During my 11 years of practicing journalism in Florida, except for my two years in Miami, I have gotten used to laboring pretty much in anonymity when it comes to my international interests.
With the Cuba newsletter (Cuba Trade & Investment News, www.cubatradenews.com) I publish I get constant feedback from readers and sources in Cuba and Washington, and occasionally from such far-flung places as San Francisco, Ottawa, Trinidad & Tobago, Mexico City, Munich and Moscow. But here, just 265 miles from Havana, I am on a first-name basis with a grand total of two subscribers and maybe three or four sympathizers. Except for the occasional tussle with Florida editors trying to convince me that all readers want is hometown news, sports and the funnies, I rarely have a chance to tell locals what I really care about.
That’s been changing, however. Maybe two years ago, starting with this magazine, local organizations suddenly began to look for my Latin America expertise. Which brings me to the broader phenomenon: The number of groups and individuals dedicated to bringing the world to Southwest Florida is rising by the month.
They include the local chapter of the United Nations Association and its human rights and multilateral diplomacy-oriented talks, and the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning (SILL) and its U.S. foreign policy-centered lecture series. (Don’t miss SILL’s March 5 lecture with the curiosity-triggering title “Why Insurgencies Win,” by Dr. Jeffrey Record of the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College; I am scheduled to talk about one particular Latin American “insurgency,” called ALBA, on March 20).
Then, there’s the Sarasota Sister Cities Association, whose people-to-people programs are starting to move beyond our comfort zone of Canada and Western Europe. The most recent Sister City arrangements with cities in Russia and China provide opportunities to get first-hand experiences in countries on very different wavelengths. Last fall, The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s International Business Council celebrated its first anniversary by flying in an excellent presenter about Cuba (we haven’t heard a lot from the IBC recently, though). And there are individuals such as Sarasota real estate financier Peter Bennett who started a private circle of Sarasota-connected movers and shakers that meets once a month to discuss big trends in the world and small steps to improve it, such as micro-lending.
The latest addition is Steve Albee. In January, he launched the Suncoast chapter of the World Affairs Council, a group whose biggest sales point is shoulder-rubbing with invited speakers. When I talked to him in late December, a shortage of dues-paying members from Sarasota-Manatee pushed him to include the entire Tampa Bay area. He changed the name accordingly to Greater Tampa Bay World Affairs Council. But if Albee’s enthusiasm is an indicator, the group is a “go.”
Says Albee: “For me, this is a passion. People here are often so uninformed it hurts. When I was at a cocktail party recently, a lady asked me, ‘Who do you work for?’ I say, ‘Colombia,’ and she looks at me like I work for a drug dealer.”
Albee, a Venice native, started his career as a Sarasota and Manatee chamber executive. Then he spent 25 years outside this area, successively as director of economic development/international marketing of the state of Florida, in charge of the international department of Atlanta’s economic development organization, publisher of the Miami-based South Florida Business Journal, creator and publisher of a biweekly newspaper about international trade, vice president international trade of Miami-Dade’s economic development organization, and as a consultant for the Colombian and Chilean state export promotion organizations, among others. Two years ago, he returned to Venice, and now he is trying to bring his Miami connections to his hometown.
“There are 56 consuls and 13 binational chambers in Miami,” says Albee. “These people have an interest in Florida that goes way beyond Miami. This is an opportunity to provide them a venue.”
One of the more intriguing guests Albee and his WAC chapter plan to bring here April 11 is Charles Intriago. The Miami-based publisher of the Money Laundering Alert newsletter is an expert on Latin American finance, as well as U.S. financial regulations and money laundering enforcement.
What’s driving this surging interest? I can only guess, but it seems that, as our national and regional economy is tanking, we’re suddenly discovering there’s a world beyond the horizon.
To be sure, this eye-opening is not always a pleasant experience. After all, it’s the painful blows to our economy that caused us to open them in the first place. Recession, sick dollar, climate change, loss of influence abroad and rising international competition are relentlessly and painfully punching us out of our American autism. The world is awfully bright, and there are lots of confusing colors. Narcos (drug dealing cartels), Chávez’ Socialism of the 21st Century, the rising rebelliousness of the poor, 15 percent growth rates in state-dominated economies, spicy food we have a hard time digesting—not all of what’s happening beyond our borders may be to your liking.
But Florida is already an integral part of the Caribbean, with all the good and bad that comes with it. So why not try to take advantage of the good? There’s plenty of opportunity out there. And, believe it or not, they really like American businesspeople, especially in Cuba and Venezuela.
>>Talking about the Caribbean: Keep an eye out for Puerto Rico in 2008. This U.S. colony—pardon, “free associated state”—is simmering with discontent, and—one way or another—that will impact us. Puerto Rico’s U.S.-dependent economy is a basket case, and as a result the political “in-betweenie” status—neither U.S. state nor independent—is under heavy attack.
