One morning in the summer of 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics were set to kick off, Juan Zapata, then a republican Florida state representative, found himself having breakfast with Zhou Wenzhong, the Chinese ambassador to the United States. The breakfast delegation was talking business, and someone floated the idea of a Chinese consulate in Miami as a strategic link for the PRC's booming Latin American commercial interests.
Zapata, the longtime president of a Coral Gables investment company, saw a chance for local economic growth and instantly loved the idea. So did the ambassador. "He thought it would be a natural fit," Zapata tells Riptide.
Six years later Zapata, now a Miami-Dade County commissioner, is trying to make it happen. At an Economic Development Committee meeting earlier this month, he introduced a resolution directing the mayor to put together a plan for a consulate, citing the potential for increased tourism and local Chinese investment. The resolution unanimously passed through the committee and will likely go before the full commission in September.
"I get the sense that we take a lot of stuff for granted sometimes [regarding] economic development," Zapata says. "These are things that communities that want to be major players in the international scene do."
Zapata's instincts are likely right, considering the nearest Chinese consulate is in Texas. But that doesn't mean the idea will ever fly.
China has five consulates in the States -- in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston, and the U.S. has five in China. International diplomacy dictates that one country can't add more without accepting an equal number on its own soil. According to Todd Stein, an expert with the International Campaign for Tibet, both countries are indeed interested, but Zapata and Miami are still up against something of a diplomatic Great Wall.
"There are a lot of major cities in the U.S. that would like to have a Chinese consulate for business reasons," Stein says. "The first step is that Miami would be competing with Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Honolulu, Seattle."
It's essentially up to the Chinese which city they would choose, Stein says, and the Chinese aren't likely to select South Florida. But there's also a bigger obstacle. For political and humanitarian reasons, the U.S. has long wanted a consulate in Lhasa, the capital of disputed Tibet, and numerous congressmen are doing their best to make sure no other Chinese consulates are added until the U.S. gets it.
In 2011 the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill pressing the State Department to block any new Chinese consulates in the U.S. until the Americans get the post, and just last month another bill was passed reiterating the same.
And with Tibetan diplomacy as contentious as ever -- in February President Obama further enraged Chinese officials by meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House -- Lhasa seems farther away than ever.
Zapata, who says he didn't know about the Lhasa standoff, is undeterred.
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"You want to support Tibet and all that kind of stuff," he said. "But I think you just got to think about, 'Hey, what's in your community's best interest?' And that's kind of the way I'm approaching it."