Columbus Cuban-American: Ozzie Guillen Reopened Old Wounds

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Columbus Attorney and Cuban American Joseph Mas returns to Havana to attend a Papal mass.(Photo: Joseph Mas)
Columbus Attorney and Cuban American Joseph Mas returns to Havana to attend a Papal mass.(Photo: Joseph Mas)

Ozzie Guillen this week returned to the dugout of the Miami Marlins. The Marlins suspended Guillen after he said he admired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s ability to survive. The remark infuriated South Florida’s Cuban Americans and left many outside Miami wondering how an off-hand remark can cause outrage 50 years after the Cuban revolution.

The U.S. constitution’s guarantee of Free Speech provides that government may not restrict Mr. Guillen’s opinions. However, that right does not extend to public reaction. After all, Mr. Guillen is the manager of the Miami Marlins, the home team in the de-facto capital of Cuban-Americans everywhere. So, in the immortal words of Desi Arnaz, Mr. Guillen “has some ‘splaining to do.” In fact, he may lose his job because of careless comments.

This curious episode might appear surprising to those who do not follow Cuban-American life closely. So let me explain. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 expressed the hopes and dreams of a people after decades of undeveloped democracy, dictatorships, corruption and graft.

Faced with significant income disparity between urban and rural citizens, progressive constituencies – students, intellectuals, and many professionals – supported change. Much of the population, including members of my own family, took part in the armed struggle fully believing the rhetoric that it was a democratic, progressive revolution.

These hopes were dashed after victory. The promise of a popular movement disintegrated into a totally unanticipated carnival of nationalization. Cuban and foreign property was confiscated. The new regime introduced Soviet-bloc cultural symbols, outlawed of religion, and incarcerated real or perceived enemies of the Revolution. Many of those who challenged the established order were executed by firing squad.

This radical and unexpected re-routing of the Revolution left many Cubans disillusioned. They felt those who held political and military power had betrayed the Revolution. What developed was not the vision of progressive democracy they yearned for and deserved. Because of all this, Cuban society, even some families split along deeply divided ideologies.. More than a million Cubans have left the country since the Revolution and most of them have ended up in the U.S. When Cuban-Americans refer to the now-retired president of Cuba it is never “Castro,” it is always “Fidel.” It is all very personal.

Thus Cuban-American discourse in Miami is the result of seething resentment nurtured during those same 50 plus years. Cuban-American Miami tolerates no departure from the abhorrence of anything Castro. There is little flexibility.

Only recently have some within the community begun to question the logic – and even the ethics – of these long-held values. Without perpetuating the debate of who is to blame for Cuba’s curious history, some Cuban-Americans are growing tired of this terribly long conflict. They, and I among them, yearn for reconciliation.

On a recent trip to Cuba, I saw thousands of people attend a Papal Mass carrying signs and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with pleas for Cuban reconciliation. My own beliefs forbid me to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to those pleas. I find it nearly impossible to maintain the practiced rancor of my brothers and sisters in Miami and elsewhere. I, too, hope for change.

But, until change happens, Ozzie Guillen will have to deal with the reality of life in Miami. No business can ignore its customers’ opinions whatever those may be, and professional baseball is most certainly a business.

The Miami Marlins were poised to celebrate a promising season, but the reality remains that the team needs to fill the seats in their new Marlins Park stadium, which ironically is on the edge of the neighborhood known as “Little Havana.”

At this point, Ozzie Guillen may be unable to overcome the threatened boycott of Marlins games.