The current political crisis broke out into the open in May 2006 with a fiscal crisis, when the Puerto Rican government had to temporarily lay off 80,000 teachers and other state employees because it couldn’t pay salaries. The two leading political parties, the status-quo PPD and the pro-statehood PNP, eventually agreed to slap a 7-percent sales tax on Puerto Ricans and cut back government, to make bondholders happy again and get state employees back to work.
But it was already too late to keep the push for change under the lid. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans vented their rage in the streets. Not only is the sales tax highly unpopular, but corporations—which already enjoy major tax breaks—were left untouched.
To be sure, the status quo still has a very powerful lure. Puerto Rico’s average per capita income is clearly above that of its Caribbean peers, such as the Dominican Republic or Jamaica. But it still is barely half that of the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi, despite massive federal transfer payments to the tune of $3 billion a year. And it’s not going to improve much anytime soon.
Just ask businesspeople in Jacksonville, the main U.S. port for Puerto Rico trade, and they will tell you how the island’s economic troubles will affect their bottom line.
The financial crisis was the result of three decades of lackluster growth in the island’s economy, and rising government indebtedness. Puerto Rico’s neo-colonial economic development model, started under the name “Operation Bootstrap” in the late 1940s, is exhausted. Based on tax breaks and other incentives, Puerto Rico was able to attract major corporations to produce goods with imported parts, almost exclusively for export. Thanks to this, the economy grew considerably between 1950 and 1970. But the boom had its dark side: While industrial employment grew, the bases of Puerto Rico’s local economy crumbled. Even in boom times, the job losses in agriculture and other sectors were bigger than the manufacturing job gains.
Sealing the fate of the export-oriented development model, from 1996 through 2006 the U.S. government phased out Section 936, a major federal tax incentive program that had benefited corporations operating in Puerto Rico. This had a devastating impact on employment on the island. Since the 1980s, the only employer that kept hiring was government, thanks to debt and federal transfer payments.
Today, Puerto Rico must import nearly all of its food, unemployment hovers around 12 percent, underemployment at 46 percent, there is very little local manufacturing capital and skill, and public debt is at $30 billion, more than that of much-maligned Cuba, which has nearly three times the population of Puerto Rico.
The only Puerto Rican “export” that has been booming over the past two decades is people. The most striking aspect: In 2005, for the first time, there were more Puerto Ricans living in the United States than in Puerto Rico—3.78 million versus 3.67 million. The massive and ongoing emigration has spilled over from the traditional destination of New York City to other regions, mainly Florida. The main Puerto Rican growth area here is Orlando, but Sarasota-Manatee is receiving its share of the phenomenon: Our area is home to probably several hundred families from Puerto Rico, many of them solidly middle class. And, depending on whether the political stalemate and economic decline continue, more might be coming.
So what’s on the political agenda in 2008? For one, there’s an outside challenge to Puerto Rico’s quasi-colonial status. As early as this year, the United Nations General Assembly could discuss whether the United States of America should be told to apply a UN decolonization resolution to Puerto Rico.
The UN move adds to the political pressure from within the United States and Puerto Rico. The status question will be once again in Congress, amid campaigning for the presidential elections this fall. There are two bills, one in favor of an “enhanced” status quo, and the other one in favor of statehood.
Given the current crisis, the status quo really isn’t much of an option. Yet there isn’t much of a political challenge either. The politically strongest faction in Puerto Rico challenging the status quo is the pro-statehood camp. But it is very unlikely the U.S. Congress will agree to Puerto Rican statehood, given the likely increase in federal transfer payments this will require. Which leaves the pro-independence camp. But—thanks to the lure of Uncle Sam’s deep pockets and oppression and intimidation by U.S. law enforcement—pro-independence groups still are a clear minority.
>>I can’t repeat often enough that the main political options in Latin America and the Caribbean aren’t left or right. Often it’s government versus no government at all.
This point hit very close to home recently with Maxine Millery, a good friend who lives in Parrish. An offspring of one of the wealthier families in Haiti, she went through an emotional rollercoaster the week before Christmas. Her brother-in-law had been kidnapped by one of many gangs operating out of the living hell that is Cité-Soleil (“Sun City”), the biggest poor neighborhood of the capital Port-au-Prince. The nightmare lasted only three days, but the happy outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Local police are no option at all. Going to the U.S. embassy to alert the FBI (the brother-in-law is a U.S. citizen) wasn’t much help, either. The kidnappers actually threw a fit and set the ransom bar at $500,000, completely out of reach for the family. Fortunately, the gangsters were business-minded. So negotiations began, and the parties eventually settled for a few thousand dollars.
This was the second kidnapping in Millery’s family. Two years ago, it had been a nephew’s turn. Maybe a government that channels redistribution in a less life-threatening and more predictable way is not such a bad option for Haiti’s chamber of commerce crowd, after all.
Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.