Editorial Note: Ozzie Guillen’s comments on Fidel Castro last week has caused a very negative reaction in many parts of North America. Knowing that a member of our contributors at Getting Blanked has spent time studying Cuban history, I invited him to share his thoughts on Guillen’s words and the reaction they caused. His opinion diverges from a lot of what we’re reading today.

If your opinion differs — and I’m certain that many will disagree with what Travis suggests — I urge you to keep your (always welcome) criticism civil. It’s my hope this post causes ideas to be shared, and I’d hate for a conflicting idea to be taken from the comments section due to name calling or threatening behaviour.

Once again, we’re dealing in political opinions and ideological interpretations with this issue. They are admittedly sensitive, so please exhibit an appropriate level of courtesy and respect to what others are writing – DP

One innocuous comment from a baseball manager known for saying ill-advised and often questionable things to the media and the spin machine gets kicked into high gear.

Ozzie Guillen, newest manager of the recently re-branded Miami Marlins sat down with a Time Magazine reporter last week and uttered the words that set every U.S. policy maker’s head on fire with rage. “I love Fidel Castro.”

Guillen went on to say that he respected the former Cuban head of state for maintaining power for so long in the face of such vitriolic international pressure. It was said in a much less elegant way, but that seemed to be his point.

Immediately, the mainstream media attacked Guillen, calling him ignorant, insensitive and fascist among many other things. They chided him for loving a dictator whose murderous rule of the small island cost many people their lives and freedoms. They called Cuba an authoritarian state that openly murders its own people and heartlessly throws dissenters in horribly maintained prisons. They verbally shellacked Guillen for not realizing the egregious error in judgment he made by making such comments while managing a baseball team from Miami, the most anti-Castro city in the world.

The flak-machine was so effective that Guillen was forced to do a 180 and recant his earlier comments, apologizing to everyone from the fans in Miami to your grandmother in Aurora. And he didn’t stop there. Guillen went on to denounce Castro by saying “I want them to know I’m against everything 100 percent — I repeat it again — the way this man [has been] treating people for the last 60 years.”

Whether or not Guillen made an error in judgment by making the comments he did is a matter of opinion. Certainly, if I was in his position, I’d probably keep my mouth shut. But, in apologizing the way he did, Guillen failed to stand up and use the opportunity to debunk some of the well-entrenched myths that exist around Cuba. Of course, this assumes he could do such a thing, which is probably a stretch to put it generously.

The ironic thing is that Guillen’s comments were attacked so mercilessly by established power (i.e. the Marlins ownership group and the mainstream media) that he was forced to publicly denounce his own comments. In all of the drum beat accusations of Cuba’s authoritarian rule, no one in the mainstream media thought it pertinent to point out that Guillen’s basic rights of free speech and freedom of association were being challenged. These are things that most often occur in authoritarian states.

In fact, this morning, the Marlins announced that they have suspended Guillen for five games. So now, not only has Guillen received an undue amount of flak for his comments, but his team has decided they can legally suspend him for having an unpopular political opinion. So, who’s living in the authoritarian state?

If you want to question Guillen’s judgement, you’ll get no argument here, but to challenge his right to say what he did in the first place denies him of a very basic human right.

Every publication I could find that commented on the situation called Castro the dictator of Cuba and never once acknowledged that he’s actually been out of power for several years after an illness forced him to step down (his brother Raul is now the President). They also don’t acknowledge at any point that Cuba has actually been holding elections every five years since the revolution that knocked Batista (an actual dictator, sponsored by the U.S.) out of power in 1959.

Cuba’s version of democracy is by no means perfect and does contain some questionable rules, but it is also very different from any other established political system and is one that has only ever been tried in Cuba. It can be referred to as a ‘step ladder’ parliamentary system.

This system starts with small neighborhood councils that act as the lifeblood of the Cuban system and the vast majority of Cubans are members of these groups. Access to these groups is denied only to those found guilty of a particularly egregious criminal offense and to Cubans living abroad. Any citizen can exercise their right not to participate in these councils, but most do.

The councils decide who will represent their neighbourhood in the Municipal Assembly. From there, the elected officials nominate the Provincial Assembly, who then elect the National Assembly and then they decide who will occupy the presidency. Cubans do not vote directly for their leader, but they do directly elect their municipal representatives on an extremely small scale where everyone’s voice can be heard. Those representatives are then afforded critical law-forming and policy-making power at the National level.

The fact that Cubans do not directly vote for their leader gives the appearance of dictatorship and I agree that it is a troublesome arrangement, however, the vast majority of readers will know that here in Canada, we also do not vote directly for our country’s Prime Minister. She or he relies on the votes of their elected party representatives to achieve power. In that regard, the Canadian and Cuban systems are quite similar, but the small neighbourhood councils in Cuba give individual citizens far more direct power. The Cuban elections, it should be noted, are also observed by international governing bodies and elections monitors.

