An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

A grand plan to fight Latin poverty flunks out at UM

Shalala, of course, is no hard-liner. Last December Benes found himself at a Coral Gables restaurant table with a group of people that included the UM president. He shared his PAAP idea with her. Benes says she asked him to follow up with her associate vice president for public affairs, Victoria Rivas-Vazquez. He did, e-mailing and phoning in status reports.

In March she sent Benes an encouraging e-mail. "I am very interested in the project, and would love to help," Rivas-Vazquez wrote. She had consulted with vice president of advancement Sergio Gonzalez and vice president of communications Jerry Lewis and they all agreed the North-South Center should send a proposal to Glaser.

But by the end of May, Glaser and Shalala had nixed the project. The official reasons: 1) PAAP was not appropriate for UM; and 2) Benes didn't have the expertise to organize it.

Former banker Bernardo Benes naively thought he'd 
hit upon a wonderful project for the University of Miami
Jonathan Postal
Former banker Bernardo Benes naively thought he'd hit upon a wonderful project for the University of Miami

That notion still makes Benes fume. "I founded United Way International and that jerk says we don't have the expertise!" he exclaims. "This has been my life -- helping poor people."

The only explanation Benes could think of was that Glaser shot down PAAP to keep UM in the good graces of Miami's pro-embargo Cuban-exile establishment, or at least those who haven't forgiven him for meeting with Castro.

In August, however, Glaser revealed a larger motive for vetoing PAAP. He and Shalala had decided to gut the North-South Center altogether. Glaser fired its staff and folded their projects as part of a plan to "restructure" the center. He offered few details, fueling speculation and conspiracy theories. Last month he announced that the Rand Corporation, a California-based think-tank with little experience in Latin America, would start rebuilding the center in January.

While Benes may seem paranoid, his suspicions are rivaled by Glaser's shifting, unconvincing explanations for the North-South Center firings. "They [center staff] were relatively, I don't want to use the word narrow, but they were certainly restricted in what they were doing," the provost submits, adding that he is seeking "new expertise" and looking at the center "more broadly."

"We're talking about environmental issues, where science is involved, we're talking about health care and health-care delivery," the provost adds. In sum, the researchers were too focused on "the geopolitical arena."

"That's fascinating! That's an entirely new angle," marvels Ambler Moss, sole survivor of the purge because he is a tenured professor of international relations. The North-South Center did "tons of stuff" on environmental issues under his directorship and could easily have jumped into health issues. The center's outgoing research agenda also covered trade and economic policy, migration, democratic governance, security, corruption, and information technology.

And wouldn't Benes's idea for an anti-poverty summit featuring first ladies from across the hemisphere only help to broaden the new North-South Center?

"We didn't think that this was the kind of activity, worthwhile as it no doubt is, that we had particular expertise in doing," Glaser says. "We did not perceive that this was an area that he [Benes] had particular expertise in. As best as I could tell and we could tell, this is not an area where he had either been very successful or unsuccessful."

The provost finds it easier to explain what did not affect his decision. "This has got nothing to do with Cuban politics," Glaser reiterates with a sigh. "It was one of these very good ideas, which I would hope he succeeds in doing and that it's widely successful."

Just not at UM.

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