Jonathan Bartlett
Mayor Francis SuarezJonathan Bartlett
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The Mayor of the New Capital of America

Francis Suarez knows how to speak in the language of the future, with the unicorns and the big-number braggadocio, because it is the language the citizens of Miami have always spoken

by
Grazie Michonneau
August 31, 2021
Jonathan Bartlett
Mayor Francis SuarezJonathan Bartlett

“We’ve got Softbank representatives in the house here, folks. $100 million,” Mayor Francis Suarez calls from his podium, “$100 million. Put your hands up for Softbank!” The crowd puts their hands up. I put my hands up. “By the way,” Suarez says, “$100 million was just the number we came up with. It’s not the actual number. The actual number is infinity.”

It is 9 a.m. on April 28, Mayor Suarez’s “Cafecito meetup,” an improvised kickoff of Miami’s even more improvised Tech Week. Attendees sweat in the blue shade of a tent built flush against the doors of City Hall, which squats like an ocean liner, jutting out onto Biscayne Bay.

Back when the building was an airline terminal for Pan Am, one could watch the seaplanes alighting on the bay like herons. Today the only spectacle is a bobbing sea of tech bros, many just arrived from San Francisco, still wheeling their slick, internet-certified suitcases and eyeing the life-size cafetera from which “the best cafecitos you’ve ever had”—Suarez bets—are doled out to the crowd. They discuss moving here, exchange elevator pitches. A cloud shaped like the state of California drifts by overhead.

Many of these “dreamers” and “iterators,” as Suarez calls them, have found their prophet in this 43-year-old mayor of Miami: the son of Cuban exiles, courter of capital, and tech world’s newest flame.

Mayor Suarez has his own merch (T-shirts, socks) and more than 100,000 Twitter followers. Mayor Suarez is going to get your little brother a job. Mayor Suarez has a Miami accent so thick and so familiar to this writer that it brings out her own. In Mayor Francis Suarez the cultures of Silicon Valley, social media, and Miami dovetail so precisely that you wonder why you never noted the similarities between them before.

Suarez likes to say, “This is not a moment. This is a movement,” and yet he knows how to make a moment coalesce. His “Cafecito meetup” was announced only the evening before on Twitter: If you’ve made it, you’ve only just made it, by design. Much like all else when it comes to the construction of hype this is an activating agent, another kick to keep the ball rolling. Stay relentlessly tuned, or you’ll miss it.

“I see so many women in the crowd. Where are the women? Raise your hand—yeahhhhh!” The women in the crowd whoop. I whoop. If I had a drink, I would raise it. “We really want to focus on women founders, on minority founders, on women minority founders, and change the narrative of tech in our country.”

I meet a young man who has just tendered his two-week notice to PayPal; he’s here, he explains, by way of San Francisco and Hawaii, “because I saw Mayor Suarez tweet about Miami, and I tweeted at him, and then he retweeted me, and I got a ton of followers.” He booked his tickets “literally that day.”

Suarez knows how to speak to my generation, primed by the 24/7 headline, the silicon hyperbole, the unicorns and the big-number braggadocio and the self-belief reinforced for years and years by our own algorithms. Don’t you get it? Mayor Francis Suarez gets it. Each one of us is but a line of code away from the American dream—and an Uber ride away from a nightclub. Suarez knows how to speak to us because it is in this tone that the citizens of Miami have always spoken.

Suarez has had calls from everywhere in the world, he tells us. “I had to do something before the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, OK? They asked me, ‘how do we recreate this?’ And I told them it’s really hard to recreate what’s happening in Miami in Pittsburgh.” Everyone laughs, because Miami is a place where one cannot even imagine Pittsburgh, or place it on a map.

Mayor Suarez is frantically rewriting the story of Miami, and rewriting what the story looks like: firing off a very viral tweet in December 2020, asking “How Can I Help?” in response to a suggestion that Silicon Valley move to Miami; starting a YouTube channel; tweeting at Elon Musk; meeting with Elon Musk; putting up billboards in San Francisco that read “Thinking about moving to Miami? DM me”; promoting a resolution to accept taxes in cryptocurrency; wooing angel investors, borrowing their wings; tweeting and retweeting like diary entries every step of this venture-capital-tech-company schmooze.

Suarez shares his audience’s hot-core feeling of being at the center of the world and the belief that it is they who bring the center with them.

