To break away from the nets and maps of the past usually requires a powerful psychic push or surrounding convulsion. Business breakthroughs spring more often from mental breakdowns than from lucky breaks, lucrative deals, or academic prizes. Entrepreneurs are more likely to find inspiration in a pink slip than in a promotion. The entrepreneurial crisis may take many forms. But A. David Silver, perhaps the leading student of the psychology of entrepreneurs, discovered in an extensive survey of major American successes that most were driven by conscious feelings of deprivation and guilt stemming from broken families and connections.
In the modern age, however, the paramount source of entrepreneurial disruption and guilt is the turbulent politics of a tyrannous and war-torn world. In nearly every nation, many of the most notable entrepreneurs are immigrants. Immigration usually entails violation of ancestral ties and parental obligations. Dealing in their youths with convulsive change, thrown back on their own devices to create a productive existence, ripped untimely from the womb of a settled life, immigrants everywhere suffer the guilts of disconnection from their homes and families and ally easily with the forces of the future against the claims of the past. Shaped by a fractured or betrayed conservativism, however, the immigrant's most revolutionary creations usually reverberate with remembered values. In forging a new world, he continually restores the old.
In the history of the United States, each new flood of immigrants has enacted this essential drama of abandonment and rebuilding. But in recent years, no group has played it out with the energy and resourcefulness of the Cubans who fled Castro's Cuba in rage and fear and settled first in Miami, Florida.
The city did not seem ready for them. For the economy of central Miami, 1961 was a grim year. In the inner-city area around the Tamiami Trail, more than 1,000 homes, with Federal Housing Administration mortgages, had been vacated, and many were vandalized for their copper pipe and electrical fixtures. Local shops gasped for customers and went broke; 40-year-old Burdine's, the chief downtown department store, was languishing helplessly as its clientele moved toward the suburbs. Even Miami Beach, the supreme American resort across the Bay of Biscayne, was slipping perceptibly past its prime, as wealthy northern tourists increasingly passed it by for mellower island shores to the south.
To many observers, the arrival of the Cubans seemed a deadly blow to the city's hope for recovery. Some 200,000 had already fled Castro's burgeoning dictatorship, and more arrived daily. Castro had proclaimed a new law of potestas patria under which he was abolishing Catholic schools, establishing centers for communist indoctrination, incarcerating dissidents, and commandeering lawyers and other white-collar people for labor in the sugar fields. Refugees flocked the Miami airport, in painful confusion; then clustered five or more to a room in Miami bungalows and apartments, looking for jobs, nonexistent in the struggling Dade County economy, and confidently awaiting deliverance—and vicarious vengeance—through a brutal charge of US Marines onto the beaches of Cuba, ordered by America's macho new president, John F. Kennedy.
Some 13,000 of the immigrants came as unaccompanied children, landing in Miami without kin, without English, and many with only a vague connection in the United States. They had been packed off by desperate parents and left to be processed in refugee camps and then passed on to orphanages and foster homes. Many of the immigrants of all ages were channeled first to other communities, but most of them gravitated back to southern Florida, the area closest to their prior home and most acculturated with Cubans.
All statistical projections were dismal. Experts foresaw a prolonged siege of medical crises, economic stresses, and ethnic frictions; a teeming burden of "social disorders," needs for housing, welfare, and simple hygiene—an impossible load for the already afflicted social services of the city. Here in one economically stagnant urban area, over a period of just two years, thronged some 200,000 penurious immigrants—more than the total of black unemployed youths in all of America's urban areas at the time, concentrated in the hard core of one central city. It was an influx about one-fifth the size of the entire Dade County population in 1960, an inundation more rapid and overwhelming than any previous migration to one American city.
Few of the arrivals spoke English, and virtually none had arranged for jobs or housing. Many had been reasonably well educated and well employed in Cuba, but their experience and credentials were often irrelevant in the United States. Doctors, architects, and lawyers escaped the sugar fields only to work as busboys, bootblacks, and parking-lot attendants. Nearly 60 percent of the exiles had been common laborers even in Cuba, and all had lost most of what they had accumulated at home. From the press coverage and political comment of the day, it is difficult to find any observers who saw this human flood as anything but a tribulation for southern Florida or a problem to be solved by saviors at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Immigration and Naturalization Service—or the US Marines.
