Alejandro Portes is a renowned Cuban-born sociologist and demographer who has lived in the United States for several decades. He is considered one of the most influential experts in the analysis of migrations, and was awarded the Princess of Asturias for Social Sciences in 2019. As his working year is divided (he spends six months lecturing at the University of Miami and six months at Princeton), he took the opportunity to have an extensive talk with LPO.
On the occasion of his most recent book, "Emerging Global Cities", that he wrote together with Ariel Armony from Argentina, Portes talked about everything. Why Miami is becoming more and more a key city in global terms along with Dubai and Singapore (competing on other scale than the traditional ones like New York, Tokyo or London), what are the threats to this successful process, and also the immigration crisis and how the Republican Party (both Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump) are campaigning on an anti-immigrant message.
What does the description of "Emerging Global City" - that Miami shares with two others - mean? How does it complement, if so, with the great world centers?
Since the 1980s, the great global cities were New York, London and Tokyo. The characteristic of global cities is that they serve as the coordination center of world capitalism. In other words, corporations, banks, large companies, large legal firms, all of this tends to be concentrated in certain places, because one of the discoveries that we have in studies on the development of the capitalist world economy and its roles in the city is that although industry and commerce can be decentralized globally, as they have, industries are everywhere. The coordination and decision process of the corporations cannot be decentralized, there has to be one. These key players need to be in a relatively limited space to be able to interact in a more flexible and often face-to-face manner among executives of global corporations. And those are the global cities.
That is why the world's big banks, the corporations, have their headquarters in New York and they are not scattered. Previously also in London, Paris, Tokyo. And that was the general consensus: this was the city. But more recently, starting the 21st century, it was discovered that there is space within this world system for the emergence of regional coordination centers, that is, that carry out functions and have a parallel profile to traditional global cities but at a regional level. In other words, they are financial, banking, commercial coordination centers and many times even in terms of construction, production and real estate.
And those are the cities. In the course of exploring this question with my colleague, we basically found out that there were three cities in the world that fulfilled a similar role within their respective regions. Miami for the Western hemisphere, that is, as a kind of symbolic or cultural and commercial capital of the Americas. Dubai, in the Midwest plays a very similar role in the Midwest area, Miami here and Singapore in South Asia with that same profile.
When did Miami begin to be perceived as a potential city with global projection?
They must have a relative stable and reliable judicial, legal system. It means that both corporations and banks, as well as private investors, etc., have to place their trust in buying, acquiring or leaving their capital in this kind of city in order to escape the uncertainties of their own countries. In this sense, the stability and predictability of the legal system are one of the preconditions that these cities has emerged at this time, besides their privileged geographical situation with respect to their regions. In the case of Miami, the emergence of an economic, financial and commercial center has a lot to do with the instability of Latin America. In other words, Miami is the beneficiary of the political fluctuations that take place in our region and that many times makes corporations and individuals try to seek safety elsewhere.
In that sense, I think that one of the interesting things in the mental map of the upper and even middle classes in Latin America is that having a condominium in Miami or having an investment is part of something desirable. In a place where you can be, where you can invest, and those investments and activities that come from Latin America have been the ones that have led Miami to stand out from other North American cities and acquire this profile of an emerging global city.
Miami's transformation to what it is today has a lot to do with the first migration.
Yes. I think there were actually two important steps in this emergence of the perception of Miami as the place to be, the place where you can invest. The first was the arrival in Miami of Cuban executives. In the early 1960s, when they massively escaped from Fidel Castro's revolution and settled in Miami, they immediately perceived the geographical value that Miami had on the continent. And the Cuban bankers began to go to the mainland to inform and persuade bankers and investors in the area: why not Miami instead of going to New York in cold weather to deal with bankers who did not speak Spanish. It is better for them to come here, where they can do their businesses in their own language and with the legal guarantees offered by the North American judicial system.
Those were actually the activities of the Cuban executive class that was the starting point for the emergence of the city. And the other part was the cocaine money laundering business in the 60s and 70s. Miami was the center of that laundering. Miami had two long-term consequences that benefited the city. First, that a lot of that ill-gotten capital from the sale of cocaine was laundered by buying properties, buying luxury condominiums in Miami Beach.
At that time, a significant demand was created for the rise of the construction industry, which later became the norm for all classes as people wanted to own property here in Miami. And second, that it placed the city on the map of the upper and middle classes of the entire continent. If you had to invest somewhere, this was the place, not Dallas or Los Angeles.
From that migration of Cuban businessmen to what it is today, how much has changed so that today it is a city on the way to being one of the most important in global terms?
Well, in the book we say they are the three emerging cities because their emergence as a strategic center is very recent. In other words, this issue only comes a quarter of a century ago, they were not on anyone's map before. Miami was simply a resort for northern winters and Dubai was between the desert and the Arabian sea. It has been a recent process that raises the question of whether it will last over time. But there is no doubt that it has been consolidating during these years.
And the fact that the Cuban executive lass has disappeared, its legacy is in the financial center: Brickell, after Wall Street, is one of the most important centers on the East Coast. And then, obviously, other Latin American migrations began to flow, particularly the Venezuelan one, escaping its instability. It is like a repetition of what happened here in the 60s with the arrival of the Cubans. And then many other Latin American groups, like the more than 100,000 Argentines in Miami. Cubans no longer represent the majority of the Latino population in Miami, although they certainly have greater control of the levers of power, especially political power.
In the book you detail some very specific risks for this growth and development of the city.