“We are on the forefront of creating the best city in the world. The most dynamic place in the world. The capital of capital,” he says. The tech bros smile blissfully behind their iPhones and belong. They have come to Miami for the supposed differences, but it is resemblance that might make them stay.

Never has America so contracted as to make Miami loom so large. Never has America been so unlike itself as to make Miami seem so American. Never has there been in Miami such a sense of national recognition, and with it such a potential to be nationally understood. In the Hialeah hustler; in the fabulist booms and busts; in the unpretentiousness and bravado that paradoxically commingle in Miami, there is an undeniable affinity with the Silicon Valley bro, the round-funded fad, the self-branders and meme-makers riding light content, nebulous “positivity,” and hot air right to the bank.

And yet hot air is the specter Suarez is up against, now that his campaign to attract the tech industry has gone viral. Will it bear fruit? Or is it only hype—that “drum roll, please” after which nothing comes, the very theme song of not just the internet, but Miami’s own past?

Joan Didion, from California, once wrote that “Havana vanities come to dust in Miami.” This native can only reply that nowhere in my experience of Miami does dust figure, for Miami is a city frequently wiped clean. Labor is cheap. Buildings are new. We are unafraid of harsh chemicals. And it is not Havana’s or Latin America’s vanities that Mayor Francis Suarez is concerned with—for South America needs no convincing about Miami—but New York’s, and Seattle’s and San Francisco’s and LA’s. Those people in those cities which have only periodically permitted little brother Miami, of the bachelor-party backwater and the Spanish-speaking girlfriend, into the national boardroom.

“They don’t want to necessarily see Miami succeed. They don’t want to see you succeed,” Suarez goes on. “Every single day somebody is trying to make you fail.” Except Suarez. He tells a story about a young man he met at a local synagogue, who, while wearing Suarez’s “How Can I Help?” T-shirt, was approached by an investor and handed a check for $10,000. Suarez is blessed.

That Silicon Valley, the great leveler, should look to Miami for its new home is however an uncertain proposition. Because Miami remains as spiritually distinct, spiritually vast as it always has been, beyond the understanding of even, or perhaps especially, the sharpest Stanford MBA.

Speech over, Suarez comes out from behind the podium and an elderly Cuban man, several inches shorter than anyone else in the crowd, with perfect posture, a well-starched guayabera and black dress shoes, approaches. “We’ve got to talk about my export business, Mr. Mayor,” he says. His voice cracks with age. He reaches waveringly for a business card. He either does not notice or does not mind the dissonance of his hustle at what is decisively a tech event.

And neither does Suarez, who shifts into physical deference: origin, old world. He places a filial arm around the man’s shoulders, pivots him protectively away from the throng, speaks into his face with a soft, solar focus. They look alike. Somewhere, the bulldozer of the future powers down and stills—a tender blip in time native to Miami. The visiting tech bros, chatting away in acronyms, miss it entirely.

That cloud drifts out of sight and I wonder, as we all do, whether the tech bros will stay.

“When you’re changing the reputation of a city,” Mayor Suarez tells me later over the phone, “and the city has had a reputation for being sun and fun and a place where people retire, and you’re trying to grow the city from a perspective of high-paying jobs, you just have to change the narrative right?”

Every kingdom has its curse. Miami’s has always been a double-sided story: a sun-stunned grief at the prospect of leaving home and the economic need to do so anyway. Those with potential generally follow the trail of competitive jobs north, even at the risk of falling from new heights, as the iguanas do from trees during our infrequent Miami freezes. Children of exile, entitled to sun, we only leave Miami so that we can make enough money to come back and live in Miami better. Shiver in socially frigid New York for the deferred and optimized paradise, the kids on the boat and the house on the water, one day. “Brain drain” is a misnomer.

Mayor Francis Suarez did not leave, not ever, because as the son of another mayor, he did not have to. Educated in a score of Florida schools, Suarez roamed only as far north as Gainesville. That the thrust of his political agenda lies in extending this same good fortune to Miami’s youth is a line of interpretation worth following. Suarez’s father, Xavier, was first elected mayor of Miami in 1985, and then reelected three more times, each time while in a state of exile from Cuba that revealed itself, by degrees, to be more permanent than first imagined.

Francis Suarez attended Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, and later, Immaculata-LaSalle High School. By or on the grounds of both schools, radiating grief and a low-grade paranoia, are memorials to Cuban martyrs. More temporal blips.

After majoring in finance at Florida International University and obtaining his J.D. from the University of Florida, Suarez founded a real estate firm and practiced law. In 2009, he was elected City of Miami commissioner for District 4.

