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.
Limousines and Blow for All
Miami’s “modern-day” transit system was born in the midst of the so-called cocaine wars, when Colombian cartels, small-time Cuban dealers and the hopelessly corrupt Miami PD all took turns gracing the front pages of local newspapers. As the city reeled from shocking acts of violence, millions of dollars flowed into the ‘regular’ economy from the inconceivably profitable drug trade. Bankers, real estate developers, brokers, lawyers. Everybody who was anybody was reaping the benefits and the signs of conspicuous wealth, that came to define Miami’s image around the world, took root.
Contrasting with the Ferraris and Corvettes sprouting like weeds on Miami’s new suburban home driveways, tens of thousands of Cuban refugees were crossing the Florida Straits and getting crammed into hastily-erected tents under I-95. The Mariel boat lift instantly produced a new demographic, which would shape the politics of Miami-Dade County for the next 35 years.
Enormous concrete columns were raised parallel to South Dixie Highway as construction began on an elevated rail system, harboring great promise for the rapidly growing metro. Almost four decades later, that hope would turn out to be as fleeting as a basuco high. Ronald Reagan derided the federally-funded Metrorail during a visit to the city in 1985, quipping that it would have been cheaper to buy everyone in Miami a limousine, instead. The criticism was in line with the radical right wing ideologues who surrounded Reagan and harbored deep contempt for government spending, so long as it benefited others.
Just three years earlier, Reagan was in Miami heaping praise on the results produced by a massive swell of federal law enforcement personnel to fight his war on drugs, which he had declared officially in National Security Decision Directive 221. The special South Florida task force created to wage it and headed by former CIA director and Vice President, George H.W. Bush, established Miami as the home base for federal counter drug operations. Posing in front of seized narcotics and a cache of weapons, Reagan called the dramatic expansion of law enforcement and intelligence assets in Miami a “brilliant example of working federalism”.
The DEA, already boasting a heavy presence in the region, added 60 new agents, 10 supervisors and 3 intelligence analysts. The FBI, which had until then remained on the periphery of drug trafficking cases, was given “concurrent jurisdictional powers” with the DEA and its director became the “general supervisor” of the war on drugs. 43 new agents were added to it’s payroll in South Florida. Similarly, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the IRS and several other agencies transferred dozens of personnel to Miami. Even the U.S. Treasury recruited 20 new analysts to handle cases of money laundering.
At that point, the Iran-Contra scandal had yet to break into mainstream consciousness and the role top officials of his administration were playing in the tons of cocaine moving through Miami was still an unfathomable conspiracy theory. But, by the time Oliver North and his Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, were sitting in front of Congress divulging as little as they possibly could about the covert coke-for-guns operation they’d been running with help from the CIA, Miami’s new political class was fully ensconced as the petty vice royalty of the new spook colony.
A Traitor at the Orange Bowl
Miami’s political future was born at the Orange Bowl on a cloudy day in 1962, where President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and 40,000 people attended a ceremony to welcome back the surviving members of Brigade 2506, who had been captured, imprisoned and eventually repatriated to the United States by Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Made up of more than 1,100 Cuban army defectors, volunteer exiles and a few mobsters recruited and trained by the CIA, several Brigade members boycotted the event. They blamed Kennedy for the operation’s failure after he refused to provide air cover to the counterrevolutionaries and from that moment on, Miami’s Cuban exile community would close ranks and become the most reactionary, right-wing political base in the country.
The very mention of John F. Kennedy would henceforth be proscribed in every household from the sprawling burbs of Kendall to Little Havana, where a monument in honor of the fallen at the Bay of Pigs stands and is the site of an annual commemoration when its not held at the posh Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. Likewise, Kennedy’s policies along with anything the Democratic Party put forward would also be shot down on principle rather than any consideration of the merits.
The same year the Brigade Commander, Pepe San Román, handed Kennedy a folded Brigade 2506 flag at the Orange Bowl, Kennedy had delivered his Special Message to Congress on Transportation. In it, he announced his intentions to deal with what he called the “chaotic patchwork” of “obsolete legislation” that was encumbering the nation’s various transportation systems, pledging drastic federal intervention to resolve the “inefficiencies, inequities and other undesirable conditions” that prevailed around the country, which was suffering under a disjointed network of private systems teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
After he was gunned down in Dallas, his successor, Lyndon Johnson followed through with the slain leader’s wishes and passed the Urban Mass Transit Act, which created the UMTA (Urban Mass Transportation Agency) opening up the federal government’s coffers to local county and city governments around the country to start buying up the failing private systems and operate their own public transit authorities.
The Radical Base
Dade County would take advantage of the opportunity in the early 70’s, when it took the federal grant and formed the Metro Dade Transportation Agency. In 1976, it applied for and later got $1.25 Billion in federal money to build the Metrorail system. But, by then, a largely unknown but powerful group of private interests were mounting a nation-wide movement against all forms of federal spending, public institutions and democracy itself. One of the leading minds of this movement was then promoting his business-friendly theories of law at the University of Miami and conspiring with one of the richest men in the country about how best to destroy the threats to “free market” economics.
