(Note: My friend and mentor, Stan Isaacs, the long-time Newsday sports columnist, is temporarily without an outlet due to web problems. He always has a place here. GV.)
Ozzie Guillen Struck a Few Chords
The flap over Ozzie Guillen’s comments considered sympathetic to Fidel Castro reminds me of George Romney. Not Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, but his father, George, who was a governor of Michigan and had presidential aspirations of his own that petered out.
George Romney pretty much eliminated himself from contention for the 1968 Republican nomination because of one comment. In mid-1967 he reversed his earlier support for the Vietnam War; he said he had been brainwashed by American generals. As we all came to realize, Romney was correct to have turned against that disastrous war, but the American people didn’t want to hear it. Exit Romney.
Now, along comes the colorful Ozzie Guillen saying things that have more than a tinge of truth to it, but also angered many people because he showed some sympathy for Fidel Castro. Guillen is the new manager of the Marlins of Miami, the city known for having a rabid anti-Castro community. Anything positive said about Castro feeds the hatred of people who have never forgiven Castro (the left wing dictator) for replacing Fulgencio Batista (the right-wing dictator) in 1959.
Here is what Guillen told a Time Magazine internet edition website: “I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why?. Many people have tried to kill Fidel Castro in the last 60 years , yet that mother ------ is still there.” Indeed. Castro is living through his 11th American President in Barack Obama.
The anti-Castro oldsters jumped on Guillen for actually saying he loved Castro. So did some of the politicians running for office now, because the anti-Castro community in Miami has been so powerful for so long. It has cowed not only local politicians but Presidential candidates. The enigmatic Guillen most likely wasn’t thinking about all that.
Castro is no civil libertarian. He has executed people who worked against the regime. But consider Castro’s background. Almost from the time he took power and edged toward an alliance with the Soviet Union in the face of opposition from the United States, he has had to worry about being deposed by the United States.
This is not paranoia. In April, 1961, President Kennedy supported the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro partisans determined to take back their former homeland. The invasion was a disaster but it alerted Castro to ever be on the alert against further attempts to subvert his regime. He has been ruthless at time in eliminating opposition, because the opposition centered in Miami has never stopped calling for the removal of Castro. We still have an embargo against Cuba that hurts, not Castro, but ordinary Cubans.
I was in Cuba some 30 years ago. I found that the Cubans hated the United States government for trying to bring down Castro, but loved Americans. We were treated well wherever we went. We heard criticism of Castro by people who didn’t seem to fear retribution for the comments. Most Cubans cared more about making a living than worrying about the lack of civil liberties that were the concern of the few genuine patriots who objected to Castro’s excesses.
Guillen is a colorful gent, who has often made outrageous remarks that were as confusing as they were amusing. This time he made the mistake of getting himself involved in the super-charged area of Cuban politics. His comments were not so much for Castro, the politician, as Castro, the man who outlasted all the people who have tried to kill him. Many plots were born in the Miami Cuban area.
Gullen said he loved Castro, sure, but he also called him a mother ------. That’s hardly the comment of a deep political thinker. It could be argued that he had the First Amendment right to say anything he wanted. But it doesn’t work that way in the world’s most heralded democracy because we are—from Eisenhower to Obama--bedeviled by the anti-Castro faction.
So Guillen soon found out he had stepped in it and had to apologize for his comments. The Marlins suspended him for five games. And before a press conference in which he grovelled an apology, management surrounded him with people who knew first hand of Castro’s brutality. Guillen cried as they spoke. “I know I hurt a lot of people,” he said.
One of the offshoots of the controversy was the revelation that Miami, for all its anti-Castro mania, is changing. At a protest calling for Guillen”s removal, only 200 people came out. The group leading it, a Miami report said, was a fringe organization always looking for reasons to break out the picket signs out of their car trunks. The average age of those holding the signs seemed over 70.
Little Havana used to bristle with the antennae of eight or so anti-Castro radio stations. There are two left. Most people seemed to accept Guillen’s apology. Suddenly there is room in Little Havana for nuance.
I have been surprised by another fallout of l’affair Guillen: criticism of the United States. Bryant Gumbel said on his HBO show, “And while there is no way to defend Ozzie or the blatant insensitivity of his remarks, let’s not pretend there’s no politics at work in some of those calls for his ouster. Whipping up a frenzy over slights real and imagined is a play straight out of a far-right handbook; Florida’s electoral clout has often given Fidel’s critics far more leverage that their arguments merit.”
An unidentified critic of the United States added this heresy on Google: “While Castro is undeniably guilty of subverting the civil liberties of Cubans and he did kill many political dissidents, the scale of his crimes does not even approach that of the crimes of the United States government against Cuba and many Latin countries. In reality our opposition to the Castro regime has everything to do with his unwillingness to play ball like his predecessor Batista.
“The reaction to Guillen’s comments just further illustrates the unwillingness of Americans to condemn the truth about our own transgressions. We need to realize how ridiculous we sound when we criticize the human rights record of another country when one considers our own.”
I had a wonderful time on the #NYTReadalong Feb. 7 with Sree Sreenivasan and Neil Parekh, talking about the Super Bowl and the great paper where I used to work. Thanks to all the nice people who sent messages while I was babbling. The Readalong is Sunday, 8:30-10:15 AM Eastern, and the link is available after that.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: