Affordable pied-a-terre for Latin America's bourgeoisie

Perhaps the greatest Latin legal maxim was given to us by Justinian in his “Salus populi suprema lex esto,” which comes to us translated as either “The safety of the State is the highest law,” or “The safety of the people is the supreme law.” Take your pick. But no matter which interpretation is chosen, safety seems to bring forth the need for refuge.

Right below the inscription on the Statue of Liberty reading,” Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free…” there is ‘another sign,’ visible only to those it’s intended for: “We also welcome those who have helped America maintain its economic, military and political interests in their own lands, particularly at times when that has been considered treasonous; also those who are bringing in capital to our land, no matter how dirty such money might be, or that it may not even belong to them.”

Many Iraqis are probably scratching their heads as to why the latter doesn’t seem to apply to them, at least not at this time, as they hopelessly wait in limbo-status, often in fear, in Jordan, or in Syria or somewhere in the vast geography of the ethno-politically displaced. But that is a topic all to itself; our focus in this article being the bourgeoisie in Latin America, and how that invisible inscription applies to them.

In 1969, fresh out of a then meaningful MBA program, I started working as CFO for a private, Midwestern mini-conglomerate with worldwide operations, and a very strong presence in Latin America and the English-speaking Caribbean. Soon I would discover that it was that “upper middle class” who lived south of the border that my wealthy boss had his sights set on.

W, CEO, owner and sultan of this agribusiness and housing mini-empire; an intelligent, well educated (Michigan alum), well experienced – he had even participated in the Nuremberg Trials during his military service – and well connected with many domestic as well as foreign movers and shakers… and heads of state, had just one thing working against him: his wealth had not been acquired through any personal entrepreneurial exploits but via the inheritance route. And, as a result, he seemed to be in constant need to demonstrate his business talent, making him vulnerable to costly mistakes.

Among those mistakes, there was one that stood out, one which gave his employees a form of de-stressing outlet… sort of a mild, vengeful derision of the boss’ folly: the one-million acres (over 4,000 square kilometers) ranch in Nevada that he had put together, mostly made up of small, non-contiguous parcels of barren lands – a checkerboard layout; a business that had a sizeable negative cash flow, but which at the same time offered W not only a great topic of conversation during his hobnobbing moments, but also created a business challenge of sorts.

Our headquarters became a destination point for W’s weekend invitees, usually the “McNamara-genius” types from key MBA rosters, where those of us in W’s inner circle would try to brain-bleed these guys on how to perform magic or bring about a miracle, so as to turn this ranch fiasco into a profitable business operation. But after two years of dealing with this mad bull disease, the best answer W could get involved the selling (call it developing, if you must) of the ranch in small parcels (one to five acres) to the proverbial suckers. W’s entrepreneurial intuitiveness had told him that perhaps those people – and prospects for a new type of American Dream – could be readily found in mambo-land, donning moustaches and exhibiting Latin accents. But I was quick to point out to W that these folks had been buying their “wealth insurance” policies in the US and Europe for years; that it had been common practice for upper-middle class Latinos, specially after Castro came down from Sierra Maestra and firmly established a revolutionary government in Cuba, to purchase a pied-a-terre (houses in that pre-condo era) in the United States. Selling barren lands to the Latin bourgeoisie, I told W, was the equivalent of trying to con a conman. Soon thereafter, I changed employment and was never curious to find out whether his scheme had ended with our conversation.

Three decades ago, the need for Latinos in the ruling class to have a pied-a-terre – and investments – in a foreign safe haven was fairly evident; now with much of Latin America’s mainsail taking on new political winds in the form of 21st century socialism, the need for those holding the political and economic reins to have a foreign pied-a-terre has become one of urgency in some Latin nations, specifically those where the ruling class seldom has invoked social and economic justice for their exploited brethren – and where the socialist wind will probably have gale force.

Here in these United States, we continue to welcome the descendants of those who welcomed in their countries our gunboats. To the litany of our democratic rosary we have added, “Refugium latrocinorum” (Refuge of those who steal or exploit others) for this northbound Latin bourgeoisie. And to prove our point, and lay the welcome mat, condos in Miami and other parts of Florida have come down 30 to 50 percent from those record prices of two years ago. That’s infinitely better than buying real estate in those inhospitable Nevada barren lands.