One of the devices used to this end was the Cato Institute, a radical conservative think tank designed to promote policies that play into the larger goals of its de facto founder and largest benefactor, Charles Koch, along with his billionaire-class friends. Just one among dozens of similar foundations and front groups created by the American fossil fuel oligarch, Cato Institute’s anti-communist framing of practically every discussion of public assets was catnip to Miami’s Cuban exile community and helped shape much of their political views. Whatever the Koch-network wanted, Miami Cubans were easily brought on board simply because it meant rebuking the bearded protagonist of all their nightmares.
In 1991, the Koch-funded Cato Institute published its Cato Policy Analysis No. 162, entitled “False Dreams and Broken Promises: The Wasteful Federal Investment in Urban Mass Transit” which claimed to reveal the “cold hard lesson” of subsidized public transit systems around the United States over the previous two and a half decades since the creation of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. The libertarian think tank puts forward 9 “myths” that support federal subsidies of public transit and proceeds to ‘debunk’ them.
Many of the same tropes our City and County officials use to cut transit funding are present in Cato’s analysis. The old con that people only use public transit “when they have no other reasonable choice” and constant cries of declining ridership are weaved together with barbs against unionized transit workers and feeble attempts to undermine the environmental benefits of mass transit; the latter two being mainstays of Koch-network propaganda, which continues to be deployed against public transit.
The attacks against Miami’s public transit began almost from its inception, but it wasn’t until the leaders of the radical Cuban base were fully ensconced in power that concerted efforts to undermine, sabotage and ultimately re-privatize it began in earnest. Their rise to the top of Miami politics was not the result of an organic process, but rather the product of an allegiance with powerful elements in the intelligence community and an identification with the existing, and racially oppressive power structure that ruled the city.
Racial inequality in Miami has been historically high and it was openly so even in the post-civil rights 60’s and 70’s, before the Cuban emigres started to figure prominently in the political and social ranks.
The defunct Miami PD was notoriously racist and routinely engaged in brutal beatings of Blacks, who were considered less than human by the mostly White police department, recruited mainly from Southern Georgia’s “cracker” population. Things in Miami came to a head in 1968 during the Republican national convention, which was being hosted at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. The nation-wide race riots that gripped the country did not spare Miami and the added component of Spanish-speaking Latinos forming an increasingly larger proportion of the population made the Miami PD the “last bastion of white, Southern bigots”.
This was an image problem, which contemporary city leaders had to deal with and led then Miami City Manager, Mel Reese, to look for a police chief who could transform the ingrained racist culture of a police department required to deal with an increasingly diverse community. The city commissioned the International Association of Chiefs of Police to initiate a national search for suitable candidates. When none of the proposed names came through, Reese traveled in secret to Tucson, Arizona to try to recruit the “dean of American Police”, Bernard Garmire.
Garmire had earned national acclaim due to his progressive approach to police management. He was the first chief of police to require his officers to attend college courses and had successfully overseen the growth of the Tucson police department from 157 to 450 officers in just the span of four years. By the time Reese paid him a visit, Garmire was a widely recognized member of the law enforcement community and a deputy director of US Customs in Arizona.
Colleagues at the International Association of Chiefs of Police warned him not to take Reese’s job offer, informing him of the Miami PD’s terrible reputation and how the infamous Miami chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police had launched a $10,000 investigation into his background. Garmire ended up taking Reese’s very generous package, which included an executive retirement plan and a 50% salary increase. He became Miami’s Chief of Police on June 15, 1969.
Chief Garmire did his level best to root out racist attitudes and professionalize the Miami Police Department, but was met with fierce resistance at every turn. As his efforts to improve relations between his charges and the community at large failed, morale deteriorated. When Reese, who was his only support in Municipal government, was replaced after the 1974 elections, Garmire’s days were numbered.
38-year old Maurice Ferré was inaugurated as the city’s first Cuban Mayor and rapidly took the side of Miami PD’s old guard versus his Chief of Police. Ferré would run Garmire out of town after a grand jury was convened, that put him on the spot to answer questions about the city’s crime rate. The Mayor then organized public hearings at Miami City Hall to address Garmire’s supposed “malfeasance” based on the grand jury’s report, itself reliant on testimony of dissidents within his own police department. The renowned police man resigned before the third hearing and blamed his enemies at city hall and his department for causing his wife’s stroke.
The old “cracker” guard would take the young Cuban recruits under their wing, showing them how things were done in the Magic City. Just six years later, the brutal murder of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of Miami police officers would set off the most violent riots in the city’s short history. The fatal blows, it was determined, were delivered by the only Cuban among the 7 officers indicted and subsequently acquitted of the heinous act of police brutality.
Pinko Commie Transit
Racism in Miami is a more nuanced affair than most other parts of the country, but it is prevalent nonetheless and is a pivotal issue in its public transit system; intertwined with the problems that plague it and with the County’s continual efforts to privatize it.
