"Look," says the mayor, turning at the lunch table and gesturing toward the window and beyond at this city's erupting skyline. "If it's so bad, how come the big players in real estate are here?" And he rattles off a list of those players.
Well, maybe some of the real-estate boom derives from the fact that there is a lot of bad money looking for things to buy. And one reason many banks and corporations have offices here is the same reason a few things are bad here: Latin America is just over the horizon. So are the drug traffickers.
"Look," says Mayor Maurice Ferre, 49, using a knife to draw a line on the tablecloth. "Draw a line due south to the South Pole. Every major airport in South America is to the east of Miami. If you want to fly from Lima to Los Angeles, the quickest way is through Miami." And among the things coming through Miami is a flood of "controlled substances," which barely are. Controlled, that is. The drug traffic continues in spite of Crockett and Tubbs, the characters -- and how! -- on the television show "Miami Vice."
Viewing that program is like being locked inside a rock video with two boys who, having overdosed on chocolate donuts, are hyperactive and should be sent to their rooms. Crockett and Tubbs are police officers. Sure they are. When not roaring around in a speedboat, they are roaring around in a Ferrari, and in $500 Italian linen jackets and sleeveless, peach-colored T-shirts.
Does this shoot-'em-up portrayal of Miami as crime-ridden bother the mayor? No, he says equably, people are trying to explain Miami's vitality in terms of the wrong chemicals. It strted with Dow, not drugs.
About 15 years ago, he says, Dow Chemical Co. decided it could not efficiently run its Latin American operations out of Michigan and did an elaborate study that highlighted Miami's advantages. That study circulated widely, and soon the city's commercial base achieved a critical mass, with European and American banks and corporations creating "symbiotic energy." The mayor is in his sixth two-year term, and like the city, is revved up.
Energy, symbiotic or other, Miami has, some people think, in excess. It had ample energy even before Castro flooded it in 1979 with refugees lacking proper character references. But the mayor insists that Miami is a Latin American city only the way Boston is Irish or Milwaukee is Polish and German.
Miami has been called "the Hong Kong of Latin America," but the mayor prefers to compare it to Beirut -- before the civil war, he hastens to add. He says Miami is to Latin America what Beirut was to the Arab World: a center for commerce, pleasure and cosmopolitanism. The big difference, the mayor says, is "the American flag" -- the FBI, the Constitution, the law. But some Miamians think the difference is not as big as it should be.
Of the drug money sloshing around Miami, the mayor says: "Is it a great part of Miami? Of course." Look, he says, Miami is the cocaine capital of the world only because the United States is the main cocaine market.
If all international cocaine merchants formed a single American company, that company would rank with the Ford Motor Company near the top of Fortune magazine's list of largest corporations. It would be three times larger than the movie and recording industries -- combined. Recently some cocaine was found here in the cargo on a Colombian 747 airliner. The street value of the cocaine was $600 million -- five times the value of the 747.
Drug runners have the best boats, planes and electronic equipment. Miami, says the mayor, cannot help being awash with drug money. Dealers can load the cash into jets and deliver it to numbered accounts in Bahamian or other "offshore" banks and then have it transferred, electronically, back to Miami. And such laundering is not always necessary. If someone comes into a showroom offering $60,000 cash for an automobile, not many salespersons are going to call the police. Look, the mayor says cheerfully, geography is destiny, and Florida always has attracted adventurous spirits because it is "the end of the line." So it is, and so it has been home for aviation pioneers, land speculators and other high-spirited folks, including, it is safe to say, America's only mayor who compares his city to Beirut -- before the roof fell in, of course. The end of the line: That was the Wild West when it was a frontier. Miami is a sort of frontier. It is the Wild South, and the sheriff wears a sleeveless, peach-colored T-shirt.