His first mayoral campaign in 2013 was derailed by an absentee-ballot snafu hinging, rather unreally, on a Cinco de Mayo festival. Suarez was cleared of wrongdoing. By 2017, he was running once more, virtually unopposed, and was elected with 86% of the vote. Suarez’s campaign platform rested on mass transit—including grandiose plans for a tunnel under the Miami River that Elon Musk, four years later, would chime in to support—along with promises of increased public safety, affordable housing, climate mitigation, and the sort of accessibility engendered by publicly sharing his cellphone number. He described his city as one which needed to “graduate” from “capital of Latin America.”

Miami’s mayoral role is largely symbolic; mayors can only appoint and instruct. In 2018, Suarez tried, and failed, to transform his office into the “strong mayor” system of cities like San Francisco and New York, with budgetary control and city-contract recommendation rights. What we are witnessing today is Suarez’s plan B, where he is the political equivalent of an influencer. Suarez is a man adept at going viral, running a city that has always been adept at going viral, but Suarez likes to call it something else.

Each one of us is but a line of code away from the American dream—and an Uber ride away from a nightclub. Suarez knows how to speak to us because it is in this tone that the citizens of Miami have always spoken.

“Certainly on my end,” he explains, “I consider myself the chief brand builder of a city. I mean if I were to tell you, December 3rd, the day before my ‘How Can I Help?’ tweet, that in the next six months Miami would be the most talked-about city in the tech world, you would tell me that I need to go get checked into an insane asylum. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Rebranding Miami, he says, “is like turning a cruise ship. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen at the end of the port, when the cruise ships come down and they turn, and they turn very, very slowly? What we’re trying to do is turn the cruise ship fast.”

Suarez’s analogy ripples past the point he means it to ripple, all the way to another episode in Miami’s booster history. The land boom of the ’20s began, in Miami, with the pageantry of Julia Tuttle’s orange blossom, sent to Henry Flagler during the Great Freeze of 1894-1895, enticing him to bring down his railroad to warm Miami Dade. It ended in 1925 with a hiss of hot air, accusations of fraud, and the sinking of a Danish schooner, the Prinz Valdemar, in the Miami harbor, blocking the arrival of ships, their building materials, and the confidence of the nation. In between, booster Carl Fisher of Miami Beach put up his own billboards, in wintry Times Square, announcing “It’s June in Miami.” George Merrick was supposed to build, in Coral Gables, real Venetian canals, and didn’t. Other booms and busts followed. That is to say: The cruise ship has not always turned in Miami when it was due to turn. Which is what leaves Mayor Suarez with rather something to prove.

Where is that ship heading, after it turns? Why, home, of course. “Everyone I talk to is extremely happy and thrilled with the work that I’m doing,” he says. It means their children can stay. Their grandchildren can stay. He speaks with reverence of the “density of entrepreneurs and the density of tech talent and the high-end VCs” he would like to attract, not to transport Miami away from itself but, like the Fountain of Youth, to preserve it. Child of exile, entitled to sun: Suarez defines quality of life as “creating the kind of city where no one wants to leave.”

On Twitter, Suarez retweets startup mentor Michael Lopiansky: “Miami is the blockchain of cities. Authentically diverse, honest, and welcoming. No internal lingo or clicks, no layers of forced culture to comply with.” Apparently, I am not the only one noticing.

In his opening remarks at Bitcoin 2021, at the Mana Convention Center in Wynwood, June 3—illuminated in the gentian blue and magenta shades of Ultra Music Festival, with 12,000 attendees, including Jack Dorsey and Paris Hilton, waiting in a mile-long line outside—Miami and Bitcoin are spoken of so interchangeably that one might suppose Francis Suarez considers himself the mayor of both. With characteristic showmanship, Suarez calls the event “the largest Bitcoin conference in the history of the planet,” planet, of course, being on a larger scale than world, which would not have sufficed.

“In this city, we truly understand what it means to be capital of capital. It means to be the capital of Bitcoin,” he says.

“Capital of capital” is not a term Suarez invented. Writer Stephen Birmingham, while on assignment for Vogue during Miami’s ’80s boom, gave the city the moniker on account of its incorrigible construction, Vice deco glitz, and hordes of foreign cash. Suarez means a different type of capital, this time around, and a more permanent one: Miami’s ’80s boom petered out in a few spurts of ’90s blood (Gianni Versace’s and German tourists’) and economic recession. The term, then, did not bear fruit. If Suarez’s use of it is deliberate, consider it a rhetorical middle finger to what he refers to as “all the haters and all the doubters.” If coincidental, what could better illustrate the city’s spiritual stamp, its urge to prove itself, recurring as dependably as the tide?

