MIAMI - Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen's comments professing admiration for Fidel Castro caused a bigger uproar than if the Miami baseball team had spent the entire season in last place.
In the U.S. city with the biggest Cuban-American population, Cuban exiles and politicians decried his remarks. Soon afterward, the Venezuelan manager issued a tearful, public apology. He has been suspended for five games and even faced calls to resign, though the team said firing him or forcing his resignation wasn't on the table.
All this, an outsider might ask, over a political comment?
The exile community's demographics have changed in important ways — there is less support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba, for instance. More Cubans who come to South Florida these days are doing so for economic reasons. And younger Cuban-Americans tend to have less animosity than their parents do toward Castro and his brother Raul.
For all those softer sentiments, however, the Guillen episode this week proves that when it comes to Cuba, the rhetoric and discourse remain largely in the hands of those with the most hardline positions.
"Even though there is a range of opinion, only one sector of the range is mobilized to speak," said Jose Gabilondo, a Cuban-born law professor at Florida International University. "And that is the sector that is in a way the holdout from the old hegemony."
For that vocal contingent of the Cuban-American community in Miami and beyond, praise for Castro cuts deep.
"What this disrespectful comment did was rub salt on a very live wound," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a Cuban-American attorney and human rights advocate in Washington. "It's not even a historic wound. It's a live wound of a community composed of victims of the dictatorship."
The 48-year-old Guillen was quoted as telling Time magazine, "I love Fidel Castro." In an interview conducted in English, he told the reporter he respected Castro for staying in power more than five decades, even though so many people have wanted to kill him.
At Tuesday's news conference, Guillen said he doesn't love or admire Castro. He said his words were misinterpreted — Time stands by its report — and said he did a poor job expressing in English something he was thinking in Spanish, but he said he accepted full responsibility for what he called the biggest mistake of his life.
Outside the ballpark in Little Havana, about 100 people wanting his ouster protested and chanted. Earlier, Francis Suarez, chairman of the Miami city commission, said Guillen should be fired, and Joe Martinez, chairman of the Miami-Dade county board of commissioners, called on him to resign.
It was the kind of response that seemed to recall the knee-jerk reactions to anyone with a less-than hardline viewpoint on the Cuban regime that were more common in years past.
When the Cuban salsa band Los Van Van performed in Miami in 1999, more than 4,000 people demonstrated and tossed garbage at concertgoers. Yet a decade later, the band, which has a decidedly cozy relationship with the Castro brothers, was greeted by fans at the airport and highway billboards promoting their concert.
Cuban-American political viewpoints have shifted, too: A poll of 800 randomly selected Cuban-Americans conducted by Florida International in 2008 found only 45 percent support maintaining the 50-year-old economic embargo, which bans most U.S. trade with Cuba and most Americans from visiting. Younger generations and those who came more recently were even less likely to support it.
The reaction to Guillen's comments struck more than one note: If many Cuban-Americans leave the island because of a lack of freedom of expression, some wondered, wasn't it somewhat hypocritical to limit Guillen's? Others asked why baseball teams haven't been as strict in punishing players and managers for more serious matters, such as driving while intoxicated.
For Gabilondo, who has traveled to Cuba and conducted academic research, Miami is, "still a place where before you say anything, you have to thread sixteen needles in terms of thinking of what are the possible consequences."
"I certainly feel a sense of loss about Cuba and having come to the United States," said Gabilondo, who immigrated with his family at age 5. "As a kind of respect for their pain, the calculus I follow is, how can I make the points that I think are important in a way that will produce the least amount of pain to people for whom this is an open wound 50 years later?"
That is where those on both sides say Guillen has faltered.
"He was careless," said Henry Hoyos, 50, a Venezuelan eating at a Latin cafeteria in Miami on Tuesday afternoon, where clips from Guillen's apology were being played on TV.
Nelson Buitraeo, a Nicaraguan who has lived in Miami for the past 22 years, said he thinks both sides are wrong: Guillen for being insensitive to the community in which he is based, and the community for not being more tolerant of other perspectives.
"This is a free country, and there has to be freedom of expression," he said. "But I'm not in agreement with what he said either."
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