The Cubans' saviors, however, were already at hand: they would be saved by themselves—not chiefly by a trickle-down of grants from the government, but by the upsurge of their own productive efforts. They would be saved by people like José Palmero, penniless, having invested his last dollars in some secondhand records to peddle door to door; by Armando Codina, then a frightened, gangly youth, with just two words of English, hamburger and Coke, assigned to a refugee camp and awaiting passage to an orphanage in New Jersey; by Felipe Valls, washing dishes in a restaurant, living in a house with his pregnant wife, two children, and 12 other Cubans; by Amaury Betancourt—with a wife, six children, a mother-in-law, money running low—an unemployed lending officer looking for months for some clerical billet in a bank; by Ramón Oyarzun, once a doctor in Cuba, now hunched over a desk, processing paper in Mercy Hospital, living in a three-bedroom bungalow in Miami Beach with 15 other Cubans; by thousands of other men and women.
They were then unemployed, unpromising, and unsettled, living in accommodations comprehensively in violation of code, but they were already at work, seething with the spirit of enterprise, figuring out how to transfigure downtown Miami's Southwest Eighth Street into Calle Ocho, the main drag of a new Little Havana. It would soon become more effervescently thriving than its crushed prototype, soon would percolate with the forbidden commerce of the dying island to the south.
In a once ghostly three and a half square miles, Little Havana now boasts what the Latin Chamber of Commerce catalogues as 97 restaurants and cafeterias, 81 groceries and supermarkets, 49 gas stations, 48 clothing stores, 46 barber and beauty shops, 46 jewelry stores, 34 farmacias, 33 furniture outlets, 21 bakeries, 20 cigar factories, 20 law and real estate firms, 17 florerias, 17 photo studios, 13 optical shops, 13 hardware stores, 10 private clinics and hospitals, 10 bookstores, 10 tailors, 8 travel agencies, 7 funeral parlors, and 5 banks. The Chamber of Commerce counters, however, apparently overlooked several theaters, nightclubs, import-export companies, auto-repair shops, discotheques, driving schools, doctors' offices, and vendors of articulos religiosos—not to mention the numerous botanicos and 10 more Cuban banks, in the continuing eruptions of Cuban business to Miami's north and south that by 1980 comprised some 10,000 Cuban-owned companies in Dade County.
The immigrants who conjured up this commercial miracle proved to be anything but a problem for Miami. They in fact bore the antidote to Miami's decay: a comprehensive total solution, what Brookings Institution sociologist Robert Bach called "one of the fastest and most far reaching transformations of any urban area in U.S. history." Not only did they solve the problems that their arrival precipitated; they created jobs for hundreds of thousands of other Americans. Not only did they revive Miami's stagnant inner city; they transformed the entire Miami economy, making it into a new gateway to Latin American commerce, a new financial access between Europe, the United States, and the 30 nations and 342 million people to the south.
What was widely depicted as a burden for the existing capacity of the city's crawling economy was in fact a winged force of international growth bursting the confines of a parochial downtown—giving forth supplies that would at once create, fulfill, and overflow their own demands. Among the dismal scientists predicting Miami's demise once again had arisen the perpetual error of demand economics: the vision of human beings essentially as mouths, but not minds—as "consumers" of goods and services, but not producers of them; as users of jobs, but not as creators of new work.
José Palmero began creating new work within weeks after he began peddling second-hand records on Eighth Street. For 30 days or so he saved up his profits from the album sales. Eventually he accumulated enough to rent and refurbish a small shop near the popular Tower Cinema for $100 per month. He named his store Ultra, after the leading department store in downtown Havana, and began selling favorite Latin imports to the movie crowds and others on the street. Also in mid-1961, Amaury Betancourt, the elegant unemployed banker with six children, had found a job as a clerk at the Coconut Grove Bank. Although it was one of the three oldest banks in Miami, he noticed it lacked an international department. Within six months he became assistant vice-president, was allowed to stop punching a time clock, and was assigned the challenge of forming an international division, in part to deal with a rising commerce with Latin America.
