2020 is Hindsight
Miami-Dade County Mayor, Carlos Gimenez, knew what he was doing when he posed on the Metrorail platform for his 2016 re-election campaign ad promising “More Rail” in bold, white letters. Only days removed from the $76 million-dollar gift he wrapped himself for the private luxury train company, soon-to-be renamed Virgin Trains, we can look back and see that “Metro” was purposefully omitted from the advertising copy.
The move was fraught with political blowback and could have cost him critical support in the Commission had he tried to ram this through earlier. Calculating as ever, he waited until the tail end of his term-limited reign to pull this stunt. As rumors swirl about where Gimenez plans to land after his disastrous tenure in County government, he leaves no doubt where he plans to butter his bread.
Brightline’s imminent re-branding is designed to take advantage of Richard Branson’s name recognition, despite the fact that the eccentric billionaire is only a minority shareholder in Brightline, itself owned by Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) and operated by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of the latter. All of these, in turn, are owned by Fortress Investment Group, which took more than $3 million dollars from then Governor Rick Scott and wife, Ann, under whose name the Scotts keep most of their largely undisclosed fortune.
Scott claims his multi-million dollar investment was made to a separate division of the New York-based Fortress in “an unrelated debt-financing fund” with no stake in the “success or failure” of Brightline. Scott’s word, of course, is worth less than the all-purpose bond paper in tray #1 of the leased copy machine at Fortress’ Manhattan headquarters. He was the one who killed Obama’s bullet train project, proposed by his Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, as he received $188,000 in campaign funds from the company that operates what is today the only privately-owned passenger rail system in the country. His Chief of Staff, at the time, had also been employed by FECI and Associated Press confirmed that Scott had discussed the rail project with the aid.
The Medicare fraudster, Scott, has moved on to the federal echelons of government, but has left behind mentees in South Florida who are looking after his “unrelated” investments. Carlos Gimenez has been the lead dog for the ransacking of public funds by private profits in Miami-Dade County, of which the Aventura Brightline station is just the latest example. He is not alone, however, and it is not a new phenomenon in Miami; a long-time stronghold of plantation-style politics. What is new are the players behind the scenes.
SoftBank acquired Fortress Investment Group in 2017 and has outright ownership or controlling shares in what seems like a thousand other concerns. The massive holding company is owned by Japanese multi-billionaire Masayoshi Son, who boasts of having a vision for his company extending 300 hundred years into the future. Megalomaniacal projections, aside, Son has amassed an impressive portfolio of investments in technology startups that span the globe, which are eventually rolled into SoftBank’s $100 billion “Vision Fund” when they are sufficiently mature. Once there, the goal is to fuse their operations into some sort of symbiotic, multinational tech-based empire.
The Vision Fund’s largest investor is none other than the Saudi Royal family, whose $45 billion-dollar contribution played a determining factor in a recent power tussle at the top of SoftBank’s executive hierarchy involving its two highest officers. Marcelo Claure, Son’s “hand-picked” COO for SoftBank Group, tried to insinuate himself into a lead operating role of the Vision Fund by displacing incumbent Rajeev Misra. But, his takeover bid was nixed by the Saudis whose relationship with the London-based banker and SoftBank board member, Misra, predates their investment.
Claure had put a team together called the SoftBank Operating Group, with expertise in “building companies, improving performance and managing key support tasks like government relations”, which he intended to bring with him to lead the “synergies” of companies in the Vision Fund. While Claure had Son’s blessing, he nonetheless saw his ambitions thwarted by the Saudi-backed Misra and his team. Son offered the Bolivian entrepreneur an alternative: Take his 40-man team to the Vision Fund, but work under Rajeev Misra.
Not one to be bossed around, Claure declined the offer and assumed a diminished role in the company, returning to where he had reached his highest peak as an independent business owner before Masayoshi Son had bought out Claure’s telecom startup, Brightstar, and placed him at the helm of Sprint, a company he is credited with saving from certain extinction. Back in Miami after his Vision Fund debacle, Claure heads SoftBank Latin America, as well as continuing as SoftBank Group’s Chief Operating Officer. In addition, Claure oversees operations of Boston Dynamics, ARM Holdings, Sprint, Fortress Investment Group and his original cell phone distributor, Brightstar, as CEO of SoftBank Group International.
