“Havana vanities come to dust in Miami,” writes Joan Didion at the start of Miami, a book that looks beyond the city’s bright pastel facades and sunlit beaches to shadowed scenes, dark history. Didion trains her penetrating vision on Miami’s Cuban exile community during the 1980s, dissecting their hopes and fierce politics, their undying commitment to Castro’s overthrow, and their tangled dynamic with successive American administrations since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Miami uncovers a world of “violence, intrigue, vengeance, political manipulation, and broken dreams,” wrote The Boston Globe upon its 1987 release. In framing her story, Didion offers a hauntingly detailed portrait of the city at a time of booming cocaine-trafficking, racial strife, and skyrocketing murder rates. She also reaches back to the botched 1961 invasion, the Kennedy assassination, and the Watergate break-in, setting forth a disturbing history of America’s foreign policy, especially its Latin America policy, during the Cold War.
Excerpt from Miami
Havana vanities come to dust in Miami. On the August night in 1933 when General Gerardo Machado, then president of Cuba, flew out of Havana into exile, he took with him five revolvers, seven bags of gold, and five friends, still in their pajamas. Gerardo Machado is buried now in a marble crypt at Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami, Section Fourteen, the mausoleum. On the March night in 1952 when Carlos Prío Socarrás, who had helped depose Gerardo Machado in 1933 and had fifteen years later become president himself, flew out of Havana into exile, he took with him his foreign minister, his minister of the interior, his wife and his two small daughters. A photograph of the occasion shows Señora de Prío, quite beautiful, boarding the plane in what appears to be a raw silk suit, and a hat with black fishnet veiling. She wears gloves, and earrings. Her makeup is fresh. The husband and father, recently the president, wears dark glasses, and carries the younger child, María Elena, in his arms.
Carlos Prío is now buried himself at Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami, Section Three, not far from Gerardo Machado, in a grave marked by a six-foot marble stone on which the flag of Cuba waves in red, white and blue ceramic tile, carlos prío socarrás 1903-1977, the stone reads, and directly below that, as if Carlos Prío Socarrás's main hedge against oblivion had been that period at the University of Havana when he was running actions against Gerardo Ma-chado: miembro del directorio estudiantil universitario 1930. Only then does the legend presidente de la república de Cuba 1948-1952 appear, an anticlimax. Presidencies are short and the glamours of action long, there among the fallen frangipani and crepe myrtle blossoms at Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami. "They say that I was a terrible president of Cuba," Carlos Prío once said to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., during a visit to the Kennedy White House some ten years into the quarter-century Miami epilogue to his four-year Havana presidency. "That may be true. But I was the best president Cuba ever had."
Many Havana epilogues have been played in Florida, and some prologues. Florida is that part of the Cuban stage where declamatory exits are made, and side deals. Florida is where the chorus waits to comment on the action, and sometimes to join it. The exiled José Martí raised money among the Cuban tobacco workers in Key West and Tampa, and in 1894 attempted to mount an invasionary expedition from north of Jacksonville. The exiled Fidel Castro Ruz came to Miami in 1955 for money to take the 26 Julio into the Sierra Maestra, and got it, from Carlos Prío. Fulgencio Batista had himself come back from Florida to take Havana away from Carlos Prío in 1952, but by 1958 Fidel Castro, with Carlos Prío's money, was taking it away from Fulgencio Batista, at which turn Carlos Prío's former prime minister tried to land a third force in Camagüey Province, the idea being to seize the moment from Fidel Castro, a notably failed undertaking encouraged by the Central Intelligence Agency and financed by Carlos Prío, at home in Miami Beach.
