By Trevor Bach
By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
On the morning after the killing, at 9:00 a.m., Merrett Stierheim, the president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, walked into the office of Dade County Commission Chairman Art Teele. I think this is it, he told Teele, I think the German consul general is going to tell his travel agents to list Miami as off-limits. "It was at that moment I realized that our fate as a community was pretty much in Sommer's hands," Teele says.
A meeting was quickly brokered by Teele between Sommer and Gov. Lawton Chiles, who had flown down to Miami for a day of damage control. The hourlong tate-a-tate went well. Four hours later, Sommer went before the press with Chiles. Though he had been stern after the April killing, he was on this occasion supremely gracious. He stressed the overall decrease in crime against Germans. He praised local officials for their cooperation. Most important, he did not issue any sort of embargo on traveling to Miami. In fact, he told the media, "This is a beautiful area with warm-hearted people. There are also certain risks, but I would not say, 'Stay away, Miami is an unsafe place.'"
Stierheim and Teele heaved deep sighs of relief. "My understanding is that the German press was asking for blood," Teele notes. "And truthfully, Sommer gave this community a second chance." His forgiving posture, more pointedly, helped ensure that the 300,000 Germans who visit South Florida annually would continue to spend their dollars here.
The incident also jolted local officials into recognizing the potential influence of the Consular Corps. "People might see this stuff as hogwash, or PR. But no city in America is more dependent on what happens outside our national borders than Miami, and these consuls are our direct line. We've done a horrible job of recognizing them," says Teele, who has ordered his office to find ways to strengthen the county's relationship with the Corps.
Airport officials have been most responsive. In 1989 they established a Department of Protocol and International Relations (annual budget: $175,000) to guarantee that all visiting dignitaries are made to feel like dignitaries. No waiting in line for Customs. No hunting for connecting flights. No bullshit. The department's five staffers are all versed in at least four languages and must keep abreast of current affairs so they can make small talk with the bigwigs they greet. There has even been talk of setting up a diplomats' lounge.
"Something like a protocol room for them at the airport -- that should be a drop in the bucket," argues Metro Commissioner Maurice Ferre, who rattled the same saber a decade ago while he was mayor of Miami. "We need to throw many more functions for them. We need to set up intercultural exchanges. And most important of all, we need to build a world trade center. To me this is not some sort of dreamy thing," adds Ferre, renowned for his grand-scale scheming. "Right now a third of the business done here is international, and we're talking billions, not millions."
As usual, Miami commissioners are a step ahead, if a bit off base. In 1991 they set up their own Protocol Commission -- which they have yet to fund. "We asked for money, less than $100,000, six months ago," says volunteer chairman Virgilio Perez. "We're still waiting." The commission has, however, spearheaded the effort to provide local consuls ID cards so they can better identify themselves to local police. Unfortunately, federal officials say they're the only ones legally permitted to furnish consular employees with IDs.
For its part, the Corps has whined over the lack of recognition from local officials for years. Former Bahamian consul Peter Drudge proposed reorganizing the Corps in 1981 to make its lobbying efforts more aggressive, after a mob of angry Haitians broke into his consulate and terrorized his staff. He was unsuccessful. "We seem to be back at square one," says Drudge, who recently rejoined the Corps as an associate member. "Despite all the promises and hopes, your average consul here is still sort of out in orbit."
A Little Perspective from the Old-timers
Thomas Flynn, former consul of Panama: "Hell, the Corps has just gotten so big and busy. Used to be there was this one little guy from France running around taking care of everything. Now they got five secretaries and all the rest of them doing what he did. You walk into the French consul and you'd think you're walking into the UN."
Gui Govaert, of Belgium: "You must learn, over the years, which invitations not to accept."
George Combaluzier, former consul of Guatemala: "I still get to order a few cases of liquor tax-free. You put in your request to the consul, and he gets it from the State Department. Scotch, vodka, whatever. I do some work for them, too, as a lawyer. I've got time since I retired. Mostly I help defend the guys who get arrested for DUI. You know -- one hand washes the other."
An Honorary Consul
The strangest object in Michael S. Hacker's office in the First Union Financial Center is not the life-size gold Buddha that peers, wide-eyed, from one corner. Nor the brick of pure silver Hacker rescued from a sunken Spanish galleon. Nor the chunks of the Berlin Wall. Nor even the telescope whose lens affords an up-close view of the sunbathers lounging poolside, 600 feet below.