His return to South Florida is really just academic, since his interests and those he represents never actually left. SoftBank’s stake in Miami is vast and cuts through the very fabric of this city and the region, in general. From Uber, to WeWork; from the saga of Miami FC and Beckham’s Soccer stadium complex to Brightline, SoftBank is making a play to buy us out with our own money through their proxies in the City, County, State and even Federal government, led by the luckiest business man ever to walk the face of the earth.
Raúl Marcelo Claure’s mother always knew that her second-born would turn out to be a great entrepreneur. The clues were plain to see even as a young boy. “As a six-year old,” she recalled, “he was selling marbles in the schoolyard by the case”. His father, René Claure, had hauled the family across the world as his career as a geologist for the United Nations Development Group demanded.
His first lucky break came on the heels of his graduation from Bentley College in Massachusetts where he’d earned a BS in business economics. The 21-year old was flying back to La Paz, though some accounts say he was on a flight to Quito, Ecuador. In any case, the legend goes, he happened to find out Guido Loayza, the man who had just been chosen to lead the Bolivian Soccer Federation (FBF) was on board and convinced a fellow passenger to give up his first class seat so he could bring Loayza to sit next to him.
The rest, as they say, is history and Claure was hired on-route by Loayza to manage the Federation’s marketing affairs. Loayza himself disputes the veracity of this story, saying that he met Claure in Las Vegas during a business conference. But, those are just pesky details or the ravings of an old man with a failing memory, according to Claure.
As his continued good fortune would have it, during Loayza’s tenure, the Bolivian national squad would qualify for the first time ever to the 1994 World Cup, which was to be held – also for the first time – in the United States. Claure was put in charge of the Bolivian Soccer Federation’s marketing operations in the host country, which he knew so well.
Most English-language press accounts of Claure’s biography go no further on this part of the budding entrepreneur’s life and promptly move on to his other dates with Lady Luck. But, this is precisely the point where cracks in the story begin to emerge. Cracks that will open into deep, dark chasms as the layers of his carefully-crafted image are peeled back.
Scalping the Competition
“He [Claure] was the one who managed everything about the ticket sales”, declared then head of the Bolivian Soccer Federation (FBF), Carlos Chavez, to a Bolivian newspaper, “He set up offices prior to the World Cup in the United States and we have information at the FBF, which is known publicly” he continued, “about the 12,000 tickets that were sold”. Chavez initially made the shocking allegations on live Bolivian television, waving documents that he claimed proved Claure and his predecessor at the FBF, Guido Loayza, had embezzled over $9 million in the ticket fraud scheme.
Regarding the allegations, Claure stated that, in his capacity as International General Manager of the FBF during the 1994 World Cup, a decision had been made to purchase 12,070 tickets from FIFA in order to resell them in “Bolivia and to Bolivian fans all over the world who wished to attend the games”. According to Claure, demand was too low and they were stuck with a lot of tickets. At a certain point, he sold the remaining tickets for a lump sum to a licensed ticket vendor in Massachusetts, after FIFA advised him that he wasn’t “authorized to sell the tickets in the North American market”. The lump sum in question was never clarified by Claure, who claimed not to remember the details.
In 2012, Chavez would run, successfully, for a third term as FBF President; this time against Claure, himself, who was (and remains) President of Club Bolivia, the most popular soccer team in the Andean nation. Right in the middle of his negotiations with Masayoshi Son’s Softbank to sell his telecom startup, Brightstar, and take over as Sprint’s CEO, Claure was challenging Chavez for the FBF’s top job. He was disqualified by the voting committee since his only purpose for running was to sabotage Chavez. Claure later admitted that, had he won the election, he would have resigned the next day.
On the day of the election, police had to be called to evacuate FBF headquarters after a bomb threat was made by an anonymous phone call. But, before the committee members were removed, a strange pickup truck pulled up and launched pepper spray into the crowd, causing a panic. Chavez would make his victory speech in a different venue a few blocks away.
“I don’t blame the government because it would be irresponsible,” said Chavez with tears in his eyes from the pepper spray and a handkerchief over his mouth, “but what is obvious… is that there must have been orders from up on high behind this disgraceful act.”
Just a few years later, Chavez would find himself targeted by Loretta Lynch’s DOJ probe into FIFA corruption. He was cleared in that investigation, but separate charges were later brought against him in Bolivia in an unrelated case of illicit enrichment. Chavez was accused and convicted of diverting funds from a charity soccer match and sentenced to ten years in a Bolivian prison. He would only serve two and a half years before succumbing to cancer in 2015.
