Juliette Kayyem

Ozzie Guillen: Why this controversy, now?

Ozzie Guillen is brash, but praising Castro apparently goes too far

MIAMI MARLINS manager Ozzie Guillen’s five-game suspension for claiming his “love’’ for Cuban leader Fidel Castro shows nothing more than that sports justice is a strange and deeply disconcerting form of jurisprudence. Apparently, you can hurl an anti-gay slur against a newspaper columnist, as Guillen did in 2006, but praising Castro is just plain unforgivable.

In fact, Guillen is an all-purpose offender. He snubbed a US president by refusing to go to a post-World Series White House celebration. He praised the president of his native country of Venezuela, the American-bashing Hugo Chavez. He has even taken on Arizona’s anti-immigration stances by praising illegal immigrants’ work ethic compared to that of “lazy’’ Americans.

Guillen’s mistake this time was entering the political fray at a time when Miami is in the midst of a mayoral election. Castro is, as always, so much a part of the Miami political equation that he might as well be on the ballot. And Guillen apparently finds the dictator’s continuing hold on Cuban-Americans, and US-Cuba policy, ridiculous.


Many Cubans in Florida continue to hold onto a dream of a post-Castro world. That will surely happen; Fidel was born in 1926, his ruling brother Raul in 1931. For more than a half-century, United States policy towards the island nation has been focused solely on the aging brothers. The easing of some embargo and travel restrictions against Cuba in the Obama administration is surely not enough to prepare for a post-Castro world. We have fundamental interests in common with Cuba, including a shared ocean where Cuba has just begun off-shore oil drilling.

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There is something desperate about the continuing protests against Guillen, despite an honest apology and an unpaid suspension. There are conflicting pressures on the mostly Republican Miami Cubans. Even in Florida, the Hispanic vote is up for grabs because the old guard is, by definition, aging; new immigrants, many from Puerto Rico, vote Democrat. Younger Cubans are swinging to the left, recognizing that the focus on Castro doesn’t necessarily define who they are.

But, old habits die hard as, it seems, do old slogans. “You are a communist rat, Guillen!’’, a spokesperson for the anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa is quoted as saying in the Miami Herald.

Add in a mayoral election later this year (as well as a presidential election in a coveted state) and the explanation for the Marlins decision becomes that much clearer, though no less sound. One mayoral candidate hired a plane to circle the Marlins’ stadium with a banner “Joe Martinez apoya a la comunidad’’ - that’s “supports the community’’ in English. Another candidate suggested that Guillen might have to leave the city, lest things get too dangerous with all the “raw emotions.’’ A local city council went out on a moral limb when it passed a non-binding resolution calling for Guillen’s firing.

At some stage, this stopped being about Castro and more about America. Cuba is, after all, one of the poorest countries in the world. Castro’s communist policies are to blame, but surely our efforts to isolate the Castro regime - a reasonable policy at the height of the Cold War - are worthy of a rethink now that we are on better terms with the Russians. The singular focus of a domestic interest group that is fighting for relevancy is being challenged by reality. Guillen provided them with a rare chance to express thunderous outrage, and in an election year, no less.


The love-for-Castro comment aside, Guillen’s whole interview, and his apology, say more about his utter bewilderment that the powerful United States has never been able to get past Fidel Castro and focus on strategic interests with a nation so close by. “A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that son of a bitch is still there,’’ Guillen told Time magazine.

Yes, he is. If the protests continue, the 85-year-old Castro may even outlast Guillen’s tenure as Marlins manager.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem