As Ozzie Guillen Learned the Hard Way, Cuba Still Matters

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Susan Knowles / UPI / LANDOV

Miami Marlins fans and Cuban community members protest outside the new Marlins Ball Park demanding the firing of Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, over his comments about Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro April 10, 2012, in Miami.

If Ozzie Guillen, the new manager of the Miami Marlins, had professed his love for Fidel Castro in any other part of the country, he probably wouldn’t have been suspended for five games, as the team announced today. On the other hand, the Marlin’s new stadium is smack in the middle of Little Havana, so there’s probably some local appeasement to be done and Guillen, who is from Venezuela, was originally brought in to help appeal to Cuban Americans.

Still, the uproar that Guillen’s remarks have made across the U.S. since TIME published the interview, has been striking. Who knew that Cuba was still such a big issue for Americans outside of Florida? Sure, 40 years ago in the height of the Cold War the prospect of Russians 90 miles off the coast of Florida was scary. But the Russians are no longer much of a threat, or even much in Cuba any more if you don’t count tourists from St. Petersburg. And Cuba – which had a per capita income of $9,900 in 2010 making it one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere — is hardly a regional or international threat these days: It’s most dangerous exports are cigars, rum and The Buenavista Social Club.

So, it’s striking that a baseball manager’s comments can still move Americans, few of whom even remember a Cuba without a Castro at its helm. Outside of the Israel lobby, no single interest group has held such sway over American foreign policy. The fact that we still have an embargo against Cuba is because of the one million Cuban Americans in Florida who sometimes, though increasingly less so, can swing the crucial swing state. Not even Iowa holds as much power: In January Congress finally did away with ethanol subsidies that has made Des Moines rich in the last decade. And yet, for the sake of property taken by Fidel Castro held by Cuban Americans – most of whom have since died out or left Cuba so young they don’t remember it – we still have an embargo against the Caribbean nation 52 years on. Which is partly why Guillen’s comments went from:

“I love Fidel Castro… I respect Fidel Castro, you know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that motherf****r is still here.”

To:

“What I meant in Spanish, I was talking in Spanish, was that I cannot believe somebody who hurt so many people over the years is still alive… I apologize to the people here to everyone who’s looking at me.”

I’ve been hard pressed to think of another world leader a sports figure could admire that would cause such a tempest. Perhaps if Taiwanese American Jeremy Lin praised Mao Zedong? Or if Zimbabwean track and field star Ngonidzashe Makusha extolled the virtues of Robert Mugabe?  No, such occurrences would be puzzling and perplexing, but would probably not rank above a blurb on ESPN’s Sports Center. This comes, surely not coincidentally, at a time when U.S. policies towards Cuba are liberalizing; a genuine sign that the old order really is shifting. But things happen only so fast: the old regime is not ready to praise Castro quite yet.

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