Claure had filed libel and defamation suits against Chavez in a Florida court, for some reason. But, neither his suits nor Chavez’ accusations against Claure and Loayza went anywhere, perhaps, because Chavez would be dead less than five years after first making the accusations against Claure and Loayza, who also happened to be an engineer in telecommunications and was a business associate of Claure’s in an Argentinian cellular phone venture.
It was in telecom that Claure would make his real fortune. The result of yet another fortuitous turn of events with another vague backstory attached.
Lucky Charms are for Kids
Somewhere between Boston and Worcester on Route 9, a leprechaun nudged Claure to stop at a USA Wireless store. He had just returned from Bolivia, striking out on his own after his stint at the FBF and needed a cell phone. The Venezuelan owner, as claimed, was fond of telling his customers that he detested owning the roadside location. So miserable was he as a result, that he would offer to give the store away to anyone who wanted it. What are the odds, that a young man with Claure’s connections would walk into his retail establishment and, instead of getting that flip phone that was all the rage back then, would propose to give the man selling him that phone a 45% stake in his own store if he just handed its operation over to him?
The odds are about the same as anyone confirming that story. But, that’s the story we are given of how Marcelo Claure came to own one of the largest cellular phone retail chains on the East coast of the United States. From this ‘modest’ beginning and a loan from his father, René, Claure launched Brightstar Corp in 1997, which would take the barely nascent cellular market in Latin America by storm. From $14 million in revenue that first year, by 2003, annual revenue would exceed $1 billion and the company would be operating in 16 countries selling Motorola phones to different carriers throughout Central and South America.
Even the telecom crash of 2000 left Brightstar unscathed because it was just a middle man parsing the continent’s disparate bureaucratic red tape surrounding each countries’ import/export laws, which proved too expensive for the global players to deal with themselves. This niche allowed Brightstar, which took its name from the two largest cellphone distributors of the time – CellStar and Brightpoint – to snatch virtually all of the market share in the Latin American cell phone distribution space. Claure’s success would attract the largest names in the technology universe.
In 2003, Claure was seeking $50 million in venture capital to expand operations to Asia and, he told Inc Magazine, prepare to take Brightstar public later that Summer. When it was all said and done, Claure had hauled in over $60 million in VC money at a $400 million-dollar valuation. The joint fund was comprised of Falcon Investment Advisors, Prudential Capital Group, Ramius Capital Group and Bill Gates’ Grandview Capital Management.
Claure would never actually take the company public and Forbes would list Brightstar as the 58th largest privately held corporation in the U.S. in 2012. Softbank would buy Brightstar for $1.26 billion a year later and Claure would take over Masayoshi Son’s Sprint. But, years before Claure’s successful Brightstar exit, he would join a dubious philanthropic venture with Nicolas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s notorious Media Lab to distribute $100 dollar laptops to children in developing countries.
OLPC stands for One Laptop Per Child, an idea concocted by Nicolas Negroponte, who recently made headlines for justifying MIT Media Lab’s funding by deceased suspected sex-trafficker and intelligence asset, Jeffrey Epstein. The program was billed as a way to provide millions of children in Third World countries with their own personal Wi-Fi-enabled computer devices at far-below market prices and to promote education.
Negroponte first announced his pet project at the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos. Not very enthusiastically received, an OLPC pilot was, nevertheless, launched two years later to much fanfare and a few bloopers at a UN meeting in Tunis, Africa. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, accidentally broke off the plastic crank of the prototype he was about to show off to the attendees. The gaff would foreshadow a litany of problems, that plague the non-profit initiative to this day; chief among which was the prevailing mistrust by the program’s target countries, who immediately saw through the ostensibly noble purpose and tagged the cheap laptops as a simple profit-driven agenda with a side of subversion.
Other criticisms revolve around the actual cost of the advertised “$100” price tag, which has yet to materialize. Intel, one the original partners, launched its own version with Microsoft; other start-ups in India and elsewhere developed their own low-cost laptops. Most of Negroponte’s devices are being distributed in Latin America, which is why OLPC headquarters were moved to Miami in 2010. The hardware of the OLPC devices also include an ARM-based chip, manufactured by AMD in partnership with ARM Holdings, one SoftBank’s Vision Fund assets overseen by Marcelo Claure.
