Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Miami billionaire wants to install tallest flag to represent love of country

Billionaire Mike Fernandez wants to raise in Miami the tallest flag in the country, but when it comes to love of country, flag size doesn’t matter.

One Memorial Day weekend some years ago, I was driving to Fort Lauderdale along a familiar route when I came upon a street that fronts a modest cemetery.

And there, under majestic trees, hundreds of small American flags fluttered from every grave – an endless sea of red, white and blue on a vast green lawn.

It was one of those unscripted moments when reverence, gratitude and history combine and I feel deeply American – privileged and lucky to be one.

The American flag, symbol of freedom and democracy, has the power to stir much emotion. Countless lives have been lost defending what it stands for. And for those of us who were not born here but have found refuge in this country, the flag holds yet another layer meaning.

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That’s why I understand the sentiments behind Fernandez’s desire to show his gratitude to his adoptive country with the donation of a monumental flag flying atop a 40-story flagpole over downtown Miami’s Museum Park.

“It’s still a preliminary idea,” Fernandez told me Friday in a conversation that easily flowed to topics of family, philanthropy, and Florida politics.

His motivation behind the flag project, which he’s shopping to the Miami commissioners: “My family and I have been blessed in many ways and I try to give back.”

And Fernandez – who came to this country with his penniless family at age12, grew up in New York City, dropped out of college, served in the U.S. Army, launched a dozen enterprises, and is chairman of the Coral Gables-based MBF Healthcare Partners – has given plenty to a wide range of causes.

An important donor to the Republican Party, he’s no rabid tea partier, even if Fernandez was, before he quit earlier this year, Rick Scott’s chief campaign fundraiser.

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To his Democrat friends, “I’m a Neanderthal Republican,” he says laughing. To the Republicans, he’s “the biggest Democrat donor the Republicans have.”

When Fernandez talks about erecting a humongous flag pole that neighbors may find an eyesore, he constantly reassures me that he understands the objections: that he could give the $5-10 million it will cost to more worthy endeavors; that the spot in Museum Park he prefers should be left green for generations to come.

He defends people’s right to criticize him (even the disrespectful ones). And no, he says, he doesn’t want his name anywhere on the base of his “gift to the city,” which requires a little less than 1,000-square feet of space.

But he stands by his idea to raise the tallest flag as a symbol of Cuban-American gratitude to the USA.

Love of country: You can’t mandate it or legislate it, not anymore than you can any other kind of love.

Fernandez feels it and he wants to spend his money showing it, who can argue with him?

“Banquettes for rest and flamboyant trees for shade is what the park needs,” I argue.

He says he hadn’t thought about those, but he’ll throw them into the project and pay for them too.

My last argument: It’s a better idea to raise the flag upstate in Tea Party Country – a gift from the immigrants these people hate so much.

Mike Fernandez laughs, but he knows what I’m talking about.

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