I think there are at least three existential threats to consolidation. One is the growing economic inequality as the classes of entrepreneurs, executives, among what are called the creative classes, consolidate in downtown Brickell creating a demand for goods and services. And the real estate market in Miami has exploded, in such a way that the middle classes that previously existed in the city are threatened with being displaced, with not being able to continue living in their own city due to the rising cost of housing, etc. And there is a very clear fracture between the classes affiliated with this emerging global financial economy, etc, and the working population of the city. And that can generate a political problem and also an economic problem, because people cannot live close to where they work. Although the problem of an economic fracture and growing inequality is not exclusive to Miami. That also happens in cities like New York and London.
Another serious problem is climate change and the rise of the ocean level. I mean, this is a coastal city with a sea that keeps rising and that creates a threat because it is an existential threat to the survival of the city. There is no scientific solution to prevent the increasing floods and the threat to global areas, to coastal areas, because among other things, the city is built on what is called limestone, a very porous stone, no dikes can be put to stop the sea.
And the third problem is political, in terms of the fact that Miami's political system is still not on par with the local system, of the growing cultural and economic importance of the city in the world. There is still a lot of corruption at the local and municipal levels that endangers the economic and cultural achievements of the city. I think the destiny of Miami as the capital of the hemisphere, shall we say, economic-cultural, in the next two or three decades will depend on how these problems are faced.
Can Miami be as relevant as New York or any other undisputed center worldwide?
No, I don't think Miami can reach a parity level with New York, which will continue to be the capital of the world. But there is no doubt that this growing consolidation of finances, of commerce, even of art, is going to be difficult to undo at any moment. So let's say that although these are very serious threats that still have no solution, the prediction we make is - at least in the medium term - optimistic. In other words, Miami will continue to grow and consolidate for a while, but in the long term, let's say half a century, with those three problems still to be solved... who knows.
Another important issue is the impact of the migratory wave throughout the country. Florida is one of the main recipients, although Governor DeSantis is in the process of blocking the arrival of migrants. What do you think?
Yes, well, the current governor of Florida is a walking disaster. A great mess. And it is part of a national movement, which has to do with American politics, the rise of white populist nationalism in the United States trying to reduce the political role of Afro-American minorities and, of course, the Latino population. This Governor DeSantis is a central part of this political movement that puts American democracy in a tight spot.
But there is a gap between what is said and what is done. Much is said about the issue having to be controlled, that the border has to be in order, but on the other hand, the North American economy generates a huge demand for labor that is not satisfied by the existing population. The country imports hundreds of thousands of workers in the US labor market. This demand allows the almost continuous arrival of immigrants to the United States in general and to Miami in particular.
In one year, approximately 200,000 Cubans arrived through the southern border of the US and were admitted as asylum seekers. They were not expelled but admitted. The majority of that enormous population came here, they came to South Florida because their relatives are here, their friends are here. You can think that this massive arrival of people from a poor country would generate a tremendous local crisis with people on the streets, sleeping on the sidewalks, begging... But it wasn't that way, that is, the city completely absorbed them. Because in reality the local labor market had a tremendous unmet demand for the domestic labor that many of these immigrants managed to capture. So I think there is a gap between what is said and what is done. They say that it is necessary to control, but the economy and the North American labor market continue to be in great need of immigrant labor, both professional and technical, as well as manual.
The issue of migrants has become highly politicized and beyond DeSantis' shift to the right, there is also Trump and the role of the Democratic government. This, already in the middle of the campaign for 2024.
I think, as the current president says, that we are in an almost existential struggle for the preservation of American democracy and constitutional order. The roots - we would need to have another interview - come from the deep roots of white populist nationalism in North America. And that has to do with be deindustrialization process that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, when the white American working class was dismantled through the export of industrial demand to Asia and Latin America.
They were practically left as a redundant workforce after all the industries where they worked moved to other countries. And over time, that loss was consolidated in political terms into a vision that the country that was formerly our country, which was North America, a country of white immigrants, is getting out of hand. And although the ones who deindustrialized the country were not even the North American blacks nor the Latin American immigrants, these are like scapegoats for right-wing activists. Right-wing political leaders and commentators use immigrants and minorities for that. The populist nationalism of Trump and DeSantis is deeply racist. It is an expression of the white population, a sector of the native white population, that the country is being taken from us and somehow we have to defend it at all costs, even at the cost of democracy. And that political position is still large enough in the voting class because the majority of voters in the United States are still white natives who can jeopardize the future of the constitutional order in the country.
How do you explain then that there is significant Latino and minority support for Trump or DeSantis?
This is very interesting and depends on the region of the country. It is surprising, for example, that there is support for Trump and his point of view in the southwestern US states such as Texas and Arizona, where there is a Latino population of Mexican origin. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the fact that there is an identification with the effort to somehow become part of the white population, that is, to be incorporated in some way. Here in South Florida, and in Miami in particular, something very idiosyncratic is happening and it has to do with the history of this city and this country. The Playa GirÃ³n event, when the defeat of the Cuban exile brigade in 1971 was attributed to the fact that the Democratic administration, at that moment led by President Kennedy, abandoned the brigade on the beach. It was perceived as a true betrayal. This episode is the deep root of the fact that the Cuban population of that first generation and those that followed joined the Republican Party, that is, the right, and it has continued until now.
The Cuban population, despite the fact that it is no longer the demographic majority of Latinos in South Florida, continues to be the one that politically has the voice. It is associated unanimously with the Republican Party and Trump. The Cuban vote is one of its strongest pillars in Florida, and it currently has no counterweight by any other Latin American group. And that is the group, i.e. the Cubans and the children of Cubans and their descendants, which supports them.
Translator: Bibiana Ruiz.
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