Claure, who claims to have no political ambitions in his native country, has used the OLPC laptops and his role in Club Bolivar to forge a relationship with Evo Morales. Morales, who was just re-elected for yet another term as Bolivia’s President, is a known die-hard fan of Claure’s soccer club. In 2008, Claure is reported to have met with Morales and offered to build a cellphone factory in Bolivia in exchange for an OLPC contract. Another OLPC deal in neighboring Peru mysteriously fell through after a visit by Nicolas’ brother, John Negroponte, George Bush’s Director of National Intelligence and Ambassador to Iraq in 2005.
Miami is not a soccer town and unless its majority Cuban, Dominican and assorted Afro-Caribbean population is replaced by Argentinians and Brazilians, it will never be a soccer town. Anybody who’s spent a week in the city knows that, if anything, Miami is a football town, first and a baseball town, second; there is no third. So, why has Marcelo Claure been trying to bring soccer to Miami since 2008? And why is David Beckham always involved? More importantly, why is the Mayor of the City of Miami lobbying for a ridiculously expensive, publicly-funded stadium complex as if his political life depended on it?
None of these questions have a logical answer. The most benign conclusion is that Marcelo Claure is a capricious man who just wants what he wants and, he wants a soccer team in Miami. There’s certainly some evidence of flaky self-entitlement to his personality, a trait not unheard of among the privileged classes of Latin America, where the offspring of the comparatively wealthy are accustomed to princely lifestyles, regardless of their actual means.
Robert Andrew Powell’s piece in Howler profiles Claure and reveals some of the billionaire’s less flattering proclivities, like how he left the mother of his first two children because, according to Claure, “You can get tired of someone, you know?”. But, Powell also sheds light on a similar stadium-slash-soccer team-slash-development project he proposed in Bolivia soon after taking over the President’s favorite team. Claure put forward a “three-point plan” to revitalize Club Bolivia, the most important of which was, drumroll, a condo tower that “his brother Martin would oversee”.
More relevant to the Stadium drama in Miami is Powell’s account of Claure’s first dealings with City and County officials regarding the location originally proposed for its construction; a spectacular water-front piece of real estate on Biscayne Boulevard. Notwithstanding the multiple changes of address since, the initial spot was not Claure’s or even Beckham’s idea but, according to Claure, himself, a joint proposition by the County and City of Miami Mayors. The fact that we still have the County Mayor and the City of Miami Mayor pushing for this nonsensical project, is telling. But, what really stands out from this story is that one of those Mayors has since been replaced.
At the time the above took place, Thomas Regalado was the Mayor of Miami. Francis X. Suarez, the first Miami-born Mayor, took over after the 2018 municipal elections. The County Mayor, on the other hand, is the common denominator. Once again, Carlos Gimenez appears at the center of a public money-grab tied to a curiously homogenous cast of private persons with a web of financial interests throughout Miami-Dade County.
The Ultimate Land Grab
Months after Marcelo Claure’s losing battle with Rajeev Misra over control of the Vision Fund, Masayoshi Son did something uncharacteristic. He fired the CEO of one of his many startup investments. WeWork’s co-founder, Andrew Neumann, was ousted following a private meeting with company leaders held by Son and just weeks before the “money-losing real estate venture” was about to issue its first IPO. Initially, Neumann had agreed to take a non-executive role on WeWork’s board, but it is now reported that he has accepted $1.7 billion to walk away entirely.
Masayoshi Son is now the landlord of all nine WeWork locations in Miami, which equal 493,000 square feet of real estate, after agreeing to a $11.5 billion-dollar takeover of the ailing company. But, WeWork has $47.2 billion in U.S. debt obligations and leases that cannot be terminated early. Claure will now assume greater operational control, in the hopes that he can recreate what he did with Sprint years ago. However, bankruptcy is still a very real option, in spite of SoftBank’s infusion of debt into the company.
No one must be happier about the news than Carlos Gimenez, who has been leading the charge for SoftBank to put the whole of Miami into its Saudi-funded $100 billion Vision Fund. In an email exchange obtained by the Miami Herald between Jorge Mas, one of the latest partners in the ever-changing Beckham Stadium funhouse and the County Mayor, Gimenez turns into a school girl when Mas floats the idea of meeting the elusive Masayoshi: “How can we meet him? I’m totally into the future of IA [sic]. We have to win that race.”