Meanwhile, Felipe Valls's wife gave birth to a baby girl, adding to the burdens on Miami social services and lowering her family still deeper into the statistics of per capita poverty. Felipe quickly tired of his dishwasher work and found a job as a salesman in a restaurant-supply company that was encountering a rise in the demand for restaurant goods in Little Havana. At the same time, still living in crowded quarters in Miami Beach, Dr. Oyarzun began studying to pass the Foreign Medical Board examinations, which would allow him to practice, in a limited way, in the United States. By early 1963, Armando Codina—"a slim 5 ft. 8 inch 13 year old," according to the records, "who likes to read adventure fiction and wants to be a mechanical engineer"—moved out of the orphanage and into a foster home with the O'Brien family, in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, where he entered high school.
This group of immigrants was making clear progress. But with their large families and mostly nonworking wives, their halting English and questionable skills, their congested housing and low-paying jobs—and with what the press called "shockingly low benefits" and small enlistments in Florida's welfare system—they constituted a further increment to the poverty problem that was then preoccupying the bureaucracies of Washington, a clear part of the statistical ghetto of "invisible poor" to be uncovered indignantly later that year, 1963, in Michael Harrington's The Other America. Enterprise begins with savings, with forgone consumption, which appears, from a sufficient distance and height of abstraction, identical to poverty. But welfare families with adequate income and housing can seem fine in the data though they remain, by any relevant measure of prospects, mired in real and intractable privation.
By 1964, however, some three years after their arrival, four of the immigrant families of our story were beginning to make significant contributions to the Miami economy. Ultra Records was thriving on Calle Ocho, and Palmero was planning to open another store in a new shopping center. Valls was growing restive as a salesman of restaurant equipment and was trying to persuade his boss to begin importing espresso machines from Spain, in order to accommodate the coffee thirst of the rapidly growing Cuban community. His boss, however, saw these devices as a troublesome specialty item, and he refused to add them to his inventory. Valls thereupon borrowed some money from a friend ("at high interest," he says) and began importing espresso machines himself. He knew his market. Paying $300 apiece and selling them for $1,200, he soon was able to pay back his loan, hire a mechanic to install and service the equipment, and rent a shop for his new International Equipment Corporation. With another loan, a second mortgage, and a low down payment, he also managed to move his family into the $17,500 house in southwestern Miami that they occupied until 1982. At the same time, Dr. Oyarzun had managed to improve his English enough to pass his medical boards.
In 1965, Armando Codina returned to Florida from his foster home in New Jersey to meet his mother, who had managed finally to escape Cuba and was living in Jacksonville. Codina attended his final years of high school there, learned several thousand more words of English, and won a scholarship in mathematics to Jacksonville University. But his mother had never held a job in Cuba, and with his father absent and divorced, Armando saw that "either she would have to go to work or I would." He rejected his scholarship and never attended college. Instead, at age 17, he took a job as a messenger at Jacksonville's American National Bank, while moonlighting as a bag boy at the neighborhood Winn Dixie supermarket. It looked very much like a setback for the young Cuban. But at American National Bank, Codina fell in love—with computers.
Back in Miami, Palmero had yet to learn English or even locate a university, but his record business was expanding rapidly, and he opened Ultra stores in two new shopping malls and began to import records from Latin America and the Caribbean. Amaury Betancourt had risen to the position of vice-president in charge of the rapidly growing international division of Coconut Grove Bank, and Felipe Valls, after several years of supplying restaurants, had become a contractor and consultant, designing and building them. Following a long period of work in hospitals, Dr. Oyarzun had established himself in practice and was considering the possibility of buying out his American colleague.
By 1970, the Cubans were securely established in the city. The census counted some 291,000 of them, or 23 percent of the population in Dade County. During the next decade—those stagnant years of the 1970s so pregnant with change and growth—the number would more than double, rising to 41 percent of the citizenry. Through most of this period, however, the Florida economy grew far faster than the rest of the country's, with lower unemployment and smaller welfare burdens. Every new influx of Cubans brought new fears and alarms, new demands for federal aid and management, while the Miami economy continued to expand far faster than those of the regions from which the aid was solicited. Despite the unimpeachable lessons of the long history of American immigration, the American people greeted each new siege as an economic problem rather than the economic boon it demonstrably became.
