Miami's future looks Latin

Maurice Ferr'e, the urbane and sometimes visionary former mayor, has a theory that every 20 or 30 years Miami transforms itself. Even now, on this low coral ridge between the otherworldly swamps of the Everglades and island-spattered Biscayne Bay, Miami may be stirring toward another rebirth, Mr. Ferr'e suspects.

In a metropolis many native Americans view as a foreign country, the future looks even more Latin than the present. Miami's people and business, most everyone here believes, will be increasingly linked to Latin America and the Caribbean.

But Miami is becoming increasingly American as well. The younger Cuban-born generation moving into positions of influence has been assimilating into the American mainstream at nearly twice the speed of past immigrant groups.

``The new paradigm is American, for sure. But it's a new version of what American is all about,'' says the Puerto Rican-born Ferr'e.

The capital of the Caribbean, the financial headquarters and social gathering place of Latin America, the center of the hemisphere's most Byzantine international criminal and political intrigues, Miami is emerging from the bust of the early 1980s. The fall of the Venezuelan oil market in 1982 left high-rise waterfront condominiums in Miami half built. But the Latin American trade is coming back - and it is broader and more balanced.

The emergent Greater Miami has a growing proportion of Hispanics, more entrepreneurs per capita than any other United States city, no fewer than 45 foreign consulates, the world's busiest cruise-ship port, and more international passengers through its airport than any other US city except New York.

Since Miami is still a young city, much that has happened has happened haphazardly. The business elite is traditionally weak and transient - too many branch offices rotate managers. The prospering Cuban businesses are still mostly too young to produce more than a handful of ``establishment'' leaders.

Yet Miami is planning and organizing its destiny. The area formed a council to recruit industry. The conventional wisdom here is that the Latin American debt crisis will be settled, not paid, by 1990. Miami banks, which carry more Latin American deposits than loans, will emerge fairly unscathed.

US multinationals may need some convincing. After many closed their Miami Latin American offices in 1983 and '84, they have been slow to return. But European and Asian companies are moving in. British companies were the largest foreign investors in Miami last year.

Miami belonged mainly to mangroves and mosquitoes until Henry Flagler extended his railroad just before the turn of the century. The 1920s saw a development boom that was busted by a hurricane and the Great Depression. World War II brought Miami its first strategic importance as a jumping-off point to the Southern Hemisphere. The airlines helped make Miami Beach the vacation destination of the East Coast through the 1950s.

In 1959, Cubans began coming in great numbers. Today about 800,000 Latins, mostly Cuban-Americans, live in Dade County (Greater Miami), about 42 percent of the population. From 1980 to 1985, the Latin population grew by one third.

The Cuban exiles did not all come to Miami, however. Many fled to other Caribbean countries. They became international traders almost as soon as they could gather the capital. During the past 15 years, Miami's Cubans have started more than 25,000 businesses, says Thomas Ferguson, president of the Beacon Council, the area's new industry recruiting group. Miami has taken over New Orleans's role as the US trading center for the Caribbean and Central America.

Ferr'e, Miami's mayor from 1973 to '85, was the first to grasp and promote what Miami was becoming. As pre-civil war Beirut was the crossroads of the Arab world, he explained, Miami was becoming the gathering place of the Latin world - for shopping, investing, medical treatment, and socializing.

He says Miami's drawing cards are:

Geography. It is in the middle of the Western Hemisphere.

Language. Companies can hire not only Spanish speakers, but Cubans who are skilled and aggressive in business.

Comfort and convenience. Latins are comfortable where clerks speak Spanish, and high-quality Latin news comes in Spanish by newspaper, TV, and radio. Yet Miami runs with American efficiency and organization.

US law. While Panama and Switzerland offer anonymity, Miami offers the protection of the US Constitution. ``Miami is an American city, no matter what happens,'' Ferr'e says.

Miami's major businesses, universities, and hospitals, however, never really pursued an international role, Ferr'e says. ``It occurred circumstantially.'' For the Chamber of Commerce, for example, to promote links with Latin America was, he says, ``literally foreign to them.''

To the Cubans here, though, it is not foreign at all. A few are beginning to become movers and shakers. Luis Botifoll, chairman of Republic National Bank and a trustee of the University of Miami, leads missions of prominent Miamians to Caribbean and South American countries to establish ties and to help foreign businessmen sell to Miami markets, knowing channels opened will carry traffic once these countries earn some US currency.

A younger generation of Cuban leaders is emerging, too, such as Armando Codina, a real estate developer and Republican Party activist; Modesto (Mitch) Maidique, the new president of Florida International University; and Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, a Harvard law graduate who had to retool his Spanish to enter Miami politics.

``Cubans will eventually be the establishment,'' Botifoll says. ``But most of us started from scratch 15 years ago. Nobody has consolidated a fortune yet.''

Next: Miami - clinging to Florida

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