Review of "Miami"

Joan Didion’s book Miami is a New Journalism account that delves into the relationship between the large Cuban exile and Anglo communities in Miami and Washington D.C. While the type of political assassinations that were making headlines at the times of the book’s first publication is no longer a normal occurrence, the book is still insightful for understanding Miami’s official as well as their “underwater” history. As a caveat, however, Didion also engages in an unfair essentialization of Latins by framing their exile politics, as anyone familiar with 19th century radical exile politics London knows is always full of passion and intrigue, as being “Spanish” and a product of a hot environment. Her connection of their militancy to these, in the end, imperialist and orientalist notions is a mar on an otherwise compelling work.

The notion of the underwater narrative refers to the manner in which Cuban-American’s interact with the Federal government, specifically how the state deals with a body of foreign nationals which seeks to overthrow a neighboring country’s government during the Cold War epoch. Didion doesn’t examine many archival documents or policy proscriptions, but instead infers the underlying beliefs of policy advocated by the Cuban community and the American’s tasked with handling them. Handling their passionate excesses is seen as “disposal problem”, especially following the Mariel boat lifts when tens of thousands of refugees, normal, mentally disabled and criminal, were now considered “American citizens”. This problem of disposal is both one of housing, a la the tent cities created in the parking lots and empty spaces along stadiums, as well as how to deal with groups that, now free from the Cuban police, want to provoke a war between the two countries by attacking Soviet bloc ships in the Miami port and hit-and-run incursions into small Cuban ports. The solution to the first problem, how to house tens of thousands as fast as possible, isn’t mentioned but the latter is given an accounting. Simply put, the militants that left are given further training at the Ejercito Cubano Anticomunista camp in Homestead and other places around the Everglades.

At this point, the US backing of a foreign for to ostensibly invade another county, runs into a problem with this style of writing. Specifically, the paucity of sources allows for subjective inferences which may be far from the objective reality. While Didion can correctly claim that JMWAVE existed, that in the early 1960’s Miami the CIA had assembled the third largest Navy contingent of battle and retro-fitted ships in the event that they wanted to invade Cuba, she also states that there may have been anywhere from 15,000 to 150,000 anti-Castro operatives fielded by the CIA. While it is unlikely that she would have access to actual numbers so close to the time period she’s writing, the result is that the account only gives a small picture of the events rather than a larger, more coherent narrative. She drifts from inference to inference in a highly suggestive manner that feels true to life, but it’s still hard to say how much of it is true and how much of it is a reading of her own fears of the situation onto it. Instead of deep investigative reporting that gives detailed descriptions of the actors involved, she relies mainly on what is reported in the newspapers and is “known on the street”. People drop in and out of the book, only mattering insofar as Didion is able to get a point she wants to make across – usually how this group of exiles has led to a third-worldization of politics in Miami. The picture that she presents is one filled with conspiracy, martial ideas of political behavior, killing of people open to dialog with Castro and wealthy Cuban’s fundraising for la causa. It is a dark, paranoid and ultimately tragic portrait, but one can’t help but wonder if the focus on a small, sensational and militant contingent of people leads to a distorted view. Because while Didion shows that this group is able to gain a significant modicum of local political power and can gain access to upper-level bureaucrats in Washington DC, the latter’s instance on IR realism always checks the “poeticism” and volunteerism of the Cubans.

One of the poetic metaphors that Didion uses several times that I found fitting was the the manner in which Washington D.C.’s vacillating policy towards Cuba, indeed all of Latin America, leave traces on the board. People, the moving pieces on the board, end up resenting and feeling antagonism to their handlers for their perceived lack of commitment. This is especially clear in the section detailing the manner in which media strategy has come to dominate the presidency. This need to address the variety of issues prevalent in the United States disallows the type of intensive attention and concern that the Cubans would like to see given to their sense of purpose. As Cuban-American and American interests overlap only at limited points, especially towards a stable government widely perceived as legitimate by their own people, the American willingness to act is seen as weak as their capacity to act and change the government is seen as definitive. Such sentiments are shown in Didion’s excerpt from conversations with the elite, in the volunteering and fundraising for the Nicaraguan contras compartmentalized in the slogan seen on stickers at anti-Castro businesses “Hoy Nicaragua, Manana Cuba”. Additionally, these traces are visible in the varied treatment of the policing apparatus to Omega 7 and Alpha 66. Sometimes they are considered acceptable and given access to advanced military training and weaponry while at other times the membership is prosecuted for crimes. Salon has an article on their website that updates some of Didion’s writing. Most important as it relates to Didion’s work is the manner in which these groups changed when no longer coddled or assisted by the CIA and the American government’s prosecution of individuals in the United State which were arrested for attempting to gather information on these groups to prevent their action or to help arrest and prosecute them following actions.

Another interesting point that Didion makes is in hinting at the similarities between the former ruling class of Cuba’s beliefs and those of Castro. Perhaps it is because of an unrecognized fear of retribution that she is never heavy handed in pointing it out, but at several scenes the parallels between them are clear. The violent retribution against collaborators and the disruptive counter-demonstrations to silence “non-Cuban” speakers highlight the qualities which the exiles exhibit yet claim as cause for the Cuban regime to be overthrown. This dissonance finds itself in other places as well. One of the ways in which she speaks of correcting Castro’s unacknowledged or repressed presence is in the corrective she makes to other’s claims by pointing out that Castro has had a big if not one of the biggest effects on the development of South Florida as a community. As none of the people she interviews would likely be there if not for him, she does this to show how it is that their ideology has scrambled their worldview to the point that the conditions which lead to the revolution and his role in it is simply transformed into a target that, once killed, would solve all of their problems.