During the 1970s, each of the five immigrants in this story made important contributions to the triumph of the Cubans in Miami, one became a significant national business figure, and their children were moving rapidly into productive jobs in Dade County and across the country. Amaury Betancourt became president and chairman of one of Miami's 15 Cuban-owned banks, Totalbank. Under the name Americas Bank, it had begun in 1974 in a mobile trailer located between Little Havana and Coral Gables, well situated to accommodate the increasing movement of Cubans into the plusher parts of Miami, then unserved by Cuban institutions. Totalbank surged with the upsurge of its clientele. As of June 30, 1975, the deposits of Totalbank amounted to $8.5 million, and the bank's staff numbered 17. By 1982, when Betancourt retired, the bank's assets were some $120 million and growing at a pace of 12 percent a year, and it did business in branches throughout the city. It eschewed only the large cash deposits from "Colombia cowboys" that enriched less scrupulous local institutions and that jaded journalists identify as the source of Miami's success.
Drug money on occasion has poured into many other cities around the world, from New Orleans and Detroit to Ankara and Marseilles—and poured out-without so transforming and enriching the populace. The drug theory of Miami's wealth follows in a long "liberal" tradition of disparaging every new immigrant enterprise—from Chinese laundries to Italian florists—as either a "sweatshop" exploiting child labor or a cover for the transactions of crime. The real offense is a refusal to acknowledge the incredible efforts and sacrifices—and earned rewards—of the foreigners in our midst who give the lie to the myth of a closed economy.
José Palmero opened four more branches of Ultra Records to go with his original outlet on Calle Ocho. Moreover, Ultra imports records from throughout the Caribbean and Latin America and distributes them across the country. Dr. Oyarzun became one of the most prominent doctors in the city, the head of the League Against Cancer, and the owner of the medical building in which he first went into practice. In the early 1970s, Felipe Valls decided to plunge more deeply and directly into the restaurant and real estate fields. His restaurants were small sidewalk cafeterias, open 24 hours a day, serving small cups of cafe cubano and Cuban sandwiches. He would open one of these establishments, make it thrive, and then sell it to get a down payment on a more commodious place.
Valls's breakthrough came in 1971, when he purchased a large flower shop on Calle Ocho and turned it into Versailles, a large L-shaped gallery of mirrors and chandeliers, now the most popular Cuban restaurant in Miami. Valls estimates that the restaurant serves some 500 to 600 daily. Valls's first five restaurants grossed some $6 million in 1981 and were increasing their take at some 10 percent a year. And in 1982, he opened three new ones.
Like most successful businessmen operating within the US tax structure, Valls has been deepening his engagement in the real estate market, presumably to shield the profits he earns elsewhere. Through his Twin Homes Development Company, he has also constructed scores of duplex condominiums at a lakeshore site in suburban Miami. According to his son, who manages one of the restaurants, the essential secret of Valls's success is a readiness to listen to anyone with an idea and a confident disposition to give credit to others. "He knows that in the long run the credit will return to him." He also takes little from his businesses for his own use. It was not until 1982, after he had built scores of houses for others, that he finally moved his family out of the small place in Hialeah that he bought for $17,500 some 20 years ago.
Such continuing enterprise ensured that through 1982, despite the dreaded influx of 125,000 Mariel boat people (including Castro's notorious complement of criminals), and despite the arrival of some 45,000 Haitians, Florida still had one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the country; and Dade County, at 6.8 percent, had the lowest rate of unemployment in Florida. By 1980, Cuban households in Florida had higher incomes than other Floridians.
In the recovery of 1983, Florida with 392,000 new jobs lagged only behind the twice as populous California (449,000 new jobs) in creation of employment and led third-place Texas by 139,000 new jobs. Not coincidentally, these states were also the nation's three leading immigrant havens. By 1984, 95 percent of the Mariel group in Miami had found or created work. Among thousands of successful Cuban entrepreneurs were at least 200 millionaires. By some measures, the post-Castro Cuban exodus had been the most successful large immigration in the history of a nation of immigrants; and just as previous floods of foreigners had impelled New York into the front rank of American cities, so this latest tide is lifting Miami into a new role in the 1980s as a paramount world city, declared by Ecuador's president the very capital of Latin America.
