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Didion and democracy's degeneration. Why Miami — and 'Miami' — matter this week

Marice Cohn
Miami Herald
FALSE FREEDOM FIGHTER Cuban exile terrorist Eduardo Arocena (in sunglasses) taken from the FBI building in Miami in July 1983 before he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

COMMENTARY What Joan Didion foresaw in Miami 35 years ago — U.S. democracy's frailty — is as important as the dangerous "cognitive dissonance" she did see.

Since renowned American author Joan Didion died two weeks ago, there’s been a lot of talk in Miami about “Miami” — her 1987 study of the Magic City in the decade of cocaine and contras.

Most of it has played up the so-called American Casablanca many here would like to think Didion saw at Florida’s tip. Cuban exiles sipping cafecitos in Versailles (in lieu of cocktails at Rick’s) as they plotted regime overthrow across the straits. An intriguing little slice of Miami’s café conspiracy past.

But I’d rather not soft-pedal the hard reality Didion saw 35 years ago — especially the shadow of America’s future that I think she foresaw here: a rogue mindset that Trump fanatics exhibited in the deadly January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol a year ago this week.

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Didion profiled a Cuban exile community frustrated by Washington’s repeated, empty promises to dislodge Fidel Castro — but one that too often lashed out by brutally attacking free speech here if it deemed that civic right an affront to the anti-comunista cause. Or one that regularly apologized for terrorists it considered “freedom fighters,” as then Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez called convicted exile bomber and assassin Eduardo Arocena (who was released from federal prison last summer).

That same violent “cognitive dissonance” (as Didion described Miami’s vibe) was on display when rioters assaulted a U.S. presidential election whose results they deemed an affront to the Trumpista cause.

READ MORE: Latin America's 'Troika of Tyranny' Applauds South Florida's 'Troika of Treason'

Didion saw that desecration of America’s democracy coming long before many people did. And I think she did thanks in no small part to her interest in Latin America – and its virtual capital, Miami.

I became a Didion fan in college in the 1980s while developing my own interest in Latin America. Her acclaimed novel “A Book of Common Prayer” initially flummoxed me. But a professor helped me see the American malaise she was getting at — which was more striking because the norteamericanos at the heart of that malaise were gathered in the fictional Central American republic of Boca Grande. It was a malaise pit, headed for revolution, where an “opaque equatorial light” made everything “glow morbidly.”

Read Joan Didion's "Miami" now and you'll recognize the same vigilantist culture of grievance that propelled MAGA Huns up the Capitol walls in Washington a year ago.

I read more Didion, including “Miami” and “Salvador,” about the U.S.’s dark role in El Salvador’s civil war. And I began to sense that she held up Latin America’s more benighted sociopolitical aspects — made worse by Washington’s toxic intervention in places like El Salvador — as a morbidly glowing crystal ball showing Americans our own seemingly inexorable decline.

She’s been borne out. While covering Latin America for three decades, I’ve watched the U.S. embrace traits it usually censures in that part of the world. Gaping inequality, shrill political polarization, abusive militarization of police. And, especially in the age of Trump, the Orwellian normalization of lies and subversion of democratic institutions. A national decay brought on by what Didion called America’s “dreamwork” denialism about its society’s deep-seated flaws.


Which brings us right back to Jan. 6 — and Miami, the city and the book.

Read “Miami” now and you’ll recognize the same vigilantist culture of grievance that propelled MAGA Huns up the Capitol walls a year ago. I’m simply pointing out that what Didion saw as “central to the way Miami thought about itself” in the 1980s — a sense of carte blanche that meant the exile “cannon onstage tended to be fired” at whatever and whomever — is echoed in the broader degeneration of the American right and the mob rule of Jan. 6.

Jose Luis Magana
Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC on Jan. 6 2021.

Didion’s “Miami” is more relevant now because nearly all of Miami’s Cuban-American congressional delegation helped stoke and then tacitly endorse that treasonous Jan. 6 rampage. Republican Congressmen Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Gimenez joined the group of GOP Representatives and Senators who voted to block legitimate electoral college votes for Joe Biden. GOP Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar was unable to vote that day — but stormed Spanish-language radio with false claims that Donald Trump was a victim of voter fraud.

If anyone should have known how gravely those acts would help trash America’s democratic credibility in the world, it was Diaz-Balart, Gimenez and Salazar — because they should have known how badly similar acts once tarnished Miami’s image. And filled the pages of one of literature’s more memorable accounts of this town.