Class Act

If you want to know where many of Miami's social and political elite got their start, check the playgrounds at Belén

The early morning dropoff at Belén Jesuit Preparatory School unfolds with almost military precision. Young uniformed boys, backpacks in hand, one by one jump out of late-model SUVs and minivans. The vehicles, many displaying "Belen Wolverines" license plates, linger momentarily at the school's entrance before lurching back into west Miami-Dade rush-hour traffic. Older boys, all wearing the standard-issue white shirt, blue-and-red-striped tie, and navy trousers, pull up in cars of their own, parking them in neat, single-file formation just beyond the chainlink fence that surrounds the campus.

It is not entirely a coincidence that the scene should recall a well-coordinated military operation. Before his religious conversion, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuit order, served as an officer in the Spanish army, a vocational antecedent that still finds expression in the Jesuits' insistence on strict discipline.

But the purposeful march of uniformed students into the school building suggests something else as well: a long-running assembly line spanning the distance between Havana and Miami and producing as many esteemed, beloved, corrupt, and hated public figures as one school could ever hope to include on its alumni rolls. The school, founded almost 150 years ago in Cuba and relocated to Miami in 1961, lists among its graduates more than one Cuban president, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner, a disgraced Miami city commissioner, the current Miami-Dade mayor's right-hand man, and the recently appointed executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. And that's just for openers.

The Belén campus in Havana was a world apart
Courtesy of Belén
The Belén campus in Havana was a world apart

The Duke of Wellington once observed that his victory over Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo had really been won years before, on the playing fields of Eton, the elite school that produced England's nineteenth-century ruling class. It would not be too far a stretch to similarly suggest that much of Miami-Dade's contemporary political landscape was long ago mapped on the playgrounds of Belén.

"There's a certain pride that comes with graduating from Belén," says Sergio Gonzalez, sipping Cuban coffee in his 29th-floor office at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. Gonzalez, who graduated from the school in 1981, has been Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas's chief of staff for three years. If not for the salt-and-pepper hair and wedding band, the youthful-looking Gonzalez might still pass for a choir boy. "Do you know what the dean at Georgetown once said about Belén students?" he asks, proudly pointing out that six students from the '81 graduating class, himself included, went on to study at the prestigious Washington, D.C., university. "He said, They're worth their weight in gold.'"

Academics and accolades aside, Gonzalez insists the most valuable lesson he learned at Belén is the Jesuit dictum of "Men for Others." Indeed, he says, pointing to a framed poster containing the phrase and commemorating not the millennium but the "Bellennium," it's the reason he's in politics.

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, like Gonzalez a 1981 graduate of Belén, agrees that public service is a motivating principle for the school's alumni. "Belén ties you into the community," says the lawyer and former county commissioner who last year ran for Miami-Dade mayor against Gonzalez's boss. "It inculcates a sense of oneness between the individual and his environment."

While the Jesuit commitment to serve others may have something to do with the school's disproportionate representation in the local political power structure, Joe Garcia, who trailed Gonzalez and Diaz de la Portilla at Belén by a year, graduating in 1982, thinks that's only part of the reason. "It's that arrogant feeling," says Garcia, the new executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. "We had that Those who can't do, teach' attitude even in high school. We were trained to think there wasn't anything we couldn't do."

Garcia appears to have taken the lesson to heart. Literally. From his table at Versailles, the Calle Ocho restaurant that is a favorite with the Cuban politerati, Garcia works his cell phone and the crowd with equal vigor. "Three seconds. Go!" he shouts, instructing the person on the other end of the phone to begin speaking, while jumping up from his chair to say hello to "the political consultant of the moment."

Watching Garcia in action, visiting Gonzalez in the county mayor's office, or, for that matter, looking out over the Miami skyline from Diaz de la Portilla's 34th-floor law office, it seems irrelevant to ask why Belén students get involved in public affairs. A better question would be: What is it about the school that makes little Cuban boys want to run the world?

El Colegio de Belén first opened its doors in Havana in 1854. The all-boys Catholic boarding school inherited its name from the building's previous tenant, a convent called Nuestra Señora de Belén (Our Lady of Bethlehem). By 1925, when the school moved to a 60-acre campus on a residential edge of the city, it had become the island's most renowned educational institution, the place where boys from Cuba's most powerful families got together and began discussing how they would one day run the island nation. There was little to suggest this was anything but the natural order of things. By 1950 Belén could count among its alumni the Cuban president Carlos Prio Socarras and the editors of three of Havana's largest newspapers.

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