"The best thing that's happened to Miami since air conditioning," says Chamber of Commerce leader Lester Freeman, "was when Fidel Castro read Karl Marx." Castro, in fact, by dint of totalitarian socialist planning, had managed in just two decades to lift a Cuban city to the forefront of the metropolises of the world. He erred only in supposing that this preeminent Cuban city would be in Cuba rather than in the United States.
In this sense, Castro has been the greatest benefactor of the US economy since Adolf Hitler, whose horrors contributed to the United States many of its most valuable citizens, or even Czar Alexander III, whose totalitarian oppressions ultimately revived America with some 2 million Jews. Like the Cuban ruler, the Czar provoked mass flight by focusing his offenses on children—taking Jewish boys away at age 12 or earlier for six years of indoctrination in Russian Orthodox schools, followed by 25 years of military service—and by arousing public hostility against financiers.
The entire history of American economic and social progress is in part a chronicle of exiles and immigrations that echoes a prior chronicle of foreign tyranny and excess. A million Germans came to the United States in the tyrannous wake of the Revolution of 1848; a million Irish fled famine and British rule to reach America during those same turbulent years. Maoist oppression in China—like the Ming Dynasty before—contributed millions of overseas Chinese to Asian economies, and scores of recent thousands, pouring through Hong Kong, ultimately reached San Francisco and other American cities. The triumph of communism in Indochina is leading to corresponding triumphs of "boat people" in the United States.
Within the entire heroic history of immigrants and exiles, sojourners and refugees on American soil, however, the saga of the Cubans in Miami in the decades after Castro remains unique. Only the Jews swarming into New York from Russia during the two decades before World War I came faster and in greater numbers. But they never exceeded one-sixth of the city's population, while Cubans ultimately constituted almost half of Miami's. No other immigrant group so inundated a city, and transformed it so quickly and successfully, while achieving such multifarious business breakthroughs as the nearly 600,000 fugitives from Castro's regime who made Miami their home after 1960.
The most important effect of government plans and controls, confiscations and harassments, predatory taxes and xenophobic laws, is usually to enrich the economies of others by driving overseas a nation's most valuable resource: its most enterprising and creative citizens. Like so many socialist tyrants before him, Castro imagined that by expropriating the capitalists, he was gaining command of his nation's most important capital. In fact, he was giving it to America.
As crucial as their own knowledge and skills, however, in their legacy to America was what the Cubans imparted to their own children: attitudes, disciplines, and aspirations which ensure that, in the usual pattern of immigrant progress, many in the new generation will soon excel the achievements of their parents. The young offspring of the Betancourts, Valises, Palmeros, and Oyarzuns, for example, include several executives in their parents' firms, a bank vice-president, a general contractor, a reporter, and an oil company controller, all in their 20s and early 30s, as well as a number of younger college students learning business, engineering, and other needed skills. In fact, according to the 1980 census, the incomes of Cuban families whose household heads were under age 34 already exceeded the incomes of comparable non-Latin white families by nearly 20 percent.
The immigrant child in Miami who was achieving the most in the 1980s, however, was 34-year-old Armando Codina, who had come without any parents some 20 years before. By 1967, he had attracted the attention of bank executives at American National Bank in Jacksonville and received a promotion from messenger boy to teller. This gave him a chance to put his fascination with computers to practical use. In his new role, he noticed that when tellers left for lunch or other purposes, they destroyed accountability for errors and cash shortages; it was impossible at the end of the day to ascertain just who had botched the balances. This made it hard to appraise the performances of tellers and thus diminished the appeal of the job as an entry to higher levels, demoralized the tellers, and led to more errors. The teenaged Codina set to work during nights and weekends to devise a software program to computerize the teller-accounting system.
In a few weeks, he succeeded and was put in charge of other computer operations at the bank. By the time he moved to Miami with his mother two years later, Codina was so adept at computer banking that he was named a loan officer at Miami's Republic National. The youngest bank executive in the state, he was assigned the job of making loans to businesses on the basis of accounts receivable.
