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Joan Didion has written a superlative account of Miami, beginning with what she has been able to ignore.* She ignores her own drama as Gringa in Latinland, a fascination to which she succumbed in Salvador. Beyond one or two cocaine anecdotes, necessary to prove that this is Miami we're talking about, she says nothing further about drugs. Unless she is scratching for ethos, she is indifferent to the new Miami architecture, the nightlife, the weather, the revitalized art deco district, or "Miami Vice.' She overlooks the fact that Miami has been discovered by New York as a place to be seen. She takes no part in the nervous Assimilation Watch--that is, do the Cubans prefer to drink Coke and watch TV in English, or do they prefer to drink Yerba Mate soda and watch TV in Spanish?

* Miami. Joan Didion. Simon & Schuster, $17.95.

Of George Gilder and George Will, wide-eyed observers who came to Miami's Little Havana and saw in its ebullient plantain vendors the colorful tropical reenactment of the Ellis Island story, Didion writes:

"Fixed as they were on this image of the melting pot, of immigrants fleeing a disruptive revolution to find a place in the American sun, Anglos did not on the whole understand that assimilation would be considered by most Cubans a doubtful goal at best.'

Instead, Didion tells the serious Miami story, the Miami story as understood by 700,000 Cubans, which is to say, a story of exile and not of immigration, of intransigence and not absorption, a story whose essential elements have not changed since the terrible defeat at the Bay of Pigs, a story that began with a single villain, Castro, but where villainy has spread to the Democratic party and The Miami Herald, a story with only one acceptable ending: revenge.

John Kennedy, traitor

Miami's influence as a city goes far beyond its economy and its character in situ. That Miami has a foreign policy is the kind of detail that arouses Didion's curiosity--no other U.S. city outside Washington has so single-mindedly pursued an international crusade. It took the Irish and the Italians in the northern neighborhoods a couple of generations to work up through the wards and the sinecures and into national power politics, while Miami exiles were admitted into the Oval Office, into clandestine discussions, since the earliest days of the war against Castro. Not all Miami was there of course, but Cubans, such as Jorge Mas Canosa, a director of the Cuban American National Foundation, have been prominent in Washington for years. Didion points out that Mas Canosa is still generally unknown to Miami's Anglos.

Since the bitter lesson of the Bay of Pigs, that the U.S. government only can be trusted while it plots in secret, Miami has engaged in a series of open defiances (the Mariel boatlift, launched against President Carter's orders) and abetted the various subterranean missions (Watergate, the contra supply network) that have changed the rules of politics. Miami as a staging area interests Didion, Miami at the action end of the CIA plastique and the C-5A flights, Miami as the most unofficial of official channels. In and out of the trap doors of Washington sneak two decades of khaki-clad intriguers.

The Bay of Pigs is old news, as is the CIA's original training of the exiles, especially in detonation, which led to a busy decade of free-lance political bombings in this country. It is no secret that perhaps half the Cuban male exile population was naturalized on covert action, trained in undercover operations. What Didion adds is a context, a method of presentation that gives the Miami story a sombrous continuity. Names appear and reappear, incidents for which Anglos have short memories are, in the Cuban community, ritualized in the procession of "la lucha,' the struggle:

"For most of them as children there had of course been the formative story of la lucha against Spain, the central scenario of 19th-century Cuba. For some of their fathers there had been la lucha against Gerardo Machado and for some of them there had been la lucha against Fulgencio Batista and for all of them--for those who had fought originally with the 26 Julio and for those who had fought against it, for barbudos and Batistianos alike, there was now la lucha on the grand canvas of a quarter century, la lucha purified, la lucha in a preservative vacuum, la lucha not only against Fidel Castro but against his allies, and his agents, and all those who could conceivably be believed to have aided or encouraged him.'

The litany of la lucha demands a careful choice of words. Words are taken very seriously in Miami--people have been killed for using the wrong words. From Didion, we learn that a recent conference entitled "The Future of Hispanic Theater in Miami: Goals and Constraints' required a metal detector at the door to guard against a retaliatory strike against one of the panelists, playwright Dolores Prida, who years earlier had been connected to "dialogo'--a word that suggested communicating with the devil, Castro. Where else but Miami would Luciano Nieves have been shot dead in a parking lot merely for having raised the possibility that Castro could be brought down "politically'? It is this potentially fatal Cuban lexicography that Didion explores, safe words and unsafe words, subtle distinctions with unsubtle consequences. The recondite staking out of political positions that nobody can seem to fathom but for which everybody seems willing to die is baffling to Anglos, who prefer to dismiss Cuban exiles simply as "right-wing.'

