Our foreign policy belongs to Washington, not county hall
Written by Michael Lewis on March 12, 2014
We have formally set ourselves against the government of Venezuela, condemning its violence, supporting its opponents, urging immediate diplomatic acts against its leaders and encouraging the US ambassador to the Organization of American States to act.
If the “we” in the above sentence were US officials charged with making our foreign policy, it would be eye-opening.
Unfortunately, the “we” is the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners, who are once again trying to make foreign policy for this nation, a path upon which they have stumbled before.
That’s not to question their fervor. We all decry violence and the muzzling of political opponents. And those who have suffered the oppression of dictators feel most strongly.
We applaud their stance if taken as private citizens – but not at county hall.
The 13 commissioners are elected to guide Miami-Dade and its future. By county charter, their powers are “wholly within Dade County.” The commission has no business taking foreign policy positions of any sort, let alone the sort that flew last week as they attacked Venezuela.
Javier Souto cited by name a brand of gasoline sold here that is owned in Venezuela. He cited Venezuelans who live here but do business in Venezuela too. All business in Venezuela, he said, is related to the government, “which is a tyranny and dictatorial government.”
The implication was clear: dealing with a nation that commission policy brands a tyranny freezes you out at county hall, as a Brazilian-owned company was last month because a related entity did work in Cuba, a case in which Mr. Souto was equally vocal.
After noting that “I know it’s not our role to be involved in international politics,” Esteban Bovo Jr. went even further, lamenting that Russian action in Ukraine ‘begins to divert attention from Venezuela.”
Said Mr. Bovo, “It’s appalling to see other governments in the region that stay quiet on this issue, governments that are perhaps left of center like Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and sadly have decided to put their lot in with people like Cuba, who by the way trains the repressive groups that are in Venezuela.”
So now we list six nations in the Americas as non grata to Miami-Dade’s government, a stance that in the past has led to repercussions that have cost this county millions in business and tarnished image.
If anyone is going to list bad guys among nations – a questionable tactic – it must be the federal government. The constitution is explicit that in Washington, DC, alone rests the foreign policy of the United States.
And, despite the quip that Miami is very near the United States, in point of fact it is also under US law, county commission notwithstanding.
Mr. Souto has his own logic for why the constitution doesn’t apply to the county: “Miami-Dade County is the capital of the Americas today… and we are the government of Miami-Dade County and, yes, we have a tremendous responsibility for anything that happens in the Americas because if not we shouldn’t be called the capital of the Americas…”
While, the county’s lawyers had told him that the commission cannot intervene in international affairs, Mr. Souto said, “Yes, we can intervene in international affairs because we don’t stand alone in the world.”
Besides, said Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who sponsored the condemnation of Venezuela, “This county can’t sit by and see this take place so close to our shores… We cannot stand by and see beauty queens and normal people get raped, killed in streets.”
While Mr. Diaz noted that people had told him “to tone it down,” he said, he can’t: “It’s the Marine in me.”
While commission posturing with no impact is common, commissioners plan to put tax money behind this misguided foreign policy mission. Immediately after unanimously voting for action on Venezuela, they made it one of the county’s 10 federal legislative priorities.
That ordered Washington lobbyists who get paid millions to push the county’s aims to put Venezuela ahead of at least 16 that missed the priority list.
Now Venezuela is ahead not only of those 16 but also of 120 more on the commission’s list for Washington, They’ll get less action than Venezuela from our lobbyists, yet they include such needs for our airport and seaport as a federal allocation of $50 million to $75 million for mega-ship dredging going on at PortMiami.
Among these “secondary” issues are meals for the elderly, homeless assistance, juvenile justice aid, environmental cash, federal money for local public housing, Everglades restoration, and support for our bus and rail transit.
On a global scale, political rights in Venezuela might outweigh any of these. But in the sphere of Miami-Dade government’s role, Venezuela shouldn’t show up at all.
Think of the adage: when government is in deep trouble, look abroad for villains to condemn to cover up your problems. Look how well Cuba and Venezuela do just that.
While commissioners have time to decry what’s going on abroad, only one had time to read the entire baseball stadium contract that cost the county almost $3 billion. They all did find time later to say that nobody told them.
Commissioners today face a $1.6 billion consent decree to fix sewer and water problems they ignored for decades – problems whose total bill is more than $12 billion.
It’s the same commissioners who suddenly learned that – surprise! – county bridges are decaying and emergency repairs are about to snarl traffic from around the globe to the Sony Open tournament.
But they have ample time for Venezuela or Cuba or Ukraine.
It’s not like the commission hasn’t been down the slippery foreign policy slope before. Our 1990s policy against doing business with foreign entities that had any Cuba business ties cost us an international track & field meet, a chance to host the Pan American Games, a business deal with the government of Spain, the first-ever Latin Grammys, and more.
The courts just slapped down a Florida policy that prohibited companies from bidding on state and local government contracts if they also did business in Cuba or Syria.
Local policy can’t contravene Washington’s foreign policy – unless you’re in Miami-Dade. Just because far too many Miamians have suffered injustice and tyranny abroad doesn’t give our local government the power to enter foreign policy.
We empathize with persons anywhere on the globe who live under dictatorial yokes. As any newspaper should, we feel especially strongly about standing up for freedoms of speech and political action, and we commend our commissioners – outside of their official activity – for speaking out as private citizens about injustice.
But when commissioners are on duty, their focus must be totally on the well-being of the residents of Miami-Dade County, today and for generations ahead.
For every good reason, as their attorneys have already told them, when they’re at county hall our commissioners need to leave foreign policy right where the US Constitution puts it – in Washington.