Many African Americans came to Miami in the 50’s and 60’s escaping pernicious Jim Crow laws in their home states and took the only jobs that were available to them: bus drivers and teachers. All the “good” private sector jobs were still reserved for the White majority, but the public sector, which was facing pressures from new Civil Rights legislation, offered these rural folk the employment opportunities they otherwise lacked.
Just when LBJ’s Kennedy-inspired UMTA started buying up bankrupt private transit agencies around the country, Miami’s bus drivers and public school teachers began to unionize and demand a better standard of living. In the late 60’s, thousands of new transit jobs came online and transformed the economics of South Florida’s Black workers, which resulted in the creation of a small professional class of African Americans, not only in Miami but in many other Southern cities with public transit systems.
The promise represented by the creation of MDTA and all it entailed for the city’s economic development was soon beset by internal sabotage by the agency’s director in league with County officials who engaged in a campaign to privatize the system and bust the TWU Local 291 union, whose workforce operated the buses and the recently completed Metrorail.
Downtown business leaders met with the then Chair of the Transportation Committee, Clara Oesterle to discuss ways to “fix” public transit and concluded that reducing worker wages and phasing out the County’s obligation to maintain a transit system were the answers. Oesterle and a fellow Commissioner then met with the largest private transit management company in the world, ATE, to go over potential privatization scenarios. One month later, the Commission launched a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Transportation with Oesterle and MDTA Executive Director, Joe Fletcher, and Chamber of Commerce officers on the Committee.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force’s recommendations, issued in May of the following year, included a 20% reduction in wages, forcing the union to strike and replace vacancies with new employees, a drastic reduction in bus service and a 33% spike in bus fares. The union issued its own report, in which it revealed manipulation and distortion of statistics by the Blue Ribbon Task Force and called it a “crude attempt by Dade’s business leaders to embroil the County Commission in a union-busting venture, remove control of MDTA from the accountability of voters and elected officials, and hand over a valuable public asset to special business interests.”
The Set Back
The only thing that saved Miami’s public transit from being completely privatized at that time was the bomb that was about to drop when nearly a third of the city’s infamous police force were discovered to be stealing cocaine shipments, confiscated cash and murdering the people they were supposed to be bringing to justice in the city’s “cocaine wars”. The sensational case of the Miami Seven, so called, exploded onto the national and international stage.
The half-dozen Little Havana midnight shift officers caught trafficking in stolen narcotics proved to be a microcosm of the rampant corruption in the city. The whole affair threw a tourist-dependent South Florida into damage control mode and it would be a few years until the stench of the real-life Miami Vice saga would fade. In 1989, not long after the Miami Seven trial, Alex Marrero, the officer who had been acquitted of murder in the Arthur McDuffie case ten years before was caught in the Everglades burning incriminating documents.
But, something even more devastating to Miami’s freshman political classed happened that year: The Berlin Wall came down and the imminent break-up of the Soviet Union undermined the entire basis for the ongoing Cuban embargo, which besides starving Cubans on the island, maintained a robust anti-Castro media industry in Miami, not to mention the very premise of their presence in American politics. Barely three years later, a catastrophic hurricane would further change the dynamics of the city, even convincing a few of the hard core Cuban political club of the benefits of a working public transit system.
The devastation left behind by hurricane Andrew was as clear as it was heartbreaking under the jet blue, cloudless sky that taunted Miami the day after it tore through the area. Never before had a storm of this magnitude hit Florida or any other place, for that matter. The hurricane’s track had been misjudged and had made landfall further south and west than initially predicted. Official death tolls are missing thousands of migrant farmers who perished in Homestead, but whose dubious legal status left them unaccounted for.
In the sprawling suburbs of unincorporated Miami-Dade County, the shoddy building practices of unscrupulous real estate developers were exposed by the ferocious storm, as the roofs of entire mid-luxury home developments were blown away. FP&L discovered just how fragile their infrastructure really was and power remained down for months in large swaths of the County. With gas shortages to boot, the absence of a genuine transit system was made apparent to everyone.
Four years later, a new proposal for transit expansion was brought to the ballot box and this time, the people voted for it in overwhelming numbers. The result, however, was worse than the first go around, producing only a short extension of the Metrorail to the airport and a completely unnecessary, and hugely expensive terminal to go with it; a terribly designed boondoggle of epic proportions, that took over ten years to complete.
Once the memory of Andrew faded, the County Commission started humming an old tune and pointing to declining ridership of a system they refused to improve in any significant way, as an excuse to implement service cuts throughout Miami-Dade. But, the public’s desire for an expanded transit system was slowly becoming unassailable and no politician running for a seat in County or City government could ignore it.
The pressure has been increasing over the years and has, by now, become the single most important political issue in Miami. It will define the upcoming election for County Mayor, an office occupied for the past ten years by a man with no scruples who has shown no compunction about lying directly to the people of the County.