When It Comes to Cuba, America Is Stuck in 1959

The hysteria surrounding Ozzie Guillen's foolish comments shows how far we haven't come.

The recent Ozzie Guillen saga has proven one thing: In Florida, it’s always 1959—and possibly will be forever.

Never mind that it’s the 21st century, and what passes for real Communism died more than 20 years ago, buried in the rubble of the Berlin Wall and a million Yakov Smirnoff jokes. Fidel Castro is still alive, still breathing, and even if the Cuban government now run by his brother Raul is now making tentative steps in the direction of a market economy, we must still behave—politically and culturally—as if Ike were still running the country and shouts of “Better dead than red!” hadn’t long since been battered and deep-fried in 43 layers of irony.

Maybe these attitudes made more sense when the Soviet Union and the United States were in a 40-year-staredown over the fate of the world, one punctuated with crises in which Fidel Castro himself urged Nikita Kruschev to attack America with nuclear bombs. (Castro, not a genius apparently, didn’t realize that such an attack would probably also destroy his island nation.)

But those days are gone—or, at least they are everywhere but Florida. The Soviet Union is gone. China is still run by “Communists,” but their vision of International Socialism these days apparently involves building the biggest market-driven economy in the world. Castro has been mostly defanged.

And yet, when Florida Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen says something—admittedly foolish—like “I love Castro,” the reaction is pure hysteria.

It’s no secret why this is the case: Florida has a huge population of Cuban-Americans—mostly folks who fled when Castro came to power, or, increasingly, their descendants. Old grudges die hard. Real hard. And they’ve been savvy enough to build their political power so that baseball team owners and American presidents—men with plenty of money and power in their own right—cower before them. And because Florida is a swing state in presidential elections (remember Bush v. Gore?) the power of the exiles is magnified exponentially.

Now: The cowering is usually cloaked in talk about “freedom” and “tyranny,” “democracy” and dictatorships.” And there is no denying that Castro is a bad, bad man—though, frankly, probably not nearly as murderous as the Chinese dictators whose money we’re happy to borrow by the billions.

But many of the first-generation exiles were Cubans who were apparently OK with the regime of Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, an autocrat under whom (reputedly) as many as 20,000 Cubans died. Which suggests that for all the talk of freedom, more than a few of the exiles are fine with police states as long as their guy is running the police state.

Let’s assume that the talk of freedom and democracy is completely—or at least mostly—genuine. Thanks to the exiles, American policy is roughly the same as it was when Castro took power and declared himself a Communist: We’re trying to starve him out with the use of an embargo that waxes and wanes in in strictness over the years.

It hasn’t worked. It didn’t work in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, or now. But—for the same reason Guillen spent the final portion of last week’s Marlins series in Philadelphia sitting alone at home—it can never change.

The problem, then, isn’t that Guillen was suspended five games for his silly comments. (Although it’s fun to ponder the idea of Billy the Marlin as the second coming of Roy Cohn.) The problem is that his suspension represents confirmation of something we already knew: As far as Cuba is concerned, we’re stuck in time, condemned to the same hysteria and the same policy mistakes that we’ve made for more than half a century.

Everybody knows this, and nobody is doing anything about it. Nobody dares. We’re stuck in 1959. And it sucks.