The current President, Raul Castro, recently put forth a law to limit the number of terms a President can serve to two (or, ten years). Again as a point of comparison, there is no such restriction in the Canadian Constitution.

Cuba is also renowned around the world for their top-notch education system (also not typically a hallmark of dictatorships) as well as one of the best health care systems in the Western Hemisphere. Both of these services are entirely free to anyone residing on or visiting Cuban soil. For those who may be interested in avoiding life-crippling student loans, for instance, Cuban post-secondary education is completely free. And not just for citizens, but any foreigner providing they can speak fluent Spanish and can meet the demanding requirements of the country’s universities, which are much higher for non-citizens.

Another issue that has a particular connection to baseball is defection. We are constantly regaled by stories of players who had to defect illegally from Cuba in order to play in the U.S., but did you know that Cubans are actually free to travel anywhere they wish?

The process of leaving the country is admittedly arduous and requires a mountain of paperwork, but defecting need only take place when a Cuban citizen would like to come to the United States. Despite what gets said in the media, the rule of defection is actually an American rule, not a Cuban one. In order for a Cuban citizen to legally enter the U.S., they must not do so through the normal legal means, but rather they must defect. Once they’ve establish residency in a third-party country (or, in some cases, the U.S. itself), they can enter the U.S. as a Cuban ex-pat. The process effectively forces Cubans to denounce their citizenship and allegiance to the Cuban government. Once this act of tie-severing has taken place, the United States welcomes the “refugee” with open arms.

Haven’t you ever wondered why Cubans seem to travel without much problem to any other country in the world other than the U.S.? And why anyone with a non-American passport is free to travel to Cuba at any time?

I digress, but I do so to illustrate a point. Whitewashing Cuba as a dictatorship ignores the reality of the situation and also incriminates our own country (and also the United States) as an authoritarian state. There are many problems with the Cuban system of governance including a rather Draconian surveillance program that is meant to root out violent dissenters (sound familiar? Ever heard of the Patriot Act?), but Cuba has put these measures in place in order to curb foreign-influenced terrorism, continually active on the island since 1960 (if not long before).

This terrorism (openly acknowledged by the U.S.) has cost the lives of countless innocent civilians in Cuba. Much of this is documented in a book by Keith Bolender, called Voices from The Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba and also by authors such as Noam Chomsky and Nelson Valdes. I urge you to read some of the material outside of the mainstream media regarding Cuba as you might just find that the boogeyman we’ve been trained to fear is much less offensive than first anticipated.

I say all of this not to convince you that Cuba is some sort of Utopian wonderland, it’s far from it. But I think it’s significant that Guillen’s comments, probably taken slightly out-of-context, were so quickly and effectively quashed by the American media system. Guillen should not have taken back his comments, he should have clarified them and the fact that he didn’t shows the sheer power of the pro-capital lobby in the U.S. Of course, trusting Guillen to articulately explain something so complicated is probably too much to ask.

Guillen’s suspension, meanwhile, is beyond inexcusable. Technically, Guillen’s first amendment rights were not violated because individual work places don’t necessarily have to follow the constitution. Of course, this represents another massive hypocrisy within the U.S. judicial system. As Jason Wojciechowski explains via twitter:

I’m not trying to argue that what Guillen said was particularly sophisticated, nor am I trying to suggest that he has anything more than a basic knowledge of Cuban politics. But the overwhelming suppression of opinion from all corners of the mainstream represents a much larger problem with the hypocrisy of the American system and the deep misunderstanding of Cuba and its situation geopolitically. The propaganda campaign against Cuba is by far the most successful such campaign in U.S. history.

Guillen was quoted as saying in his press conference today that politics “have nothing to do with sports.” This, of course ignores the role of fighter-jet flyovers, the singing of God Bless America, and the constant and rampant homophobia & sexism plays in sports. Politics play an important and everyday role in sports, but the wrong kind of politics will get you suspended. Saying politics and sports do not collide also fails to recognize the importance of Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali, Billie Jean King, Curt Flood, John Carlos, Scott Fujita, and Brian Burke among many others.

If you have an open mind and are interested in learning more about Cuba, check out the authors I listed above. For a very brief economic history of the country, check out this article, which is also quite critical of some of Cuba’s practices. And before I get scolded for not “sticking to baseball” I should mention that I’ve actually studied this matter quite extensively both on my own and as a paid researcher/writer. This by no means is to suggest that I know everything on the topic or that I’m right, but my opinion is informed and I’d like to pre-emptively block any “stick to what you know” comments.