Obama's Words Were Beautiful, but He's Wrong About Miami

Barack Obama speaks at Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami back when he was a presidential candidate.
Barack Obama speaks at Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami back when he was a presidential candidate.
Logan Fazio

"The city of Miami is only 200 miles or so from Havana. Countless thousands of Cubans have come to Miami -- on planes and makeshift rafts, some with little but the shirt on their back and hope in their hearts. Today, Miami is often referred to as the capital of Latin America. But it is also a profoundly American city -- a place that reminds us that ideals matter more than the color of our skin, or the circumstances of our birth, a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve, and the openness of the United States to our family to the South. Todos somos Americanos."

This passage from Barack Obama's Thursday speech defined both Miami and this president. In some ways, Obama fundamentally misunderstands the city and is naive, bordering on reckless. In others, he's optimistic, decent, and more aware of the importance of diversity than any president since LBJ.

Modern Miami really began in 1959. That's when Fidel Castro conquered Cuba and thousands of exiles poured into this sleepy city. They worked hard. They began transforming it into an international metropolis and a bellwether for the rest of America.

It wasn't easy. There was a boatload of corruption, social mayhem, and, well, cocaine, on the road here.

Today's Miami is nothing like the city it was in 1989 when I arrived. Back then, there were riots, cocaine, and bombings. There was racially fueled anger, fear, and bitterness. Downtown was quiet and South Beach a mecca for old people and muggers.

But the town evolved in the years that followed. The arrival of sports teams was significant. The Dolphins came first. Then in quick succession, there was the Heat, Panthers, and Marlins. There was the book fair, the film festival, and Art Basel. Then came the downtown building boom, bringing the performing arts center, the art museum, and soon the science museum.

As we biked through downtown Miami a few years ago, my old friend Andres Viglucci, a native of Puerto Rico and one of the smartest people I know, said, "You know, when we got here, we said Miami is going to be a real city someday, and now it just about is."

It is that evolution that President Obama crystallized Wednesday. Miami is a city, not just a respite for Cubans fleeing on rafts.

And it is, as the president said, the capital of Latin America. Travel anywhere on the continent to the south and people know Miami as well as they know New York and Los Angeles. They're aware of the celebrities and South Beach and the scandals. They know about the runaway dictators. And they're familiar with the Cubans.

This is where President Obama failed to understand the city, though. It is not just "a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve." These days, Venezuelans fleeing a failed economy play a role almost as large as the Cubans. Brazilians, whose economy is also flagging, have bought up huge blocks of downtown condos. Colombians, Nicaraguans, Argentines, Haitians, and others, too, all have their piece of the city.

And I wish, as the president said, Miami were "a place that reminds us that ideals matter more than the color of our skin or the circumstances of our birth." It is not. It is one of the nation's most segregated cities and one of the most extreme when it comes to rich and poor. African-Americans have complained for decades about their inability to find good jobs here, and as a result, many of the best minds have departed.

But the last part of Obama's speech, that the city is "a demonstration of ... the openness of the United States to our family to the south," was right on. To exclude Cubans -- except for political refugees -- for so long was wrong.

The last phrase of Obama's speech -- "Todos somos Americanos" -- was likely consciously thought up to echo John Kennedy's well-known "Ich bin ein Berliner" quote from 1963 in the German capital. That phrase defined Kennedy as a kind of hero during that era. It remains to be seen whether Obama's "Americanos" phrase similarly goes down in history.

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