It was routine work, in general, checking through the billings and other receivables of potential borrowers—the kind of work that puts some minds to sleep, allows others to wander, and provokes men like Armando Codina to look at it for opportunities. One opportunity, too eagerly grasped, came close to halting the young Cuban's upward ascent in banking; but in his struggle to retrieve his position, he created for himself a new job—and a new company.
One day he was approached by a distinguished Miami physician who was embroiled in an argument with Medicare officials and needed a loan to carry him over until the dispute was resolved. Impressed with the doctor's reputation, Codina readily granted the loan, though his department was restricted to conventional business lending. Then he went before the bank's board of directors and secured approval for the new commitment. Returning to the doctor to tell him the good news, he began to negotiate the details of the loan. Because the amount was to be based on the doctor's receivables, Codina first inquired how much he was owed.
"Ask Katy—she'll know," said the doctor. But the nurse didn't know either. Looking at the mess of the doctor's records—the endless Blue Cross, Blue Shield, and other insurance forms; Medicaid and Medicare forms; bills and invoices; checks and receipts—Codina realized he had made a terrible mistake: the doctor's records were in no way presentable enough to justify the bank's granting him a major loan.
Unwilling to explain the situation to his superiors—or to tell the eminent doctor that he was not bankable—Codina set to work for several weeks in the doctor's office after hours to get the accounts in order. As he pored through the paperwork maze, Codina came up with the idea that was to sweep him altogether out of the banking business and into national prominence on a tide of money by the time he was 32. His idea was that this doctor could not be alone in his labyrinth of paperwork; that if he could package a software program to deal with this problem, he could reach a market encompassing most of the nation's 300,000 physicians. While breaking the software bottleneck for an entire new industry, he could release many of the nation's independent doctors and nurses from a bondage to paperwork and allow them to concentrate on their patients.
Codina's company began slowly, against the resistance of a conservative profession. He started with a urologist named William Glantz. Every night for some 10 months, Codina and three Cuban assistants would arrive at the doctor's office just as he was leaving, and often they would still be there when the doctor returned the next morning. In the beginning, Codina continued his work at the bank, leaving sleep for subsequent years, but as time passed, he became ever more engrossed in his software project.
Codina had to figure out, in a way the doctor himself probably never had, the intricacies of his business life: exactly how his insurance forms and billings were filled out and computed; what the acceptable Medicare and Medicaid charges were; which costs were assigned to which accounts; what procedures were followed on which kinds of overdue receivables; how all these operations interacted with one another; and a host of further complications.
Then he had to design a program that put all this material in a simple, logical, and accessible data base, created useful report formats and display layouts, and in general performed the paperwork that was reducing reputable physicians with six-figure incomes into a financial stupor—unbankable and scarcely insurable but perpetually liable for all the claims and disappointments of an aging, aching, and accident-prone society.
During those nights with the computer in the office of Dr. Glantz, Codina and his company of Cuban teenagers first focused on the needs of urologists—their particular diagnoses, operations, and procedures. He designed new charts for diagnoses and billing and a standardized form for insurance claims, and eventually he got them adopted by the state. In the end, this high-school graduate from a foreign land had learned most of what there was to know about the nonmedical side of the practice of urology.
He was spending all this time and effort, however, entirely on spec, with no assurance that any doctor—even Dr. Glantz—would ever use his package or that any funds could be raised to finance its production and marketing. He was working on through the night with no certainty that any number of the many thousands of software firms cropping up across the country would not already have under way a large number of competitive software projects, being executed by highly trained and experienced teams of experts, with access to finance and marketing skills. Codina had seen a need and had a concept for a company. He was even then creating and investing the most important capital: himself and his work. He would solve all subsequent problems as they came up.
Finally, he completed the system to the doctor's satisfaction and set forth to get a loan. With the help of Dr. Glantz and his banking contacts, he got $18,000 from the Small Business Administration. It turned out, barely, to be enough. Professional Automated Services (PAS) struggled painfully into the marketplace, but almost no one noticed that it was there.
