As the plane begins its descent towards Miami on a flight from San Diego, the first thing a resident of Cuba notices is the incredible number of lights that at this hour, five-thirty in the morning, can be seen from plane.
As big US cities go, Miami is one of the smallest in terms of land mass. Its 35.78 square miles accommodates more than 400,000 people, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the country, comparable to New York, San Francisco and Chicago.
This is no small thing. It has been only 501 years since the morning of April 1513 when Juan Ponce de Leon set foot on a Florida beach and claimed this entire swath of land and its adjacent keys for the kingdom of Spain.
That is not long period of a time for a city. Rome has been around for millennia, while Babylon, Egypt and Jerusalem were architectural marvels long before Miami, or even the thirteen colonies, first appeared on a map.
This is the wonder of the United States. Along with its magnificent constitution, democratic system, and economic and military might, this society’s greatest strength is its ability to reinvent itself and assimilate cultural differences.
There is no other nation on earth where the child of immigrants can aspire to a seat in the Senate or consider a run for the presidency. While in other countries foreigners might remain foreigners for generations or perhaps for their entire lives, in the United States if you work hard and are daring, talented and creative, you have a 99% chance of success.
No one in the United States questions these qualities of being in the forefront and uniqueness. Ask any Cuban, Colombian, Brazilian or Russian resident in Miami.
Things can go badly, but it is always possible for those with dedication and talent to get ahead. Cubans fled to this warm coastal town after Fidel Castro took power at gunpoint in January 1959.
Members of Cuba’s elite — distinguished architects, accomplished physicians, people who knew how to generate wealth — arrived here in the 1960s.
They turned a peaceful swampland where retirees came to live out their days into the proud city that is today’s Miami. Of course, immigrants from around the world also made their own contributions.
But numbers and statistics do not lie. Several members of the US Congress are from Cuba. Florida legislators as well as numerous mayors and public officials are also of Cuban descent.
The ascent of Miami’s Cubans is a palpable demonstration of the centrifugal forces that are unleashed by political and economic freedom. Ninety miles from Miami lies Havana.
It is a metropolis which fifty-six years ago was beyond comparison to Miami or any other city in Latin America. Havana always was and still is a beguiling city despite its decay.
Havana has an urban layout better than that of Miami. It is a pedestrian-oriented city with miles of colonnaded arcades impossible to find in the sunny American city.
Downtown Miami, replete with skyscrapers, recalls Havana’s Vedado district in the 1950s, when construction began on a slew of technologically advanced tall buildings.
At that time Havana had three tunnels as well as several casinos and bars where the likes of Bebo Valdes sang boleros and played piano.
Whether you like it or not, the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution brought on a regression in the urban order. If Castro come to power in 2014 rather than 1959, Havana would have been a magnificent capital, with skyscrapers all along its coast and examples of its unique architecture mixed in, much like San Juan.
But it was not to be. By cutting off generations of riches at their roots and centralizing the economy, Castro opened the floodgates, so that the most talented people abandoned the country. The strength of all that creativity and hard work planted the flag in Miami.
As you tour the city and see Miami Beach, the Marlin’s baseball stadium, the Heat’s American Airlines Stadium, the Brickell financial center and the recent additions to the port, you cannot help but be impressed with the vitality of its inhabitants.
Clean, well-lit streets, a lot of greenery and quality infrastructure. There are always flaws. Urban transport is disgusting; there are beggars and Little Haiti is scary.
Neighborhoods look like designs in the Sims game. Pretty, tidy and recently painted. Although not as solid as those residences in Miramar, Jaimanitas and Fontaner in Havana which were built by the relatives of those Cubans who today live in Coral Gables, Hialeah or Doral in Miami.
Miami is the key to the survival of the olive-green autocracy. The billions of dollars and the merchandise are a blood transfusion for the regime and poor relatives in Cuba.
Cubans on the other side of the Straits, shortly after arriving, notice the difference. They are still talking with that crazy accent that mistreats the Castilian language.
They still talk too loud and some have taken with them, to the Florida media the bad taste and kitsch inherited from a system that spread mediocrity. But they are free citizens.
They rant equally about the Castros and Obama. About learning how to manage economically and legally in capitalism. Because the United States is a not a country, it’s a business. And the newcomer is taught how to deal with debts and taxes.
Miami is what Havana couldn’t be. With an excess of light, an abundance of food, and without Fidel Castro.
Photo: Aerial view of Miami. Taken from the blog Gorge Mess.
Notebook of a Journey (VI)
30 December 2014