The Books: Miami, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is Miami, by Joan Didion.

I need to get back to the book excerpts. My OCD will not let me leave the task unfinished (started in 2006). Of course I have gained books since then (as well as given books away). But it’s a project I have enjoyed and I do want to continue it. My offline life has grown in size, however. Less time.

Last weekend I read Joan Didion’s heartwrenching book Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter Quintana. I had been avoiding it. For good reason, I might add. It is one of the saddest most unsettling books I’ve ever read. I am lost in admiration at Didion’s ability to put the ineffable into words. Someone described her writing as “pitiless” – maybe it was Hitchens? – and I think that’s pretty accurate. When a soft phrase comes, when her heart cracks open into her language, it is breathtaking, because the rest is usually so cool, clear. She seems to yearn to be accurate. This comes from her journalism background, of course, but when she turns that desire for accuracy to the personal – her essay on migraines, her book The Year of Magical Thinking on the death of her husband, and in Blue Nights – it is stunning. Difficult to read. The light is too bright. You want her to turn the damn thing off. But she will not.

Didion’s book on Miami came out in 1987. It is typical Didion in that she seeks out the interesting stories that will crack open the place to an outsider (and it makes me wish she had written more books about the underlying THEMES of American cities – she’s so good with that stuff), and it also has an impressionistic feel through the images she chooses, the characters she outlines, the trees, the air, the architecture. Like her book on Salvador, and, more so, her book and essays on California, Joan Didion always seems to look at a person/place/thing and demand of herself, “What is REALLY going on here.” She sees Miami as a crossroads of culture, more of a tropical Central American city than an American one. She sees it as a place of overwhelming paranoia, conspiracy theories, and violence. She covers a trial. She visits the coroner’s office. She describes the cars, the women, the muggy air. She talks about the Cuban exile community, the anti-Castro groups, the right-wing groups, the mixture of immigrants and non, and the clash of democracy, tyranny, and government.

As with anything, it is Didion’s prose that is the star here. She could write about toilet paper and make it compelling. Her desire is to see underneath the rock, to perceive the underlying Narrative (that word again). A place can have a Narrative. The surface is definitely important, because it is through the surface that we present ourselves to the world. But … what is REALLY going on here?

Miami, by Joan Didion

To spend time in Miami is to acquire a certain fluency in cognitive dissonance. What Allen Dulles called the disposal problem is what Miami calls la lucha. One man’s loose cannon is another’s freedom fighter, or, in the local phrase, man of action, or man of valor. “This is a thing for men of valor, not for weaklings like you,” an exile named Miriam Arocena had told the Miami Herald reporter who tried to interview her after the arrest of her husband, Eduardo Arocena, who was finally convinced, in a series of trials which ended a few days before the Bay of Pigs twenty-fourth anniversary observance at the 2506 bungalow and at the Martyrs of Giron monument and at the chapel which faces Cuba, of seventy-one federal counts connected with bombings in New York and Miami and with the 1980 assassination in New York of Felix Garcia Rodriguez, an attaché at the Cuban mission to the United Nations, as well as with the attempted assassination the same year of Raul Roa Kouri, at that time the Cuban ambassador to the United States.

The Florida bombings in question had taken place, between 1979 and 1983, at the Mexican consulate in Miami, at the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, and at various Miami businesses rumored in the exile community to have had dealings with, or sympathy for, or perhaps merely indifference toward, the current government of Cuba. None of these bombings had caused deaths or mutilations, although bombings which did had become commonplace enough in Miami during the 1970s to create a market for devices designed to flick the ignition in a parked car by remote signal, enabling the intended victim to watch what might have been his own incineration from across the street, an interested bystander.

Many of the bombings mentioned in the government’s case against Eduardo Arocena involved what the FBI called his signature, a pocket-watch timer with a floral back piece. All had been claimed, in communiques to local Spanish radio stations and newspapers, by Omega 7, which was by the time of these Arocena trials perhaps the most extensively prosecuted and so the most widely known of all the exile action groups operating out of Miami and New Jersey, where there had been since the beginning of the exile a small but significant exile concentration. Omega 7, the leader of which used the code name “Omar”, was said by the FBI to have been involved in not only the machine-gunning in Queens of Felix Garcia Rodriguez and the attempted car-bombing in Manhattan of Raul Roa Kouri (whose driver had discovered the bag of plastique under the car, which was parked at 12 East Eighty-first Street) but also in the 1979 murder in Union City, New Jersey, of Eulalio Jose Negrin, an exile who supported the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba and so was killed by a fusillade of semiautomatic fire as he got into a car with his thirteen-year-old son.

Omega 7 had claimed, in New York, the 1979 TWA terminal bombing at Kennedy airport. Omega 7 had claimed the 1979 Avery Fisher Hall bombing at Lincoln Center. Omega 7 had claimed, in Manhattan alone, the 1975 and 1977 bombings of the Venezuelan Mission to the United Nations on East Fifty-first Street, the 1976 and 1978 bombings at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations on East Sixty-seventh Street, the two 1979 bombings of the relocated Cuban Mission to the United Nations on Lexington Avenue, the 1979 bombing of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations on East Sixty-seventh Street, the 1978 bombing of the office of El Diario-La Prensa on Hudson Street, the 1980 bombing of the Soviet Union’s Aeroflot ticket office on Fifth Avenue, and, by way of protesting the inclusion of Cuban boxers on the card at Madison Square Garden, the 1978 bombing of the adjacent Gerry Cosby Sporting Goods store at 2 Penn Plaza.

