If Latin America has a commercial capital, it’s Miami
FOR JEANNE DIDION, an American essayist, Miami in the 1980s was “not exactly an American city… but a tropical capital: long of rumors, short of memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money”. Nearly 40 years later, the place described by Didion still looks more like a tropical Latin American capital than a typical city in the United States. But the money flowing into it is not a pipe dream.
Miami has become a commercial hub for the hemisphere. Miami-Dade County, which includes the City of Miami and approximately three dozen municipalities, is where 1,200 multinational corporations have headquartered their Latin American operations. That of the county GDP was approximately $172 billion in 2019, making it the 14th largest county economy in the United States, and about as large as the entire GDP from Ecuador and Uruguay. Miami Airport handles 43% of all flights between the United States and South America. It’s the “meeting place of the hemisphere”, says Alejandro Portes of Princeton University. “Commuting between Latin American capitals and Miami is easier than between Latin American capitals,” he says.
With more than half of its residents born outside the United States, Miami has the highest proportion of immigrants of any metropolitan area in the country. About 70% of the county’s 2.7 million people are Hispanic, about double the proportion in 1980. Its population is increasingly diverse (see chart).
Recent geopolitical shocks, such as the war in Ukraine and the more icy relations between the United States and China, have made Miami more important, says Mauricio Claver-Carone, president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), who comes from the city. He sees a trend towards “regionalization” rather than “globalization”. This plays to Miami’s strengths as a Latin American hub. “There is no bigger city that encapsulates the heterogeneity of Latin America and the Caribbean,” he says.
Turmoil in Latin America has often boosted Miami’s fortunes. When the Communists took over Cuba in 1959, Cubans with money or daring fled the island and flocked to Miami. Next come Nicaraguans fleeing a socialist revolution in the 1970s and the civil war that followed. From the mid-1990s, Colombians came in droves, fleeing drug-related violence. All of these groups prospered and contributed to the prosperity of Miami.
The city takes advantage of good and bad times, explains Jorge Perez, the boss of a real estate company. People from unstable places buy homes in Miami as a “safe investment,” he says. Following the election of left-wing leaders in Peru and Chile last year, the number of people coming from these countries has increased, thinks Paulo Bacchi of Artefacto, a furniture store. And when Latin American economies are doing well, people buy second homes.
The bass and the sunset low
The Jesuit Preparatory School of Belen was founded in Havana but closed in 1961 by its most famous boy, Fidel Castro. Undeterred, he moved to Miami. Its staff, many of whom are Catholic priests, now teach children whose families come from all over the region. “Latin America’s losses are our gains,” says Father Guillermo Garcia-Tunon, president of the school. And recently, Americans who moved to Florida for sunshine and low taxes have also applied in large numbers.
The political upheaval driving people to Miami shows few signs of abating. Many desperate Haitians and Cubans – fleeing gang violence, poverty or socialism – have tried to get to South Florida by boat. Since October 2021, the WE The Coast Guard intercepted 3,519 Haitians, more than in the previous four years combined.
In this salsa-meringue melting pot
And if more leftists are elected in Latin America, more conservative types might vote with their feet. Some Colombians are nervous about a victory for Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, in the presidential election this month. Capital flight from Colombia is already evident, says Paul Angelo of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. People fear that Mr Petro will turn the country into “another Venezuela”, he says. In March, Colombia was the largest source of international searches on MiamiRealtors.com, a real estate website, accounting for about 11% of international traffic. Members of the Colombian armed forces questioned Mr. Angelo about the asylum process in the United States, fearing that they would become targets of left-wing guerrilla groups if Mr. Petro is elected.
Miami also attracts young technicians. Its startup scene is thriving. Entrepreneurs can find safety and abundant capital there, so Miami has become a “no-brainer in a post-covid world,” says Shu Nyatta, who co-heads a Latin American fund at SoftBank, a large tech investment firm. . Today, there are around 2,500 fintech companies in Latin America. This is more than double the number that existed in the region in 2018, according to IDB. Many Latin American founders choose to either move to Miami or work there part of the year.
Members of the Latin diasporas in Miami are increasingly active in regional affairs. Analysts tend to agree that Latin America is not a foreign policy priority for President Joe Biden. Eight Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile, still do not have US ambassadors. Chile hasn’t had one for three years. But American politicians pay attention to their constituents, and that includes many people with ties to both hemispheres.
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, sending about 50,000 Puerto Ricans to Florida, Republicans feared those migrants would vote Democrats. Perhaps that is why Donald Trump tightened sanctions on Venezuela’s dictatorial regime and backed the opposition, knowing it would please Venezuelans in South Florida who had fled their country.
Venezuelans in the United States have indeed been “galvanized” by Mr. Trump’s decision, says Erik Bethel, a former World Bank executive who grew up in Miami. They voted for Mr. Trump en masse. Colombian voters are also growing in importance, says Annette Taddeo, a Florida state senator running for governor.
“Miami is a city that has been nourished much more by exile than by immigration”, explains Alberto Ibarguen, former editor of the Miami Herald. While most new immigrants attempt to assimilate, Miami exiles have often hoped to return to their homelands. This may change. As Miami leans further to the right, Latin America is poised to veer further to the left. ■