“There are counternarratives on Bitcoin, like there are counternarratives on Miami. We’ve all heard them. But you know what that means? It means we’ve already won,” Suarez says, to cheers from the crypto-believers. “When all you have left is to try to scare people into not moving into a city or adopting Bitcoin, the battle has been lost.”

Those counternarratives concerning Miami? “We’re going to be underwater in 10 years—do you guys see any water around here? We don’t have enough talent. It’s too hot—well in some places, it’s too cold. This will end when COVID ends, everyone goes back home.”

Listen as the underdogs collide: “It’s a movement for Miami like it’s a movement for Bitcoin, and the counternarratives on Bitcoin will equally fail. Yes, the U.S. will become a powerhouse in clean energy Bitcoin mining. Yes, Bitcoin will transact faster and at a stable price point,” he says. “The days of currency being tethered to a central bank are coming to an end.”

Suarez delivers this last pronouncement in the same mayoral tone in which he prophesizes that Miami will become “a technological leader of the world.” For Suarez, cryptocurrency and Miami, and their campaigns for legitimacy, have elided. This is a risky play for a share of what he calls the “ever-increasing” tech world. It’s also a case of two inferiority complexes, disguised in neon, running into each other. And Miami, city of exile and oddballs, has always been filled with that credulity—Suarez calls it “enthusiasm” and “energy for innovation”—upon which Silicon Valley turns. Take your micro-doses, ride your Lime scooters over here, because we’ll buy it. Mayor Francis Suarez already has.

Suarez owns Bitcoin and Ethereum. The issues will work themselves out. “In the end,” he says, “there is only one thing to do.” He shrugs, vaudeville. “Buy the dip.”

Denizens of Silicon Valley like to call this transformed Miami a “startup city,” but this is just another instance of Silicon Valley renaming something it does not fully understand.

Outside La Ermita de la Caridad—the shrine to Cuba’s Marian patron down by Biscayne Bay, tucked just behind Suarez’s former high school, Immaculata-LaSalle—is the kiosk “de los tres juanes,” named after the recipients of Cuba’s Marian miracle, the three Juans. The trio is depicted as a Black, brown, and white boy, demonstrating both Miami’s roseate view of its own race relations and its special capacity for kitsch.

If you were to ask Mayor Francis Suarez what exactly they are praying for at La Ermita de la Caridad, I’d hazard his answer would be: high-paying jobs.

“I think there is something happening to America,” he tells me. “They are falling into a trap. It is extremely attractive when a charismatic leader tells people who are struggling to make ends meet, ‘I have a solution for you, I’m going to take money away from the wealthy people and divide it equally among everybody.’ The only problem with it is that it never works. And Miami is creating another path.”

According to Suarez, Miami’s path is small government and companies that can pay high wages. Suarez suggests that his transplants from San Francisco are so politically “traumatized, just like we’re traumatized having left Cuba,” that they will not fall victim to the “same ideologies, the wrong arguments.” He doesn’t believe they are going to come here and raise taxes or stop growth. Suarez describes America as “they” because Miami has not been considered, spiritually, part of it.

To enter into the spirit of Miami, you’re expected to believe Suarez when he claims he is nonpartisan. Suarez, a Republican, did not vote for Donald Trump. He also publicly criticized Gov. DeSantis’ response to COVID; DeSantis refused to take his calls. Suarez is in some quarters considered too nonpartisan to have a future in American politics. “Miami is unique in that it’s a city that is pro-capitalism, that is anti-communist, anti-socialist, but is also focused on solving problems as opposed to creating a party structure to solve problems,” Suarez says. Replace the “but” with “and” and it makes sense.

Suarez knows conservatives who are “pro-military, pro-balancing budget” but also “pro-immigration” and “pro-environment” and “more socially accepting of alternative lifestyles.” He describes his Silicon Valley refugees, attracted by Florida’s lax tax, COVID, and unwritten cultural codes, as “libertarians.” Mayor Francis Suarez is not too concerned about any spiritual or political mismatch between his residents and those transplants he is wooing here, but I am.

