the tale of ozzie guillen, fidel castro, free speech, and corporate welfare: a story with irony to spare

Those of you who don't follow baseball - which I assume is most of you - might never have heard of Ozzie Guillen before this week, or maybe don't know his name now. Guillen is a Major League Baseball manager and a former player, a guy who is often described by the euphemism "colourful". A guy about whom people say, "You know Ozzie, he's not afraid to speak his mind," in a Don Cherry kind of way.

Last week, Guillen spoke his mind, and it cost him a five-day suspension from his job as manager of the Miami Marlins. What utterance could carry such a price tag? He dared to say something complimentary about Fidel Castro. In an interview with Time magazine, Guillen is reported to have said:
I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still here.
For this, Guillen almost lost his job, but was spared unemployment, getting away with a suspension, retraction and abject groveling. Because in the USofA, freedom-loving country that it is, one cannot publicly praise someone who has been branded The Enemy. I'm not invoking the First Amendment, which, as Keith Olbermann explains, does not apply in this situation, any more than it does when I ban a troll from this blog. But something needn't be unconstitutional to be wrong - and nuts.

A good starting point is the oft-heard description of Fidel Castro as a "brutal dictator". In the US, those words have a silent ending: "who won't do our bidding". In a country which has installed and supported brutal dictatorships around the globe for more than a century, this description has special irony when one considers the US-backed brutal dictator that Fidel Castro's revolution deposed, Fulgencio Batista. And if we stacked up Castro's supposed crimes against the the US's, brutality for brutality, which regime has done more damage? Which country, the US or Cuba, has oppressed, tortured, killed, stolen, imprisoned, and destroyed more countries, people, homes, lives, families? I'm not counting nationalizing wealth as a crime. That part is a victory.

In all the noise in the baseball world about Guillen's statements, you will not hear one critical thought about Castro or Cuba. No one asks why it is so outrageous for a man to say he loves Castro. It is simply beyond the pale to do so, and we don't need to talk about why.

The US's obsession with Castro and Cuba would be hilarious if it didn't cause the Cuban people such hardship. The poverty and want in Cuba isn't caused by communism. It's caused by isolation, and that isolation has only one source: the US-led embargo against Cuba. The little island nation has managed to defy the US and stay its own course, remaining resolutely communist even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this drives the US nuts. Once upon a time Cuba was an outpost of Soviet sponsorship in the US's backyard. Now it's just a poor country with free, universal health care and universal education, a country which manages to survive without material wealth. Blaming Cuba's poverty on communism is a bit like blaming the tarsands communities for their high cancer rates.

Of course, any event can only be assessed in context, and the uproar over Guillen's words have a very special context: Miami. The Cuban community in Miami and its political connections have been responsible for keeping the embargo alive these many, many years. The reaction in Miami to Guillen's statement was so over-the-top, it reads like farce. The manager of our baseball team has said something positive about Fidel Castro! How can we go on?
"In Miami, it's the worst possible thing he could have said. People in sports are forgiving, but this a pretty damning statement for the fan base."

The Herald reported that a number of prominent community activists and political figures -- including Miami-Dade Commission chairman Joe Martinez, who told the paper he wants Guillen to resign -- were upset about the comments.

"It's so outrageous, they have to start by buying a new brain for Guillen, because every time he opens his mouth, he offends somebody," said Ninoska Pérez Castellón, an activist and radio host with Radio Mambí, according to the Herald.

Guillen was contrite during Tuesday's news conference at Marlins Park, speaking in both Spanish and English for about 45 minutes.

"I hurt a lot of people's feelings, a lot of victims," Guillen said. "I've apologized twice, and I meant it. ... I say a lot of things and I never apologize. But now I have to, because I did the wrong thing. I'm behind the Cuban community. ... How am I going to make it better? ... I'm going to show the community that I support them 100 percent."

Rickie Ricardo, the Phillies' Spanish radio announcer, who is of Cuban descent, told the Herald that nothing on the field could hurt Guillen's perception more than his words.

"That's a subject that's untouchable," Ricardo said. "This team could go 0-50 and it wouldn't hurt the Cuban community as much as him saying something like that."

Royals catcher Brayan Pena, who defected from Cuba in 2000, thought Guillen appeared sincere, but that Miami's Cuban community would be slow to forgive him.
"Slow to forgive him" might be an understatement. I'd be surprised if Guillen can ever mend this fence, because his neighbours are so irrational. Remember Elian Gonzalez? In that strange incident, the US federal government did what international law demanded: they returned a child to his home. But because that home was in Castro's Cuba, the Cuban-American exile community thought it was perfectly justified to kidnap a little boy and keep him from his father, permanently. As far as I can tell, they continue to view the government's actions as an unforgiveable betrayal.

For the Marlins, whether the Cuban-American community forgives Guillen personally is only the beginning. Sports teams and their publicly-funded stadiums thrive on corporate welfare, happily accepting socialism for their expenses (more irony!) while returning profits to their own private, undisclosed pockets. Marlins owner Jeff Loria isn't so concerned about "the community" because he's such a nice guy, and not only because he's worried about ticket sales. It's much bigger than that. A quick scan of the "Miami Marlins" tag on Neil deMause's Field of Schemes blog will give you the picture.

Dave Zirin puts it in perspective.
Let’s leave aside the rather glaring irony that the politicians, sports commentators and Cuban exiles want to show their love of freedom by taking Guillen’s job for the crime of exercising free speech. The fact is that when looking for political consistency and clarity, Ozzie Guillen is not the best place to start. The Venezuela-born Guillen’s comments on Castro are not very different from what he has always said about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He has made comments very favorable about Chávez and very negative. He said, “Viva Chávez” after his Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series. He has also been one of Chávez’s most high-profile critics.

Trying to make sense of Guillen based on public utterances is a fool’s errand. As someone who knows people that talk to Guillen when the cameras are off, I will try to explain his actual politics on Venezuela and Cuba. Guillen is big on a collective Latin American pride and will not abide anti-immigrant and anti-Latino words or deeds. He has a great deal of respect for the way Castro and Chávez stand up to the United States. He opposes efforts by the United States to impose its will on these countries and wishes the rest of Latin America would show similar mettle. It’s not a question of the relative good or bad of Cuba’s internal politics. It’s a question of independence. He’s also as gung-ho for the United States as any manager in baseball, going as far as to fine players for not showing proper respect for the National Anthem, a practice I criticized in 2005. I know that people love portraying Ozzie Guillen as an out-there, crazy kind of guy, and that’s in part because he is an out-there crazy kind of guy. But what’s crazier? Guillen’s views on Cuba or the fact that an aging coterie of people who mourn for the strong hand of Fulgencio Batista control the political debate in South Florida?

But this issue is bigger than Guillen and it’s bigger than Cuban exiles who dream of returning to a smoldering “free Havana,” with Castro’s head on a pike. It’s bigger than the petty hypocrisies of those who stand for freedom by denying it for others. It’s now about whether the ire produced by Guillen’s words will be directed against Loria, his grab of public funds and the entire Miami baseball operation. If that happens, this issue won’t die, but the Marlins might.

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