At Christmas that year, 1971, Codina's financial problems drove him into manufacturing candles to pay the rent. More promising, though, was his marriage to Margarita, then an airline stewardess, who supported them into the next year. Finally, with the help of presentations by Dr. Glantz to the local Urological Society, the program began to catch on: first with a few associates of Dr. Glantz's, then with urologists across the state of Florida, and eventually—as Codina adapted the program to other medical specialties—with some 700 doctors and clinics. Licensing its product with seven branch offices across the country, PAS grew from Codina himself and his three friends to 220 employees in Miami alone, with offices in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa. It grew until, in 1978, Codina sold it for between $3 and $4 million to Itel Corporation, then flying high on Wall Street as one of the nation's fastest-growing and most opportunistic companies. When Itel crashed in 1980, Codina repurchased PAS and resold it the same year to NLT Corporation, an insurance services conglomerate.
Like most American entrepreneurs who make large sums of money, Armando Codina has now turned from the fields he knows best and moved into the less-taxable domains of real estate. His IntrAmerican Investment Corporation is channeling funds from throughout Latin America into land speculation in downtown Miami. Like several of the city's Cubans, rich from other enterprises, who now dominate central Miami real estate, Codina's faith in Miami has never wavered through recession, riot, and an alarming wave of crime, and his faith was being requited with handsome profits through 1982. As his land surged upward in value, he led a syndicate of local investors together with interests from Britain and Spain in the purchase of a $7.5-million development site off Biscayne Boulevard. Codina plans a major development to go with his landholdings, which are among the city's best locations.
Codina, however, is still too young to suppress his entrepreneurial drive to form new companies. Upstairs from IntrAmerican is his new project, Biotechnology, Inc., begun in 1980 to manufacture a portable exercise monitor for joggers, called the Coach, which gives runners a continuous medical accounting, a recommended pace, and constant readings of speed, distance, aerobic improvement, and calories consumed.
Supply, apparently, creates its own demand in this area. The Coach sold well in test marketings in Miami and Italy. Codina may possibly have discovered a new human need. No doubt there will be many more. A compulsive inventor who has patented several kinds of locks, Codina is always alert to technological opportunity. And, it is easy to forget, he is only 35.
As he moved into the 1980s, however, Codina seemed to be reaching for a higher role. He was becoming another of those "upstart boosters"—prominent on the American frontier—who adopt an entire city as their sphere and spearhead of enterprise. Codina and the other Cuban entrepreneurs now speak of Miami with fervor and faith. As Codina says, "There is no place in the world like the U.S. and there is no place in the U.S. like Miami. Its structure is wide open, an environment of opportunity, devoid of an established hierarchy, like Pittsburgh or Boston or Dallas. It is a city of the future."
Codina at 35 is emerging as a major civic leader. He is on the board of directors of the Catholic Boystown camp that received him as an orphan 20 years ago. He is vice-president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce and an officer of numerous other civic and philanthropic organizations, and serves on Vice-President George Bush's Task Force on Crime. He was instrumental in bringing the new Insurance Exchange—modeled on Lloyd's of London—to the city. "But in a hundred years I could not repay my debt to Miami," Codina says.
In a speech in 1980, he declared at a Junior Achievement dinner: "You've heard about the American dream, the American pie, and whether they are still alive. Well, let me tell you, the American dream is alive and well. And if you want a part of the pie, all the ingredients are out there still. All you have to do is identify them, put them together, and work hard.…If you can do that you can still bake the biggest damn pie you ever saw in your life.…What has been accomplished in Miami serves as a showcase to America and to what free men and women can do when they work together in a spirit of harmony and cooperation for a common goal."
Nonetheless, the Cuban miracle was neither confined to Miami, nor dependent on the presence of a compatible Cuban culture, nor reliant on Latin American flight capital and cocaine for stimuli. The 42 percent of Cuban Americans who live in other states earn 15 percent higher median incomes than Cubans in Florida. Many of the most successful Cubans never made it to Miami to benefit from the alleged magic of laundered money or a wide-open urban society.
Perhaps the most impressive Cuban success story outside Miami has occurred in Atlanta, Georgia. In October 1960, when Castro confiscated Coca-Cola's Cuban bottling plant in Havana, he drove into exile a young chemist named Roberto Goizueta. Goizueta became an area chemist with Coca-Cola in Nassau, came to the United States, rose quickly through the ranks, and in 1981 became chief executive and chairman of the board of this $5-billion company. Castro got the bottling equipment; the United States got a major industrial leader. Goizueta later explained: "One thing I have learned is that the things you carry in your head, no one can take away from you.…Don't attach too much importance to material things, because, as I know so well from my own experience in Cuba, one individual can take all those material things away from you."
