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The Tropicalization of the American Mind : MIAMI by Joan Didion (Simon & Schuster Inc.: $17.95; 212 pp.)

September 27, 1987| Richard Eder

"Not Left but East," was Andre Gide's disillusioned comment when he returned from a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Like many of his fellow European intellectuals, he had thought of it as a utopia of progress. He concluded that the fabled omelette that could not be made without breaking eggs was, in fact, made of eggshells.

"Not Right but South" could sum up the theme of Joan Didion's powerfully seductive exploration of the political maelstrom in Miami. She sees, in the vortex plotting by exiles against Castro's Cuba and Ortega's Nicaragua, and in the splintering rivalries among the exiles themselves, something far beyond ideology.

They have become, she argues--so vividly that you can smell every crushed frangipani blossom--an invasion, a tropicalization of the causes dear to the American Right; a contamination, if you like.

The shadowy missions, the secret fundings, the conspiracies beneath conspiracies, the deniable support by parts of the U.S. government and active discouragement by other parts--all these things have fostered a tensely paranoid style in parts of our own political life, Didion suggests.

Miami is us, and the tangled tales we heard recently of private armies and retired generals fighting their own lucrative wars provide something of a retrospective support for a thesis developed long before the Iran-gate hearings.

Thesis is not the right word, perhaps. The thought that a quarter-century of handling surrogate violence out of Miami has tropicalized our own processes is conveyed not so much by argument or a chain of evidence as by Didion's peculiar method of assembling impressions, allusions and seemingly unrelated pictures.

She infiltrates a dream into us, the kind you awake from suddenly in the certainty that someone is lurking around the basement.

Didion notices, for example, that the language in "A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties," an activist manifesto drawn up in 1980 by a group of prominent conservatives, has an unidiomatic ring, as if translated from Spanish. Her suggestion is not that it was written in Spanish, but that the authors had been somehow Hispanicized.

She goes on to note, not without relish, that one activist "freedom fighter," arrested for weapons possession, told of a plot to assassinate the U.S. ambassador in Costa Rica to provide a pretext for military intervention. The ambassador, Lewis Tambs, was one of the manifesto's framers. Tropicalization indeed.

The groundwork for Didion's purposeful intuitions is accomplished in the body of her book. It is a complex and highly flavored portrait of Miami's Cuban community, mainly in its political aspects.

She begins with the long tradition of exile activity in the city. "Florida," she writes, "is that part of the Cuban stage where declamatory exits are made, and side deals."

Jose Marti, leader of the Cuban independence fight, raised money there. So did Carlos Prio Socarras, fighting the dictators Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista. So did Batista, preparing to return and overthrow Prio. So did Fidel Castro, through the once-more-exiled Prio, arranging to evict Batista. So have dozens of anti-Castro fund-raisers ever since--including Prio until his death in 1977.

Didion gives us a graveyard, of course; she starts with one, in fact. Prio is buried at Woodlawn Park, not far from Machado. "Havana vanities come to dust in Miami," she writes of the city and the community that she calls, for its febrile schemes, "long on rumor, short on memory."

She writes of the separate style of life of the Cubans in Miami, emphasizing the plethora of shoe stores and the photographers' shops decorated with birthday pictures of 15-year-olds wearing fancy dresses and "sultry" looks. To get her surface effects, Didion verges now and then on the ethnically offensive.

On the other hand, she is making a large as well as an acute point when she observes that although a lot of Spanish is spoken in Los Angeles and New York, only in Miami is Spanish heard. Heard, that is, in the best restaurants, hotels and bank penthouses. In Miami, Spanish is a language of power.

She writes of the apparent assimilation of the upper levels of the community into the city's life and ruling structures; but at the same time, she notices the profound differences. She describes a reunion of the veterans of the Bay of Pigs expedition, after which some of the participants go back to hang out at sleazy bars and gun shops while others take their briefcases to their air-conditioned offices. The point is that armed exile and the mystique of unending struggle is common to all of them.

Didion writes of the fierce and sometimes bloody rivalries inside the Cuban community, of the pressures and reprisals exercised against those who suggest negotiating with Castro, or who emphasize political over military struggle.

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