"A man who buys a Browning and Beretta and an AR-15 and an UZI under his own name does not have as his first interest the successful evasion of American justice.'

"Right-wing' simply does not capture the wildest elements of la lucha. We learn from Didion that the owner of the above-mentioned arsenal, one Eduardo Arocena, did not see any necessity to hide his ownership nor his intentions to use weapons domestically. The jury that convicted Arocena on 71 counts of bombing and one count of assassinating a Cuban attache at the United Nations must have thought he was a terrorist, but to Miami at large, Arocena will always be a patriot. The mayor said so in a speech.

We learn from Didion that the second most hated man in Miami, after Castro, is John Kennedy--hated forever for his handling of the "disposal problem' of Cubans at the Bay of Pigs, for withdrawing U.S. air support at the precise moment the hapless brigade hit the beach, the primeval example of Anglo betrayal.

Truths are not self-evident in Miami, at least not the ones in our familiar Declaration, and politics is taken too seriously for there to be any casual political conversation of the kind one hears in Houston or Chicago or Atlanta. After hanging around the popular Cuban radio stations, and listening in at various exile functions, Didion observes that Miami is the second city in this part of the world where people actually look over their shoulders before they speak. The other is Havana.

Paella in the paper

"The Cubans will not read it,' Bernardo Benes reassures his wife, who is worried that what he is telling Didion will appear in a book. Benes is probably right. Cubans generally do not buy Anglo books or Anglo newspapers, which has been a problem for The Miami Herald. As the city has doubled in size, the Herald's circulation has remained flat. The editors first thought there was a language problem and put out an edition in Spanish, but El Herald never really caught on, and the editors have since learned that beneath the language problem there is the philosophy problem, a basic difference of opinion with a majority of the city's inhabitants over elemental questions of the First Amendment and the role of the free press.

Didion's book appears just at the time that the editors of the Herald have been trying to put more paella into the paper, more stories about beans and rice, Cuban quince parties, guayabera shirts--all part of the effort to be Good Neighbors. Just this month, the Cubans countered with a full-page advertisement blasting the Herald for betraying them politically, a betrayal that all the paella stories in the world can't absolve. All Cubans didn't support this ad, of course, just the Cuban American National Foundation. Among the directors is Mas Canosa, whose importance is noted by Didion.

"A political approach implied give and take, even compromise, an unthinkable construct in a community organized exclusively around the principle of implacable resistance.'

There is general agreement among Miami exiles that the best way to defend democracy is to disallow it. This hasn't happened, of course, but one has a suspicion that the tape on the Watergate doors could just as readily be slapped across the mouths of local liberals, which is to say, anyone to the left of Pat Buchanan. Anglos, for their part, privately suspect that if the exiles had their way we'd soon have a dictator for mayor.

Pick up the Herald these days, and these serious differences of opinion are lost in the local burlesque. A conniver named San Pedro goes on trial for offering bribes to half the local power structure, a few cocaine cops have metastasized into a cocaine brigade, the county manager and other notables have been caught buying stolen suits, and the simple investor who gunned down his stockbroker turns out to be an ex-con with an alias, a gun bought with a credit card, and a curious pile of cash.

One wonders if the exile viewpoint will win over the Herald. Is it possible that this winner of numerous Pulitzers will be forced to enlist as official cheerleader in la lucha? Perhaps not, but some reporters tell me privately that their work is being questioned by certain editors, who themselves have been told they must be more sensitive to what the most vocal--which usually means the most fanatical--exiles have been saying. Columnist Carl Hiaasen, the great Herald gadlfy, and probably the most hated Anglo in town after President Kennedy, labors under increasing pressure. Didion writes:

"Revolutions and counterrevolutions are framed in the private sector, and the state security apparatus exists exclusively to be enlisted by one or another private player.'


One wonders, also, if the exile politics will win over the nation. As Didion has said, her book is as much about Washington as it is about Miami, about the long-standing connections between operatives here and there, connections between the back rooms of Washington and the airstrip at Opa Locka, where Miami and Washington converge into some murkier Miamington. If anything has changed from Watergate to Irangate, it is that the perpetrators have learned to better protect themselves and to provide deniability, and one foresees in their actions the frightening possibilities of private cadres with official blessings doing the work of the Argentinian or the Chilean death squads.

"This particular political style, indigenous to the Caribbean and to Central America, has now been naturalized in the United States.'

Didion leaves us at the edge of the secret contra supply flights, but the future is not exactly unknown. There is the reverberative effect of certain ideas. All the decades of our clandestine adventures in Latin America have been turned back against us, and if there is any such thing as the sins of intrigue being revisited on our shores, then Miami is the gateway to that revisitation.
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Author:Rothchild, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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