Another refugee, Juan Benitez, was to become a central figure in a phenomenally successful new enterprise in Boise, Idaho. When Fidel Castro in 1959 confiscated the business of Benitez's father—built up from nothing over a lifetime—the 10-year-old boy saw his family home plunged into bitterness and fear. By age 13, in 1962, the bright, energetic boy—short, with a warm smile and a gleam in his eye—resolved to leave for Miami. But in October the missile crisis cut off emigration, and he was forced to delay his departure until early in 1965. Finally at age 16 he made it—via Mexico City and Toronto—to Kansas City, where a brother had come to work.
Hoping to earn enough money to bring his parents to America, the 16-year-old Juan took no less than three jobs, all at or below the minimum wage. By age 19, he managed to finish high school, partly through correspondence at night. And following his father's rule to "save three pennies from every two you earn," he accumulated enough money to head for the University of Missouri Rolla campus and made it through college in mechanical engineering.
After graduation in 1972, he found work at the General Motors auto assembly plant in St. Louis. Then, after a layoff at GM in the year of the energy crisis, he went to Hitchner Manufacturing, also in St. Louis. There he mastered a complex ceramic-molding process before the firm sank in 1975.
From Hitchner, Juan went to Ethicon, a branch of Johnson & Johnson that produced the majority of the world's sutures. Moving from process engineering to facilities construction, he managed two major plant expansions for Ethicon, learned the intricacies of clean-room engineering, and attracted the attention of a headhunting firm on assignment for Mostek in Dallas, which needed dust-free facilities for semiconductor fabrication.
Mostek, by that time, though still one of the world's leading semiconductor firms, was suffering slow sclerosis under remote management from its new owners at United Technologies. Benitez began to chafe at the rigidities of a system in which he saw that "if you begin in facilities management, you die in facilities management." Juan Benitez wanted to build a new plant from scratch. Then a tiny three-line ad in the Wall Street Journal caught his eye: "Small start-up semiconductor company in the Pacific Northwest looking for individual to be responsible for overall construction of a Metal Oxide Semiconductor facility." He answered it.
Three months later, Benitez received a phone call from a lady in Idaho who wanted to connect him to a Mr. Ward Parkinson, an originator—with the great entrepreneur J.R. Simplot—of Micron Technology. The conversation went well, and in very little time Juan Benitez was immersed as a central figure in one of the most momentous semiconductor construction projects—and supreme entrepreneurial endeavors—in the history of American industry.
Juan Benitez, though unusual, was not unique. Cuban immigrants can be found in high positions in many US high-technology firms, from Xicor in Silicon Valley to Storage Technology in Boulder, Colorado. The faith of Benitez, Armando Codina, and the other Cuban entrepreneurs is the spirit of enterprise that built America. It is a faith that now burns most intensely in the hearts of men and women who come here from abroad and understand the full horror of the slide into socialism.
But this is nothing new. The Cubans are just another in the long line of immigrant swarms on the ever-changing American frontier, and their upsurge differs only in speed and number from any other in the continuing saga of American revival. Vietnamese, Central Americans, Lebanese, and even the much-abused Haitians are making similar breakthroughs. The triumph of socialism and tyranny usually results in the enrichment of America, as the "burdens" of immigration swiftly become the boons of entrepreneurial growth. Against the jaded expertise of bureaucracy and privilege, the dismal sciences of a secular professoriate, and the oppressive plans of Washington regulators, the faith of unlettered outsiders will prevail.
It has always been immigrants who have revitalized America. As long as the United States is open to these flows from afar, it is open to its own revival.
George Gilder is the author of Wealth and Poverty (Basic Books, 1981), and of other books and numerous articles that have appeared in Harper's, the Wall Street Journal, REASON, and other publications. This article is adapted, by permission of the author, from his just-published book, The Spirit of Enterprise (Simon and Schuster). Copyright © 1984 by George Gilder.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Miami’s Cuban Miracle".