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Opinion: The Castro Brushback

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Cuban former President Fidel Castro gives a speech, on September 03, 2010, at Havana's University. Castro talked to the students about the possibility of a nuclear war.

There are few political figures in the world that have had such a polarizing effect on American politics than Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Since 1959 Castro has vexed American presidents from Kennedy to Obama as to how the United States should deal with the communist island some 90 miles away from our shores.

Beyond conflict in the Oval Office, the Cuban question is one that has also impacted politics and politicians across the decades across the United States. While there are six Cuban-Americans serving in Congress today, all but two are Republican. Perhaps nowhere is the issue most poignant than Florida’s Miami-Dade County – home to many native born or exiled Cubans who left their home at great peril to reach the freedom and opportunity offered them in America.

At the end of the Clinton Administration, South Florida erupted in controversy as then Attorney General Janet Reno sought to repatriate a six year old boy named Elian Gonzalez with his father in Cuba in 2000 – no matter that the boy’s mother had drowned while bringing her son to freedom in America. Justice Department officials used force to enter the home of young Gonzalez’s relatives in Miami and he was returned to his father in Havana – where he received a hero’s welcome from none other than Fidel Castro, himself. Gonzalez’s return to Cuba was a huge propaganda win for Castro – and a major source of agitation for many Cuban-Americans living in the Miami-Dade area.

All of this background leads us to the interesting controversy surrounding Florida Marlins baseball manager Ozzie Guillen (and a native Venezuelan) over the past week. In a recent magazine article, Guillen professed his admiration and “love” for Castro for his ability to remain in power for more than 60 years despite ardent American opposition. The Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade swiftly condemned Guillen’s remarks and he was promptly suspended from Major League Baseball for 5 games.

Tuesday, Guillen returned to the dugout to lead his team against the Chicago Cubs and…nothing happened. There were no protestors outside of the stadium and the only boos that rained down when Guillen was on the field were directed to the umpire with whom he was disputing a call. 

Has the Guillen Castro brushback marked a new shift in the landscape for Republican Cuban-American politicians? Must Republicans in general and Cuban Americans in particular reflexively recoil against anything pro-Castro that is uttered in society today? Or, are Americans who say anything favorable toward Castro merely exercising their freedom of speech rights without making a greater political statement?

My takeaway from this incident is that Republican politicians in South Florida and across the U.S. will reflexively oppose any efforts to legitimize Fidel Castro, a view I also share. At the same time, perhaps the ice has thawed in the perspective many Americans hold concerning our neighbor to the south – a land whose people we can all agree should be liberated from the oppressive impact communism has had in their ability to live in freedom.