By DeWayne Wickham
HAVANA – Shortly before Ozzie Guillen was banished from baseball for five games for professing his admiration for Fidel Castro’s survival skills, I chanced upon a meeting in the capital of this communist country where free speech exacted no such penalty.
It was a gathering of Cuban intellectuals – writers, historians, social activists, journalists, educators and communist party functionaries – who met at the National Union of Writers and Artists to discuss racial issues. The topics ranged from the role of hip-hop music in today’s Cuba, to a commemoration of the 1912 massacre of thousands of blacks by Cuban government troops. And while there was a lot of agreement among those who crowded into the small meeting room, there was a surprising amount of disagreement – the kind of dissent that critics say doesn’t go unpunished in Cuba.
Guillen, the newly-minted manager of the Miami Marlins, a Major League Baseball team that just moved into a $515 million stadium with a retractable roof that is largely financed by South Florida taxpayers, was punished for telling Time magazine: “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 mother------ is still here.”
While that seems hardly the kind of praise that would get the Venezuelan-born Guillen a dinner invitation from the 85-year-old Castro, it set off calls for his head in Miami. Despite the chastened manager’s public apology, protestors demanded he be fired and threatened to boycott the team, if he isn’t dismissed.
Sure, they have a free speech right to demand that Guillen be punished for exercising his right to free speech. Our Constitutional guarantee of people’s right to speak freely sometimes extends to the outer limits of good sense. But for those who clamor for a return to democracy in Cuba to attack one of its basic underpinnings in this country is not just ironic. It’s instructive.
The Cubans in South Florida who insist on maintaining Cold War tensions with Cuba tolerate democratic freedoms only when they don’t run counter to their obsessive hatred for Fidel Castro, who led the Caribbean Island nation for 49 years until poor health forced him to retire in 2008. They genuflect wildly whenever someone suggests the United States should afford Cuba’s communist regime the same diplomatic recognition and economic engagement it has given the communist governments of Vietnam and China.
Of course, any visitor to Cuba will quickly see that it has its own paranoia – a tendency to see a plot to topple the revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959 behind every call for political and economic reform. But increasingly Cuba is showing greater tolerance for openness and a willingness to change, albeit slowly. That was apparent in both the frankness of the discussion among participants of the meeting on race – and by the presence of professor Esteban Morales.
Morales was expelled from Cuba’s communist party in 2010, a defrocking that is tantamount to internal exile, after he wrote two articles arguing that corruption is “much more dangerous” that dissidents within the country. He was reinstated last year without backing away from his criticism.
During an interview at his home three days earlier, Morales told me Cuba continues to struggles with racism, despite laws making such practices illegal. He blames this on the actions of individuals, not the complicity of government. Even this kind of nuanced acknowledgement of bigotry hasn’t always been tolerated in Cuba.
But the trend here is towards more freedom of speech and a movement away from the kind of intolerance that got Ozzie Guillen suspended.