What Ozzie Guillen got right about Fidel Castro

OK, Ozzie Guillen was undeniably insensitive to the Cuban-American community when he said he respected Fidel Castro as a survivor. But he didn't get the facts wrong.

Lynne Sladky/AP
Miami Marlins president David Samson (l.) listens as manager Ozzie Guillen speaks at a news conference at Marlins Park in Miami Tuesday. Guillen has been suspended for five games because of his comments about Fidel Castro.

On Tuesday Florida Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen couldn’t backtrack fast enough from the niceish things he’d said about Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. At a press conference in Miami, Guillen said that no, he doesn’t really believe Castro is someone to be “loved,” as he’d said in an interview with Time magazine. Nor did he really “respect” Fidel as a survivor who’d outwitted countless assassination plots.

Guillen said that he’d since met with women who’d been abused by the Castro regime and he truly understood the depth of animosity towards the Cuban leader that still exists in south Florida.

“I feel like I betrayed the Latin community,” Guillen said at his mea-culpa fest. “I am here to say I am sorry with my heart in my hands, and I want to say I am sorry to all those people who are hurt directly or indirectly [by my remarks].”

Will it be enough to save Guillen’s job? Only time will tell if that’s the case. He’s been suspended for five games in the wake of local protests about his Castro remarks. Since the Marlins have just opened a new ballpark and need to make the most of their new moment in the Miami sun, it’s possible that ex-Red Sox skipper Terry Francona is already stocking up on SPF 60. You know, just in case somebody calls.

But here’s the thing: Guillen got something right about Castro. And that something is the very reason he’s in trouble.

It’s correct that Castro, against long odds, has defied US efforts to oust or kill him for decades. There was the hapless US-sponsored invasion (Bay of Pigs), the crackpot schemes (exploding sea shells intended for his diving spots), and straightforward economic pressure (economic embargoes).

Nothing worked. And that has driven a succession of US presidents to distraction, while only increasing the animosity of an expatriate community that has waited so long to celebrate his demise.

Guillen walked right into this situation, so fraught due to an era of pent-up frustration, and said something flippant. He told Time that “a lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still there.”

As Foreign Policy magazine analyst Joshua Keating noted Tuesday, “That’s as undeniably true as the statement was undeniably insensitive to Castro’s victims.”

The irony, of course, is that Guillen is now in trouble for referring to a situation that is on the verge of change. Castro has already ceded power to his brother Raul, who seems intent on liberalizing the sclerotic Cuban economy.

Of course, this “liberalizing” is taking place in the context of what has been a rigid Communist regime. It takes the form of empowering people to buy and sell their own houses and cars, and an expansion of licenses for private enterprise, among other items, according to Ted Piccone, Brookings Institution senior fellow in foreign policy.

Piccone visited Cuba recently, and says he was struck by the country’s unique blend of decaying splendor, cultural vibrancy, lack of freedoms, and relative poverty. The question now, he says, is if the regime can open things enough to get the economy going without destabilizing society to the point where they lose control.

“The trick for party officials, then, is to demonstrate enough tangible improvements that Cubans will maintain faith in their ability to lead the country even after the Castros leave the scene,” wrote Piccone in January.

Of course, that’s the trick for Guillen, too, isn’t it? He’s going to have to demonstrate enough tangible humility that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria maintains faith in his ability to lead a motley crew of ballplayers in the National League East

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