Big Trouble in Little Havana: The Perilous Politics of Ozzie Guillen

Short of a hurricane or an armed tax-payer revolt, this had to have been Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria's worst nightmare. Loria was opening a new state of the art, tax-funded stadium in Little Havana that will cost the city two billion dollars over the next 40 years.  He also paid out several hundred million dollars in salary for free agents, making his new ballplayers the nation's wealthiest public employees. This was the last, best, chance to sell baseball in South Florida. Loria desperately needed a hot start for his team and some sugary sweet media coverage for his new ballpark. Then his new manager Ozzie Guillen decided to share his views about Cuba and Fidel Castro.  Guillen tends to talk without a filter and in an interview with Time Magazine, he revealed that he happens to not believe that Castro is Satan incarnate. Saying that he "loved" Castro, Guillen explained, "I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that son of a b---- is still here."

Casual kind words for Castro in South Florida is akin to looking at a leaky bottle of kerosene and thinking it could use a match. Now, we haven't seen outrage like this in South Florida since butterfly ballots and hanging chads.

The Miami Marlins immediately released a condemnation of Guillen but that couldn't stop a volcanic political explosion. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez called on the organization "to take decisive steps" against Guillen in the name of "freedom loving people." Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez demanded Guillen's resignation. Cuban-American State Senator and Hispanic caucus chair Rene Garcia - in record time! - sent an open letter published in the Miami Herald calling Guillen's comments "appalling" and said he was "looking forward to further actions taken against him for his deplorable comments." Garcia also stuck Loria in the ribs by including, "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." Suffice it to say, many a sports commentator also want Guillen fired or suspended. In their frothy anger, they have a common demand with the Cuban hardline exile group Vigilia Mambisa. An organization that has never shied from street violence and intimidation, Vigilia Mambisa has called for protests in front of the stadium until the Miami Marlins manager is fired.

As for Guillen, he has crumbled under the weight of all this, saying that he is now flying back to Florida to apologize in person to every animal, vegetable, and mineral he might have offended.  "I want them to know I'm against everything [in Cuba] 100 percent-I repeat it again-the way [Castro has been] treating people for the last 60 years."

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 Chavez. He has made comments very favorable about Chavez and very negative. He said, "Viva Chavez" after his Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series. He has also been one of Chavez'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 Chavez stand up to the United States. He opposes efforts by the US to impose their 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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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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