After hurricanes, riots and tourist murders, Miami has pined for the opportunity to sell its spectacular bayfront skyline, ethnic diversity and trendy attractions to a world audience.
The Summit of the Americas comes at just the right time to convince the world that Miami is more than "a place of leisure and danger," as Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former Peruvian government official, described it.President Clinton told summit volunteers in Bal Harbour on Thursday night that Miami was the one place in the United States "that was most representative of the whole hemisphere."
With nearly half of Dade County's 2 million residents Hispanic and Miami serving as a business crossroads for Latin America, summit leaders and their media contingents alike feel at home in this city, where Spanish is spoken just about as often as English.
"Miami is becoming one of the major Latin American cities," said Diego Arria, a Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations. "Miami got a bad rap because of one or two incidents. If all the leaders of Latin America can come here along with the president of the United States, that should send a powerful message."
The 34 leaders will do business this weekend at the stately Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and at Vizcaya, the Italian Renaissance-style estate on Biscayne Bay.
A 5,000-strong security force is watching over their every move.
"While we had some tragedies that occurred here, I don't think there's any thinking person who doesn't think we were savaged in the international press," said Merrett Stierheim, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
Miami was wracked by several days of rioting in 1989 following the shooting of a black motorist by a police officer. And tourism in the city and state was threatened last year after a number of foreign tourists were killed. In a 13-month period that ended in October 1993, 10 foreigners were slain in Florida.
"We have a God-given opportunity that few cities ever have," said Art Teele, chairman of the Metro Dade Commission. "Many cities never get a chance to revisit their image. Miami once meant fun in the sun. We can recreate that."
The problems of the recent past also have left the city with a darkly cynical sense of humor.
"Whenever the nightly news can show world leaders walking around Miami instead of a dead tourist slumped over in a rental car, that's got to be a positive," said Paul Levine, a Miami attorney and crime novelist.