Think of Miami and what comes to your mind? Sandy, sunny beaches; sexy models in roller skates; trendy nightclubs with neon lights -- it's the plastic city seen so many times on TV and is the image that many visitors who rarely venture away from the beach get.
But there is more to Miami. As a native of southern Spain who worked there for two and a half years, I learned that beyond the superficial and widely-sold picture, Miami carries a message that would be very valuable back home. Referred to as "the Gateway to the Americas," Miami has thrived thanks to its role in connecting the north and south, and it has benefited the U.S. economy as a whole. If we look at the other side of the Atlantic, however, there is no city that plays a similar role between Europe and Africa. In a time when fresh ideas are necessary to get out of a prolonged recession, southern Europeans should search for inspiration from Miami.
There are many examples that show how Miami has made good use of its geography and cultural diversity. Most American companies doing business with Latin America use the city as their base for their regional headquarters. Miami International Airport ships more total international cargo than any other airport in the hemisphere, and it ranked 12th in total passengers among U.S. airports. But perhaps the single most important asset in Miami, writes geographer Jan Nijman in his book Miami: Mistress of the Americas, is the large professional class that speaks Spanish and English. "The city realized a long time ago that bilingual Miami was profitable, monolingual Miami was not," Nijman points out.
Compare Miami's ties with Latin America to the poor relations between Southern Europe and Northern Africa. Only 14 kilometers (8.1 miles) separate Spain and Morocco. It's such a small distance that if you go on a clear day to Tarifa or Algeciras, the southernmost beaches in mainland Spain, you will almost be able to see people bathing on the Moroccan side. However, talk to some of the locals there and most likely they will reject anything Moroccan. I know young, university-educated Spanish people who, despite having lived in the area of the Strait most of their life, take pride in saying they have never crossed it.
Even if they wanted to, some may be discouraged by the high price of such a short trip. The fare for a round-trip ticket on one of the ferries from Algeciras to Tangier is more than $50. A project to construct a subterranean tunnel, similar to the Channel Tunnel between France and the United Kingdom, has been languishing for years -- allegedly because the technical challenge of excavating at profound depths would make the cost prohibitive. But wouldn't the investment be worth pursuing considering the long-term benefits of a closer connection between Spain and Morocco?
Many observers believe that there is a lack of political will on both sides. Professor of Arab Studies at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid Luz Gómez García believes that politicians are mainly to blame for the prejudices that separate these two societies. "Moroccan authorities are not interested in fostering contacts because knowledge would set the Moroccan people free; Spanish authorities would discover some of the most painful lies of our recent past: that we are not as European as we thought," she said in an e-mail response to The Morningside Post. "Spain has suffered from a Europeanist fever, especially since the transition to democracy (initiated in 1975). That illness has made us not only turn our back to our past, but also to our very likely future."
The ties between Spain and Algeria, separated by little more than 200 kilometers (124 miles), are even weaker and consist mostly in the sale of Algerian gas, on which the Spanish economy is highly dependent. The picture is not much different for the relations between other Southern European countries and their neighbors on the other shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
Curiously, the poorer regions of Spain, France, Portugal and Italy are located in the south of these countries: Andalusia, La Provence, the Algarve and Sicily are the European regions that might benefit the most from a closer relation with northern Africa.
But it's the entire economy of these countries that could be better off. Southern Europe is severely affected by a deep recession that may turn into a lost decade of economic growth. One good way for these countries to get out of this quagmire would be to pay more attention to their southern neighbors.
Fortunately there are signs of change. Since the recession began, Spain has looked outwards in search of solutions, and Morocco seems to be at the top of the list. Spanish exports to Morocco have almost doubled in the last five years, and many Spanish firms are setting up bases in Morocco. There are even some unemployed Spaniards who are migrating to Morocco in search of opportunities, said Abderrahmán El Fathi, professor of Spanish studies at the University of Tétouan, to The Morningside Post. "Morocco is Spain's poor neighbor but things are getting so bad -- who knows if the immigration pattern from Morocco to Spain may be reversed."
Hopefully these new contacts signal the beginning of a closer relation between the two shores of the Mediterranean. It is still different from what we see in the Western Hemisphere, but it is never too late to learn from the mistakes of the past. A look at Miami these days, further away from the beaches, would help Southern Europeans to see the potential of openness and cultural interaction.
By Fernando Peinado of The Morningside Post