This is all instructive. In the continuing opera still called, even by Cubans who have now lived the largest part of their lives in this country, el exilio, the exile, meetings at private houses in Miami Beach are seen to have consequences. The actions of individuals are seen to affect events directly. 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. That this particular political style, indigenous to the Caribbean and to Central America, has now been naturalized in the United States is one reason why, on the flat coastal swamps of South Florida, where the palmettos once blew over the detritus of a dozen failed booms and the hotels were boarded up six months a year, there has evolved since the early New Year's morning in 1959 when Fulgencio Batista flew for the last time out of Havana (for this flight, to the Dominican Republic on an Aerovías Q DC-4, the women still wore the evening dresses in which they had gone to dinner) a settlement of considerable interest, not exactly an American city as American cities have until recently been understood but a tropical capital: long on rumor, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogotá and to Paris and Madrid. Of American cities Miami has since 1959 connected only to Washington, which is the peculiarity of both places, and increasingly the warp.
In the passion of el exilio there are certain stations at which the converged, or colliding, fantasies of Miami and Washington appear in fixed relief. Resentments are recited, rosaries of broken promises. Occasions of error are recounted, imperfect understandings, instances in which the superimposition of Washington abstractions on Miami possibilities may or may not have been, in a word Washington came to prefer during the 1980s, flawed. On April 17, 1985, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the aborted invasion referred to by most Americans and even some Cubans as the Bay of Pigs, what seems in retrospect a particularly poignant progression of events was held in Miami to commemorate those losses suffered in 1961 at Playa Girón, on the southern coast of Matanzas Province, by the 2506 Brigade, the exile invasion force trained and supported—up to a point, the famous point, the midnight hour when John F. Kennedy sent down the decision to preserve deniability by withholding air cover—by the United States government.
The actual events of this 1985 anniversary were ritual, and as such differed only marginally from those of other years, say 1986, when Jeane Kirkpatrick would be present, to wave small souvenir flags, American and Cuban, and to speak of "how different the world would have been" had the brigade prevailed. By one minute past midnight on the morning of the 1985 anniversary, as in years before and after, some thirty members of the 2506, most of them men in their forties and fifties wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying AR-15 rifles, veterans of the invasion plus a few later recruits, had assembled at the Martyrs of Girón monument on Southwest Eighth Street in Miami and posted a color guard, to stand watch through the soft Florida night. A tape recording of "The Star Spangled Banner" had been played, and one of "La Bayamesa," the Cuban national anthem. No temáis una muerte gloriosa, the lyric of "La Bayamesa" runs, striking the exact note of transcendent nationalism on which the occasion turned. Do not fear a glorious death: To die for patria is to live.
By late morning the police had cordoned off the weathered bungalow on Southwest Ninth Street which was meant to be the Casa, Museo y Biblioteca de la Brigada 2506 del Exilio Cubano, the projected repository for such splinters of the true cross as the 2506 flag presented to John F. Kennedy at the Orange Bowl, twenty months after the Bay of Pigs, when he promised to return the flag to the brigade "in a free Havana" and took it back to Washington, later expanding its symbolic content geometrically by consigning it to storage in what explicators of this parable usually refer to as a dusty basement. On the morning of the anniversary ground was being broken for the renovation of the bungalow, an occasion for Claude Pepper, fresh from the continuing debate in the House of Representatives over aid to the Nicaraguan contras, to characterize the landing at Girón as "one of the most heroic events in the history of the world" and for many of those present to voice what had become by that spring the most urgent concern of the exile community, the very concern which now lends the occasion its retrospective charge, that "the freedom fighters of the eighties" not be treated by the Reagan administration as the men of the 2506 had been treated, or believed that they had been treated, by the Kennedy administration.
Sometimes the word used to describe that treatment was "abandonment," and sometimes the word was "betrayal," but the meaning was the same, and the ardor behind the words cut across all class lines, not only that morning at the bungalow but later at the roll call at the monument and still later, at the Mass said that evening for the 2506 at the chapel on Biscayne Bay which is so situated as to face Cuba. There were men that morning in combat fatigues, but there were also men in navy-blue blazers, with the bright patch of the 2506 pinned discreetly to the pocket. There were National Rifle Association wind-breakers and there were T-shirts featuring the American flag and the legend these colors don't run and there were crucifixes on bare skin and there were knife sheaths on belts slung so low that Jockey shorts showed, but there were also Brooks Brothers shirts, and rep ties, and briefcases of supple leather. There were men who would go later that day to offices in the new glass towers along Brickell Avenue, offices with Barcelona chairs and floor-to-ceiling views of the bay and the harbor and Miami Beach and Key Biscayne, and there were men whose only offices were the gun stores and the shooting ranges and the flying clubs out off Krome Avenue, where the West Dade subdivisions give way to the Everglades and only the sudden glitter of water reveals its encroaching presence and drugs get dropped and bodies dumped.
