mostly luxury consumer goods such as televisions and stereos.

Result: Business leaders here say they're being forced to develop new markets.

''Our primary market is still South America, but we're now sending more products to Europe and Africa,'' says German Leiva, the Colombian owner of Miami's free trade zone - where you need a badge to get in and sales are strictly wholesale.

Carved from the swamps near the airport, the trade zone is an international shopping mall where goods can be stored and even assembled before being exported. According to Mr. Leiva, business is up 11 percent over the same period last year.

Miami's international banks are also scrambling for new markets - with mixed success. As recently as 1977 there were no international banks here. Now there are 90.

''When we opened here five years ago, this place was a gold mine. We had business walking right in the door,'' says John Stafford, assistant vice-president of Lloyds Bank of London, International, the largest foreign operation with an office in Miami. Minimum balance for an account: $3,000.

Mr. Stafford says some smaller banks rushed into the Latin American trade ill-prepared for the ''ups and downs of this sort of business.'' Several have announced they'll soon close their Miami offices.

In the long run, however, the more economic turmoil there is south of the equator, the more attractive Miami becomes as a haven of financial security.

''There are always ways for South Americans to get money out,'' no matter what restrictions are slapped on, says Stafford. Many wealthy Latins are known to have been squirreling away money in overseas bank accounts for years.

Adding to this exodus of cash has been the political strife in Central America.

Says one Miami businessman who frequently deals with foreign investors, ''The wealthy guy in El Salvador is trying to get his money out of that country at all costs.''

From the terrace of Russell and Ella Isnor's plush condominium high above Biscayne Bay, you can sometimes see manatees swimming into the mouth of the Miami River.

The Isnors exemplify the decidedly upscale resident drawn here because of international business connections.

''I finally sat down one day and figured out that I could save 225 hours of flying a year by moving here,'' says Mr. Isnor, who heads up Latin American operations for Sunbeam Corporation, the appliance manufacturer. He had been based in Chicago.

Plenty of other business executives seem to have hit upon the same idea Russell Isnor did. Some 265 multinational corporations now have offices here, 55 of which are company headquarters.

The Isnors' condominium home is typical of the luxury high-rises catering to Miami's wealthier set. Plunked on its own island in the shadow of downtown, the complex can be reached by a single bridge and is only partly completed.

Condominium developments like Brickell Key offer a high degree of personal security. Wealthy or politically controversial Latins sometimes face the risk of assassination and kidnapping - even on US soil - on top of the more mundane concerns about crime.

''I hate to call it the armed-camp atmosphere. But that's what you see,'' says Mrs. Isnor. ''When we looked at homes, the first thing they talked about was the security system.''

To get to the Isnors', you have to pass three security points, not counting the locks on the front door. Residents have their own credit-card security passes to open gates and elevator doors.

There's also a push-button pad beside the front door that can be used to set an alarm and open a circuit so security guards can hear what's being said inside the apartment during an emergency.

Another posh development - the Towers of Quayside - is on an island accessible only by water. Quayside's $2 million security system includes electronic sensors that alert guards when someone steps ashore unannounced.

If Miami is a doorway between continents, then the front stoop is the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices across from a McDonald's outlet at 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

You need to get here around midnight to understand why. More than 400 people , mostly Latins, are camping out here hoping to get numbers for tomorrow's appointments. Only 250 will be successful.

It's easy to spot those who know the ropes - they're the ones with fold-up lawn chairs and plastic ice chests. The blare of half a dozen radios blots out the stillness, while sidewalk vendors peddle Cuban-style sandwiches in the shadows just outside. Despite the din, a woman in purple T-shirt and jeans lies asleep on the pavement, a Spanish-language newspaper draped across her face to hold in the night.

''You know this has to be the greatest place in the world, if people are willing to go through this to get in,'' says Maria De Vito, leaning back in her yellow plastic lawn chair. She's here to get permission for her mother to move to Miami from Colombia.

This is Mrs. De Vito's third time in the INS line. The first night she came, the quota had been reached before she got to the door. The second night, she was told she had made a mistake on the forms. This time, she had a lawyer look at the papers, just to be sure.

What amazes outsiders and many local residents alike is the city's ability to absorb so many people so quickly.

''This is not a melting pot; it's a salad bowl. And the tomatoes stick with the tomatoes,'' says Henri Hall, who recently opened a clinic in Little Haiti.

At the same time, the influx of new immigrants has sparked friction with Miami's Anglos, as whites are known locally. Blacks have also felt excluded from the Latin-fueled prosperity.

Bumper stickers here proclaim: ''Miami Native - Endangered Species,'' while a popular joke asks, ''Will the last American to leave south Florida please bring the flag?''

But despite Miami's ethnic divisions, crime problems, and unevenly distributed wealth, there is a common bond holding the city together. The influx of Latins and other foreigners is just another chapter in the story of America's evolution as land of immigrants. And, if you believe demographers, this is a story that will be told again and again in US cities through the end of this century.

You see it in Miami now, though, when talking to Cuban teen-agers, who are more interested in their favorite rock stars than in the fate of the Fidel Castro regime - or to a Haitian college student who grew up in New York and is considering a career in politics: American politics.

''It's not,'' says the young Haitian, ''as though we're the first ones to come here looking for a crack at success.''

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