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A Word to the Wise: Watch What You Say About Fidel Castro

April 11, 2012

The Miami Marlins’ general manager Ozzie Guillen caught his ass in a crack when he told a Time magazine interviewer that “I love Fidel Castro.”   The remark was in the context of an expression of admiration for the Cuban dictator’s longevity:  “A lot of people have wanted to kill [him] for the last 60 years, but that mother[expletive] is still there.” And Guillen later backtracked and groveled an apology.   But the gaffe generated outraged protests amongst Miami’s Cuban-American community and demands for his head.  So far, he still seems to have his job, but with a 5-game suspension.

The lesson here is that after 50+ years, Fidel Castro is still a very hot button issue and the proverbial “third rail” of South Florida politics.  So, newcomers, consider your audience when expressing opinions about Castro and Cuba.

The politicians predictably piled on:

  • Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: ”Guillen should meet with the many victims of Castro’s tyranny who live in our community to learn about the horrors of Castro and his regime, and he should make a donation to a group that helps the families of political prisoners in Castro’s gulags.”
  • State Senator Rene Garcia:  “What I also consider disturbing is the fact that the Miami Marlins received tax dollars from this community, including Cuban-American exiles, to fund the construction of the new stadium.  As a result, I expect your organization to honor the commitment it has made to this community by taking a strong position against Mr. Guillén.
  • Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez was reported to say that Guillen would be better off leaving because the punishment didn’t go far enough.

Sure enough, there are a few commentators saying the whole thing has gotten overblown, but they sort of get lost in all the noise.

It didn’t help that Guillen made his remarks in the new Marlins stadium in the middle of Little Havana (where residents are complaining that they can’t park on their own streets on game days).  Or that Guillen is Venezuelan and has previously expressed support for strongman Hugo Chavez, who is mostly loathed by Miami’s growing Venezuelan expatriate community, and who is now Fidel’s BFF.  Or that he said pretty much the same thing before.  There is no question that what Guillen said was stupid, but he has shot his mouth off repeatedly before and gotten into hot water for it so it wasn’t exactly unexpected.

There seem to be lots of cross-currents at work here, including controversy over public funding of the new stadium itself.  But the Gulf Stream among them is the continued visceral hatred among a large segment of the Cuban-American community for Fidel Castro.  They will stand for hearing nothing even mildly positive about Castro, and woe betide any Florida politician who might suggest that punitive US policies against the Castro regime have had no success whatever in lessening his grip on the island after 50-plus years.  [Full disclosure:  I once worked for several years on Cuban affairs at the State Department.] When Janet Reno sent little Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba, it probably cost Al Gore the presidency.

Cuban-Americans are no longer the monolith they once were, and there are now other voices and nuanced positions within the community.  But attitudes are often passed on to the new generation, and—as is often the case in identity politics—the extremes tend to set the tone for the whole.  It’s not all that different from the risk Florida politicians take with Jewish voters if they dare to suggest that Israel might not always be right and deserve unquestioning US support in all things.  Politicians line up to do obeisance at AIPAC, just as they make a beeline to the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana for the obligatory cafecito and make the obligatory statements about how strong the coffee is and how determined they are to bring the Castro regime down.

A few months ago, I met friends at Versailles and as I pulled into the parking lot, one of them (a Cuban-American, as it happens) exclaimed:  “Oh my God, you have an Obama sticker on your car!  Hope nothing happens to it!”  Well, nothing did.  We had a nice meal and a good time and that was it.

Unfortunately, Guillen may not be so lucky.  He might as well have tattooed “I love Fidel” on his arm for all the good his apologies and explanations will do. Maybe it will all eventually blow over, but some people are just never going to forgive and forget.

One Comment
  1. Arturo Kosinar permalink

    Fidel castro is one of the greatest leaders although he is a communist.”

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