The issue in dispute, then, during the three trials that made up United States of America v. Eduardo Arocena, the first in New York and the second and third in Miami, was not whether Omega 7 had committed the acts mentioned in the indictments but whether Eduardo Arocena was in fact its leader, “Omar”. The government continued to maintain, with considerable success, that he was. Eduardo Arocena continued to maintain that he was not, notwithstanding the fact that he had in 1982 talked at some length to the FBI, in a room at the Ramada Inn near the Miami airport, about Omega 7 actions; had declared during his New York trial that he “unconditionally supported” those actions; and had advised the second of his Miami juries that they had in him “the most confirmed terrorist of all”, one who would never repent. “Padre, forgive them,” Eduardo Arocena had said when this jury handed down its verdicts of guilty on all counts. “For they know not what they do.” Miriam Arocena, a small intense woman who strained forward in her seat during testimony and moved to crouch protectively behind her husband whenever the lawyers were conferring with the judge, had called the trial a “comedy,” “a farce the government of the United States is carrying out in order to benefit Fidel Castro.”

Early in the course of this third Arocena trial I had spent some time at the federal courthouse in downtown Miami, watching the federal prosecutors enter their physical evidence, the wigs and the hairpieces and the glue and the Samsonite attaché cases (“Contents – one pair black gloves, one cheesecloth Handi Wipe rag,” or “Contents – one .38-caliber revolver”) seized at the bungalow on Southwest Seventh Street in which Eduardo Arocena had been apprehended: an entire modus operandi for the hypothetical Omar, conjured up from the brassbound trunks which the prosecution hauled into court every morning. There was the Browning 9mm pistol. There was the sales receipt for the Browning, as well as for the .25-caliber Berette Jetfire, the AR-15, and the UZI. There were the timers and there were the firecracker fuses. There were the Eveready Energizer alkaline batteries. There was the target list, with the names and the locations of offending businesses, some of them underscored: Replica magazine, Padron Cigars, Almacen El Espanol, Ebenezer Trading Agency, a half dozen others. All that was missing finally was the explosive material itself, the stuff, the dynamite or the plastique, but the defendant, according to the government, had already advised the FBI that the military plastique called C-4 could be readily obtained on the street in Miami.

This was all engrossing, not least because it was curiously artless, devoid of much instinct for the clandestine, the wigs and the hairpieces notwithstanding. The sales receipts for the Browning and for the Beretta and for the AR-15 and for the UZI were in the defendant’s own name. The target list bore on its upper-left-hand corner the notation TARGETS, suggesting an indifference to discover which tended to undermine the government’s exhaustive cataloging of that which had been discovered. A man who buys a Browning and a 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. A man who compiles a target list under the heading TARGETS may in fact have a first interest best served by disclosure, the inclination toward public statement natural to someone who sees himself engaged not in a crime but a crusade. HEROES DE OMEGA 7, as the Omega 7 stencils were lettered. The stencils were Exhibit 3036, recovered by the FBI from a self-storage locker on Southwest Seventy-second Street. LA VERDAD ES NUESTROS.

There was flickering all through this presentation of the government’s evidence a certain stubborn irritability, a sense of crossed purposes, crossed wires, of cultures not exactly colliding but glancing off one another, at unpromising angles. Eduardo Arocena’s attorney, a rather rumpled Cuban who had adopted as his general strategy the argument that this trial was taking place at all only because the United States had caved in to what he called “the international community”, looked on with genial contempt. The government attorneys, young and well-pressed, rummaged doggedly through their trunks, property masters for what had become in Miami, after some years of trials in which the defense talked about the international community and the prosecution about cheesecloth Handi Wipe rags, a kind of local puppet theatre, to which the audience continued to respond in ways novel to those unfamiliar with the form.

This was a theater in which the defendant was always cast as the hero and martyr, not at all because the audience believed him wrongly accused, innocent of whatever charges had been trumped up against him, but precisely because the audience believed him to be guilty. The applause, in other words, was for the action, not for the actor. “Anybody who fights communism has my sympathy,” the head of the 2506 Brigade told the Miami Herald at the time of Eduardo Arocena’s arrest. “The best communist is a dead communist. If this is his way to fight, I won’t condemn him.” Andres Nazario Sargen of Alpha 66 had said this: “He is a person who chose that path for the liberation of Cuba. We have to respect his position but we think our methods are more effective.”

Nor was this response confined exclusively to those members of the audience who, like the men of the 2506 or Alpha 66, might be expected to exhibit a certain institutional tolerance toward bombing as a political tactic. “It’s like asking the Palestinian people about Arafat,” the news director of WQBA, the Miami radio station that calls itself La Cubanisima, had said to the Herald about Eduardo Arocena. “He may be a terrorist, but to the Palestinian people he’s not thought of that way.” All ex exilio stood by its men of action. When, for example, after Eduardo Arocena’s arrest in July of 1983, a fund for his defense was organized within the exile community, one of the contributors was Xavier Suarez, who was that year running a losing campaign for the post to which he was later elected, mayor of Miami. Xavier Suarez was brought to this country as a child, in 1960. He is a graduate of Villanova. He is a graduate of Harvard Law. He has a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He said about Eduardo Arocena that he preferred to think of him not as a terrorist, but a freedom fighter.

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2 Responses to The Books: Miami, by Joan Didion

  1. ted says:

    I have been avoiding Blue Nights too, but now I am going to have to. Is her accuracy pitiless? I think maybe you are right. I remember thinking in A Year Of… that she was relentless in the act of looking and writing. She is just doing that thing she knows how to do despite the events of her life. She still makes stuff out of it.

    I don’t know Miami at all. My god, her prose intimidates me. It’s so like 1970s American film. Real and clean – like a bone.

  2. Sheila says:

    Ted- I look forward to talking with you about Blue Nights. It’s really about aging. I had to put it down a couple of times.

    Love your observation about 70s cinema which could also be rather pitiless.

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