The pervading religion of Silicon Valley says that we are but a few bio-hacks away from reaching our full potential. The pervading religion of Miami says that we are but a few missed prayers from the crocodiles in the mangroves, a few miles from violent unrest.

Inside La Ermita, an exorcist gives the Monday mass. A man swishes by in the crimson beads of Cuban voodoo. The receptionist in the office tells me she sang at the funeral of Suarez’s cousin and this, in Miami, is the standard level of coincidence. These, the grim memorial to martyrs outside: They form the spiritual backdrop for Suarez and his city, the two having grown up in tandem. Miami’s razzle-dazzle is wrapped, like voodoo necklaces, in bits of uncanny and dark.

Those that are leaving San Francisco and New York are concerned with taxes, less of them, and feeling welcome, more of it. Those that come to La Ermita, like many in Miami, have so much else to be concerned about that they are hardly concerned about anything at all. This is what the tech bros refer to as Miami’s permissiveness, the antipode of San Francisco’s “ideology.” As appealing as it is to them, they would not understand its origin.

I do not know a person who does not know a person who has been kidnapped. I do not know a person who has not had at least one holy dream, and I bet you that Suarez doesn’t, either. The electrocuted man in my pool, Fulanita’s cousin in front of a firing squad: These are daily stories and yet in Miami the collective opinion is that the water levels will not betray us and rise.

This is that native credulity the bros confuse for the “welcome” they’ve been missing ever since their promise to improve the world was revealed to be, in some lights, onion-skin thin. But Silicon Valley, subduer of every human inconvenience: What will you do to a city that believes in fate?

That so much of Miami feels itself on quite intimate terms with darkness and luck and light is clear from its response to the pandemic alone, with so many conceiving of even mask-wearing as ludicrous, an impingement upon their right not to life and liberty but to death on life’s goddamned terms, which is the unspoken thrust of the thing.

Mayor Francis Suarez describes his Silicon Valley refugees as “libertarians.” Between you and me, this seems decidedly different.

Mayor Suarez rides the wave of what he calls “macro-factors”: the remote work environment produced by COVID-19; the weather; the relative tax rates of New York City and San Francisco and LA; petty crime and homelessness; that elsewhere hostility to the rich which meets its equal and opposite force in Suarez’s open arms.

Mayor Suarez watches America’s wave of self-hatred halt somewhere south of Lake Okeechobee, bogged down by Everglades and confronted by the schizophrenic winds of Miami’s good faith. Rhetoric and reality have never fully squared here, and so Mayor Suarez can still, without overthinking, use expressions like “the American dream.”

“That’s what makes our city special,” he says. “People came here, oftentimes with nothing, and we succeeded mostly in a generation or two, and there is a tremendous sense of appreciation for this country, for [its] systems of government, democracy, liberty, freedom.”

“That’s where this country should be,” he adds, as if that sentiment were a place, which it is: Miami.

Mayor Suarez joins a private equity firm and a national litigation firm in the same month. He raises over $3.57 million for his reelection campaign, which he is expected to win; he rings the Nasdaq stock market closing bell; and he meets the tech world’s bravado and bullshit with so much of his own that you wonder whether Miami, unlike other cities, just might stand a chance against it.

Mayor Suarez comes back to what it always comes back to in Miami, which is quality of life. If you ask him why Miami never became Silicon Valley, he’ll tell you that people “did well and did well enough.” The rich “had nice boats and they could go to the Bahamas,” he says, “but they never felt they needed to be billionaires.” What he really means about Miami and why it never became Silicon Valley is that, frankly, it never wanted to.

And obliquely we can hear that in another reversal, this city which has always revered capitalism is also a city where ambition learned, finally, to sate itself, and once sated, taught itself to die, to go to heaven in the Bahamas. That if the billionaires and billionaire-aspirants of Silicon Valley are coming here it is perhaps not because Miami is finally ready for them, but because they are finally ready for Miami.

For now, Mayor Suarez, hype man or healer or both, has not yet retired to the Bahamas but remains instead on Twitter, welcoming followers across the country who’ve learned at last Miami’s native language of hustle, self-heroism, and spectacle. Each one is so ready to believe in anything that they just might believe in Miami. Suarez is calling us home, not merely those of us from his city, but my entire generation, a generation in exile, entitled, as everyone likes to accuse us, to something they can’t quite name. Suarez could name it. Suarez talks about jobs, and Suarez talks about crypto, but Suarez knows that what we’re really entitled to is … sun.

Grazie Michonneau is a Miami-born writer living in London.

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