They have been construed since as political flotsam, these men of the 2506, uniformly hard cases, drifters among the more doubtful venues serviced by Southern Air Transport, but this is misleading. Some members of the 2506 had lived in Miami since before Fidel Castro entered Havana and some had arrived as recently as 1980, the year of the Mariel exodus. Some were American citizens and some never would be, but they were all Cuban first, and they proceeded equally from a kind of collective spell, an occult enchantment, from that febrile complex of resentments and revenges and idealizations and taboos which renders exile so potent an organizing principle. They shared not just Cuba as a birthplace but Cuba as a construct, the idea of birthright lost. They shared a definition of patria as indivisible from personal honor, and therefore of personal honor as that which had been betrayed and must be revenged. They shared, not only with one another but with virtually every other Cuban in Miami, a political matrix in which the very shape of history, its dialectic, its tendency, had traditionally presented itself as 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 nineteenth-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.
What constituted such aid or encouragement remained the great Jesuitical subject of el exilio, defined and redefined, distilled finally to that point at which a notably different angle obtained on certain events in the recent American past. The 1972 burglary at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, say, appeared from this angle as a patriotic mission, and the Cubans who were jailed for it as mártires de la lucha. Mariel appeared as a betrayal on the part of yet another administration, a deal with Fidel Castro, a decision by the Carter people to preserve the status quo in Cuba by siphoning off the momentum of what could have been, in the dreamtime of el exilio, where the betrayal which began with the Kennedy administration continued to the day at hand, a popular uprising. Down with the kennedy-khru-shchev pact was the legend, in Spanish, on one of the placards bobbing for attention in front of the minicams that day. Enough treasons. On the back of another placard there was lettered a chant: Contadora / traidora / venda / patria. That traitor who would back a political settlement in Central America, in other words, sold out his country, and so his honor.
In many ways the Bay of Pigs continued to offer Maimi an ideal narrative, one in which the men of the 2506 were forever the valiant and betrayed and the United States was forever the seducer and betrayer and the blood of los mártires remained forever fresh. When the names of the 114 brigade members who died in Cuba were read off that day at the Playa Girón monument, the survivors had called out the responses in unison, the rhythm building, clenched fists thrust toward the sky: Presente, 114 times. The women, in silk dresses and high-heeled sandals, dabbed at their eyes behind dark glasses. "Es triste," one woman murmured, again and again, to no one in particular.
La tristeza de Miami. "We must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces in exile," a Kennedy campaign statement had declared in 1960, and Miami had for a time believed John F. Kennedy a communicant in its faith. "We cannot have the United States walk away from one of the greatest moral challenges in postwar history," Ronald Reagan had declared two nights before this 1985 anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, at a Nicaraguan Refugee Fund benefit dinner in Washington, and Miami once again believed an American president a communicant in its faith. Even the paper thimbles of sweet Cuban coffee distributed after the 2506 Mass that April evening in Miami, on the steps of the chapel which faces Cuba and has over its altar a sequined Virgin, a Virgin dressed for her quince, had the aspect of a secular communion, the body and blood of patria, machismo, la lucha, sentimental trinity. That la lucha had become, during the years since the Bay of Pigs, a matter of assassinations and bombings on the streets of American cities, of plots and counterplots and covert dealings involving American citizens and American institutions, of attitudes and actions which had shadowed the abrupt termination of two American presidencies and would eventually shadow the immobilization of a third, was a peculiarity left, that one evening, officially unexplored.