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Latin America Report

From cocaine cowboys to trade captains: how the 1994 summit transformed Miami

The western hemisphere's leader gather in Miami in December 1994 for the first Summit of the Americas.
J. Scott Applewhite
The western hemisphere's leaders gathered in Miami in December 1994 for the first Summit of the Americas.

Democracy and trade were suddenly the hemisphere's buzzwords, and Miami was positioned to be the nexus. But it had to imagine itself in a dramatically new way.

Heads of state from across the western hemisphere are gathering in Los Angeles starting Monday for the ninth Summit of the Americas. The run-up has been shaky: some leaders, like Mexico's president, have threatened to boycott the gathering if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua aren't invited; and critics call its immigration-focused agenda, while obviously urgent, less than electrifying.

That stands in contrast to the first Summit of the Americas held almost three decades ago in Miami, in 1994. That event not only marked a dramatic pivot for inter-American relations; it transformed the Magic City's role — and image — on the world stage.

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“I am very, very pleased that we made the decision to come to Miami," then-President Bill Clinton gushed at the close of the 1994 Summit. And 28 years later, Miami is very, very pleased, too.

We take it for granted today that Miami is considered the commercial hub of the hemisphere. But in 1994 that was hardly its reputation: in the early 1990s Miami's violent crime rate ranked among the worstin the nation, and the city was still considered the violent playground of cocaine cowboys.

“You couldn’t do anything in Miami except go to the beach and get high — or get shot, right?" said Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist and Latin America expert at Florida International Universityin Miami.

"I mean, those were the kinds of interpretations people still had of the place.”

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Gamarra and a legion of local academics and civic boosters helped change that by helping to sell Miami to Florida, the nation, the hemisphere — and to Miami itself — as the first Summit site.

Latin America at that time was shedding its military dictatorships and closed economies. Democracy and open markets — a shift known as the Washington Consensus — were the wave. Most of all, the region wanted more trade with the U.S. Mexico had just inked the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the U.S. and Canada; now the rest of the hemisphere was clamoring for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) from Alaska to Argentina, a vision that would be the linchpin of a new inter-American summit.

Gamarra knew Miami — geographically, culturally and economically — was best positioned to take advantage of that trend.

“But we had to look at Miami in a very different way," Gamarra said. "And we began to push this theme, ‘From Sánchez to Sánchez to Smith.’ That was Miami’s role: the Sánchezes here importing from the Sánchezes there and selling to the Smiths up north.”

We pushed the theme, ‘From Sánchez to Sánchez to Smith.’ That was Miami’s role: the Sánchezes here importing from the Sánchezes there and selling to the Smiths up north.”
Eduardo Gamarra

Communist Cuba, of course, would not be invited to the Miami Summit. Still, Cuban exile leaders weren’t crazy about hosting the many Latin American leaders who were friendly with Fidel Castro.

But many of those exiles, like the late Cuban American National Foundation founder Jorge Mas Canosa, were owners of major companies. Ultimately they were persuaded they could perhaps more effectively leverage the region's politics through business.

“They had to leave the political provincialism behind," Gamarra recalled, "and they began to say, ‘Look, maybe the road to democracy is through the market.'”


Cuban exiles in the state legislature even helped FIU and other Florida universities score a $500,000 Summit grant, which they used in part to teach businesses here how to engage Latin America.

Businesses like Cuban exile Millie Herrera's consulting firm, The Miami Group.

“It was an absolute sense of pride," Herrera said. "It was like: we have arrived — the world is paying attention to us and we are now going to be the gateway.”

When that first Summit of the Americas took place in Miami in 1994, Herrera was a systems analyst at an insurance company. She caught the international commerce enthusiasm the Summit brought Miami and decided to become an entrepreneur.

A few years afterward, she got an MBA and started The Miami Group, which today helps mainly IT industry clients from across Latin America and the Caribbean navigate the U.S.

Cuban-American international business consultant Millie Herrera speaking in Doral.
Courtesy The Miami Group
Cuban-American international business consultant Millie Herrera speaking in Doral.

“We were foreign-born Americans and we could translate for those contacts that we were making in Latin America," Herrera said. "We told them, ‘Hey, this is how you do business here — not the way you do it over there. There’s no bribery. We have to go by the book.'”

Those relationships have since paid off handsomely. In 1994, the Miami metro area and Latin America did less than $25 billion in total trade, according to ustradenumbers.com. Last year it was almost $85 billion. Some 1,200 multinational corporations now base their Latin American operations in Miami.

Herrera feels the 1994 Summit set all that in motion.

“It was a change agent," she said. "It was really a before and an after.”

In the after, the Americas as a bloc also became more of a global competitor.

“Summitry in the Americas put the western hemisphere on equal footing with Europe and the Asia Pacific," said Richard Feinberg, who was President Clinton’s top Latin America adviser and another architect of the Miami summit.

"So we need to stay in the game," added Feinberg, who today is a Latin America expert at the University of California-San Diego.

That's especially true, he argued, if the hemisphere is going to get a collective handle on the immigration crises shaking not just the U.S. but much of Latin America and the Caribbean. Right now that's arguably as crucial an inter-American issue as democracy and trade.

But if the hemisphere needs to stay in the summit game to tackle challenges like that, it may struggle to bring its A game to this week’s Summit in Los Angeles. It’s the first in the U.S. since Miami, yet this time democracy feels under threat — even in the U.S.

The Biden Administration did not invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to the L.A. summit because their governments are not democratic. Many also see democracy withering in Brazil, El Salvador and Haiti.

And, despite the plethora of free-trade agreements signed around the hemisphere since 1994, there also doesn't promise to be as much of that energy in Los Angeles as the Miami Summit felt. In fact, the FTAA put forward at that gathering fell by the wayside within a decade — as did the 1990s enthusiasm for the Washington Consensus.

In hindsight, experts like Gamarra at FIU ask whether Latin American leadership was as equipped to follow through with democracy and free trade as the 1994 Summit agenda hoped.

Even so, Feinberg does not buy the idea that Latin American democracy has regressed since 1994.

“Look what’s going on this year: elections everywhere," Feinberg said. "It’s a festival of democracy around the region, whether you like the outcomes or not.”

Summits of the Americas are held every three or four years. Former President Trump, whose attitude toward Latin America and the Caribbean was largely hostile, did not attend the last one in 2018 in Lima, Peru. Other heads of state, like Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, might put a similar damper on Los Angeles in 2022. Which is one more reason the Summit might no be as festive — or as transformative for its host city — as it was in Miami in 1994.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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