What race is he talking about? This is a man who is presiding over a County with the second-highest level of income inequality in the country, a cash poor population living paycheck to paycheck earning some of the lowest wages in the nation. Meanwhile, he thinks the Jetsons are coming down in flying taxis from Masayoshi Son’s private space station. The clueless County and City Commissions seem to be drinking the Kool-aide, as well, approving billion-dollar spider bridges, empty sports stadiums, Chinese casinos and high-end train for tourists.
Miami is being handed the equivalent of an OLPC contract by this stable of venture capitalists and their executive bouncers, like Claure, looking to make a quick buck at the expense of our real needs and using our tax dollars to finance their bets. The criticism levied against Negroponte’s $100 computers “as an attempt to exploit the governments of poor nations by making them pay for hundreds of millions of machines and the need of further investments into internet infrastructure” is just as applicable to the machinations of SoftBank in concert with our government officials and their unsolicited bids for a multi-million-dollar stadium complex and a train stop for a private “transit” venture with an exit strategy.
In the same email chain published by the Herald, Mas seems giddy over the possibility that SoftBank Latin America could build its headquarters in Miami. “It would be transformational for our economy”, gushed Mas. But, when people like Mas and his good buddy, Carlos Gimenez, are singing a company’s praises, we can be sure “our economy” means their economy.
There are, however, broader questions surrounding the ubiquitous presence of SoftBank and Mr. Claure in Miami. Especially, when their biggest cheerleaders are the usual suspects of South Florida’s circle of rightwing reactionaries who never saw a U.S.-sponsored regime-change operation in Latin America they didn’t like. From Rick Scott who has been front-and-center at all of Trump’s visits to Miami promoting the largely failing Guaidó op in Venezuela and other interventions against regional governments who are venturing too far outside of American party line; to Miami-Dade Mayoral candidate, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, whose wife flew down to Cúcuta, Colombia with Marco Rubio for the occasion of Richard Branson’s laughable anti-Maduro “concert” on the border with Venezuela, which tried and failed to smuggle weapons under the guise of humanitarian aid. Bovo, curiously enough, is in Japan right now on a family “vacation”.
Guido Loayza, the man who gave Marcelo Claure his first break, described the SoftBank COO’s personality as “friendly, like a rich person’s dog.” The billionaire executive has certainly been given a lot of responsibilities. His job description could run several pages long and that’s not even counting his MLS and Club Bolivia’s ostensible obligations. How much time is he actually dedicating to any of it?
Other dissonant factors surrounding Claure’s public image are his random comments in support of left-leaning ideas, such as his praise of MLS’ structure as being “communist”, and, therefore, better than other Soccer leagues, like the English Premiere League with their top-heavy ownership. Claure even caught some slack from Miami politicians four years ago after he Tweeted a photo of Che Guevara’s monument in Havana while he was in Cuba on business, forcing David Beckham, himself, to engage in some damage control for his project’s sake. It’s unclear how sincere any of his appeals to socialist concepts really are, considering his family’s station in Bolivia.
The Claure family name is mentioned among other Bolivian elites who belong to the South American nation’s powerful agro-industrial sector and have been the direct beneficiaries of Bolivia’s violently repressive, U.S.-backed dictators. Among the most notorious was Hugo Banzer, who rose to power in 1971 in a coup orchestrated by those same families and significant U.S. logistical and financial support, which was looking to protect the interests of American corporations in the country, like U.S. Steel and others.
But, Bolivia also represents a strategically vital component of America’s broader intentions in the continent, as a whole. Bordering Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina, Bolivia is at the center of all the action in South America and it is part of the reason the United States has historically been very involved in that country’s affairs. The rise of Evo Morales has upset the balance of power in the region, not to mention the country itself.
Bolivia’s propertied classes have been trying unsuccessfully to regain power. Morales’ popularity makes a democratic solution untenable, as the recent election and every other since Evo’s victory in 2003 has proved.
Marcelo Claure, scion of the Bolivian elites, is overseeing what is probably the largest investment portfolio of Latin America from Miami; courted by the most radically conservative, anti-communist, anti-socialist, pro-interventionist community in the United States. At the same time, he has a reportedly forged a close relationship with one of their ideological arch-enemies in Evo Morales.
There’s definitely something rotten in Denmark, which – ironically – may be the only place on the planet where SoftBank has not invested.