Everything Is Relative
Province of Asti. Maldonado. Lamentin. Fujisawa. Kaohsiung. Montes de Oca. The names are virtual incantations, mellifluous evocations of exotic faraway climes in Italy, Uruguay, Guadeloupe, Japan, Taiwan, and Costa Rica. But these international metropolises bear an inextricable local link. More than mere tourist destinations, each has been adopted as a sister city by Dade County or one of its municipalities.
Not unlike sororities on college campuses, membership in this sisterhood confers an ineffable eclat. How else to explain the relentless spawning of sibling cities across the nation, and especially in South Florida?
The City of Miami alone has fourteen sisters, two of which (Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Agadir, Morocco) were admitted within the past seven months. That makes Miami's sister cities program the third largest in the nation, surpassed only by Los Angeles (twenty cities) and Seattle (sixteen). Dade County itself is no slouch, with thirteen members in its program, plus numerous hopefuls that have requested to join up. (Not every U.S. city is quite so gung ho: New York City's program has only six participants. Washington, D.C. has only three.) Altogether, Dade and its 27 municipalities boast no fewer than 45 international links. Even the unassuming burg of West Miami has paired off -- with Santa Cruz del Quiche, a quaint town of 2000 in Guatemala's Quiche region, not far from the limpid turquoise waters of Lake Atitlan.
Meanwhile, cities without that certain je ne sais quoi -- cities such as Ephraim, Utah, McKinney, Texas, and Daytona Beach -- have been trying unsuccessfully to woo a sister city for more than two years.
"There has been tremendous growth in the number of sister cities," crows Kate Ross, director of membership for Sister Cities International, the nonprofit organization that coordinates sister cities programs throughout the U.S. Launched in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as an experiment in people-to-people diplomacy, Sister Cities now comprises 1040 communities in the U.S. and 1800 overseas, according to the organization's annual report.
Its national budget of about two million dollars is funded by constituents' membership dues, corporate sponsorships, and federal grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Local programs usually rely on a combination of private donations and municipal monies. In South Florida, Dade County enjoys the most robustly funded group, with an annual budget of $246,000. Leo DiBenigno, the program's coordinator, says that in the past two years he has received at least sixteen requests from potential sister cities. He admits that a few have been inevitably weeded out (or "dinged," as a sorority sister would say). "We don't reject them because we don't like them," DiBenigno insists. "We just get more requests than we can deal with. Dade County is at the upper limits of the number of sister cities it can accept. At some point, when you surpass a certain number of sister cities, you begin to dilute the program's significance."
Among the rejects are St. George, Grenada, and Port of Spain, Trinidad. The ostensible reason: lack of "commonality." Among the criteria that both Dade and Miami employ in their selection of acceptable counterparts are population, status as an international gateway, diversity of inhabitants, and the extent of international commerce, with particular emphasis on whether a city has a port. According to Rafael Garcia-Toledo, chairman of Miami's Sister Cities coordinating council, at least fourteen cities were turned down by Miami in the past two years. Garcia-Toledo says he can't remember the names of any of the cities that failed to make the cut. As befits the diplomatic nature of his group, he adds that even if he did remember, he wouldn't want to embarrass them by mentioning their names.
Until recently, savvy sister cities placed more emphasis on accumulating large numbers of U.S. links than on whom they were linking with. The municipality of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, established the greatest number of contacts, pairing off with with Colorado Springs, Honolulu County, Knoxville, Little Rock, Macon, Mobile, Pensacola, Portland, Oregon, San Antonio, Tulsa, Miami, and Jimmy Carter's hometown, Plains, Georgia. Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, has gone the incestuous route, uniting with both Dade and Miami -- not to mention New York City and Sarasota.
In 1990 Sister Cities International began to discourage foreign cities from establishing relationships with more than one partner. This, too, can be a diplomatic downer. Dade has had the unenviable experience of welcoming a new sister city (Agadir, Morocco), only to have the city decide at the last minute to hook up with Miami instead. "Dade has no 'magic,'" DiBenigno complains, enviously referring to Miami's provocative nickname. "It's seen as an administrative entity."
Though Sister Cities International espouses a lofty mission ("furthering global understanding"), and the programs typically sponsor technical exchanges, international student programs, and art exhibits, there can be more tangible benefits. Jacksonville donated almost one million dollars in medical supplies, equipment, and training to sister city Murmansk, Russia; and after Hurricane Andrew, Taipei County sent $100,000 in relief funds to Dade.
Locally, leaders have thought a bit more creatively when it comes to humanitarian aid. In April Dade commissioners voted to donate 50 nightsticks, 50 helmets, 300 pairs of used or surplus police uniform trousers, and 325 units of soft body armor to sister city San Jose, Costa Rica. In June, another request came before the commission -- Asunci centsn, Paraguay, had asked to purchase some surplus equipment, including two used garbage trucks and several traffic lights that had been blown down by Hurricane Andrew. Despite the fact that the city wasn't asking for a handout, the commission initially balked at the bid: Natacha Millan observed that philanthropy should begin at home, and that local governments should be given first crack at buying the county's surplus. Asunci centsn's request, however, was eventually approved.
"I think it makes sense to give the local community first dibs on something," DiBenigno comments. "But beyond that, we do have an official relationship with these cities. Maybe [examples such as Jacksonville and Taipei County] will convince the commissioners that we're not giving away the store. Humanitarian aid, a goodwill gesture, those activities definitely fit into the scope of the sister cities program, not just in Dade County or Miami, but across the country.
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