Commentary

What Guillen revealed about Miami

How South Florida's Cuban-Americans view Fidel Castro, Cuba and themselves

Updated: April 18, 2012, 12:46 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeEugenio R. Martinez
AP PhotoEugenio R. Martinez, a convicted Watergate burglar shown here in 1973 arriving for a meeting with investigators in Washington, now lives in in Miami and says he isn't upset with Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen.

M

IAMI -- Ozzie Guillen's Castro comments reached every corner of Miami's powerful Cuban community in the week following his apology, including the quiet side street where the Watergate burglar lives. A few blocks from South Beach, a 90-year-old Cuban-American putters around a small condo filled with weights, self-help books like "Windows 7 for Seniors," and stacks of paper detailing his own brushes with history, including a presidential pardon signed by Ronald Reagan. Eugenio Martinez rolls up his sleeve and flexes.

"Let me show you," he says, laughing.

He spends his days lifting weights, looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary and trying to understand string theory. His wife has been gone two years now, and he's lonely without her. For 10 years he took care of her while she slowly died of Alzheimer's, and only now does he realize he didn't do that for her, but for him, because he didn't want to lose her. Alone, he thinks a lot about how he spent his life: a decade in the CIA, running hundreds of dangerous missions into Cuba, where he was born, trying to overthrow Castro. The two most famous of his missions -- the Bay of Pigs and the break-in (he was one of the five "plumbers" caught mid-burglary, costing him 15 months but making sure his grandkids always had the coolest Nixon projects at school) -- ended in fiasco. Castro is still alive. Cuba is still communist. Ozzie Guillen can say he loves and respects Castro, and the manager is returning from suspension tonight on the 51st anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, which virtually no one seems to have noticed. Given all that, you'd expect Martinez to be livid with Guillen.

He's not.


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iami is changing.

That's the revelation of the past 10 days, especially for outsiders. It's a subtle shift, but an important one. From afar, in narrative-confirming snippets on television, this seemed to be another example of the Cuban-American community's unified fervor. Guillen flew home for an emergency news conference. Some wondered whether he'd lose his job, as the team saw its plans to fill its new Little Havana stadium with Cuban baseball fans teeter. Guillen had touched the third rail. Says FIU professor of Cuban-American politics Dario Moreno: "My mom would say, 'You can say whatever you want in this town as long as you begin it with 'Fidel Castro is a son-of-a-bitch.'"

[+] EnlargeProtesters
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesProtesters rally outside a news conference held by Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen for comments made about Fidel Castro. The Marlins suspended Guillen for five games over his pro-Castro comments.

But if you had walked the Little Havana streets around the new ballpark, you'd have noticed that fewer than 200 people came to protest, and that's after a politician robo-called constituents to draw a crowd. The group leading it was a fringe organization always looking for a reason to break the picket signs out of the car trunks. The average age of those holding signs seemed over 70. Twelve years ago -- although a little boy is more symbolic and charged than a millionaire loudmouth -- the Elian Gonzalez tug-of-war brought thousands into the streets and ground the city to a halt. Moreno couldn't think of anything that anyone could say today to cause an Elian-sized reaction.

In an area where a key to winning a Republican primary is to out-anti-Castro your opponent, only two major politicians called for Guillen's firing. One is running for mayor of the county; the other is rumored to be a candidate for mayor of the city. The most powerful of the Cuban right-wing radio talkers, Armando Perez Roura, whose flowery style has been described as "rococo patriotism," actually sparred with his listeners in defense of moderation. Guillen apologized and seemed sincere. Most people accepted his explanation, even some of the older generation. Suddenly, there is room in both the real and symbolic Little Havana for nuance. Anger now comes in shades.

The neighborhood used to bristle with the antennae of eight or so anti-Castro radio stations. There are two left, and their ratings are falling. The hard-liners have always opposed a single cent being sent to Cuba -- even the art on their walls has been carefully vetted to make sure the artist has denounced Castro -- but their view is dying with them. Millions of dollars and thousands of people return to the island annually on the daily flights. One conservative congressman even stands outside the check-in line and tries to talk passengers out of boarding. Few listen.

Something is changing about the way South Florida's Cuban-Americans view Castro, Cuba and even themselves. Grandmothers who walked through bloody firing-squad floors to visit their political prisoner husbands call Castro a murderer; the current generation calls him a brutal dictator. There are people in Miami who went to high school with Fidel; their grandchildren know only an old man in a track suit.

"Everybody hates Castro," Moreno says, "but I think they hate Castro now in different ways. I think younger Cuban-Americans -- and by younger I mean under 60 -- hate Castro like an American will hate bin Laden. It's not personal anymore."

The night before the Marlins' first home game since Guillen's comments, I met a Cuban-American friend in the back of a trendy restaurant. He slipped me a list of names from the past: moderate and liberal Cuban exiles who'd been attacked and threatened over the years for even appearing to support Castro.

"This is a very, very faint echo of what used to be," my friend said. "Back in the '70s, they would have blown up Marlins Park. If you understand that the Watergate burglars were trying to overthrow Fidel, and that people used to blow each other up in the '70s and '80s, then the Guillen thing gets more interesting, both because of what he said -- and because of what didn't happen."


"T

hey would have killed him," said Armando Gutierrez, now a 77-year-old lawyer with a home on the water, once soldier No. 2479 in the CIA-trained brigade that invaded a little inlet of Cuban beach known as the Bay of Pigs.

[+] EnlargeBay of Pigs
Miguel VinasAFP/Getty ImagesAn April 1961 file photo showing members of Brigade 2506, after their capture in the Bay of Pigs.

A group of veterans gathered last Friday at the small Bay of Pigs Museum, talking about Guillen, about what he said and what didn't happen. The warriors are old men now, and the wall of the museum is covered with photographs of their dead friends. The men in black-and-white photos on the left died in battle, and the men shown in color have died in the 51 years since. Hundreds of 8x10s, packed closely together, each one a husband, a son, a father. Some died trying to win back their home, and others died longing for a place they'd never again see.

"Look at that wall," Gutierrez said, waving his hand behind him. "All of those people were killed in combat fighting for the freedom of Cuba. And he comes and says that he loves Castro? Fifty-three years this guy has been there and the only thing he's done is destroy. The other day I was looking at videos of 1958 and videos of the same places now. Two different countries."

All that's left of Brigade 2506, the name given to the Cuban-Americans who invaded Cuba in 1961, is the museum a block off Calle Ocho. Few people stop in. Today, there won't be a parade in their honor. None of the big South Florida newspapers wrote last week that Guillen's suspension would end on the anniversary of the botched invasion.

"It's our fault," Gutierrez said. "Many of us have died. We are old. Miami has nothing to do today with what it was before. You can see signs: 'Travel to Cuba.' That is because people have come in the last 30 years. I brought a client of mine here two weeks ago. He came from Cuba in '92. He didn't know this place existed. And this is a museum of heroes who went to fight for their homeland. These men died in combat. A lot of them were friends."

One of the men here repeats something he heard almost 50 years ago from an older Cuban, a friend of his father, who worried that the slow building of a community would dull their zeal to retake their home: "Maybe our success maybe will be what destroys us," he said. The veterans of the Bay of Pigs have led American lives: attending college, saving so their kids could too. They became bankers and lawyers and supported their alma maters.

"I am a Cornhusker," Maximo Cruz said.

"Vandy boy," Gutierrez said.

Cruz, short with a wiry, muscular build, survived the Bay of Pigs and volunteered for Vietnam. He was severely wounded, and when he awoke six operations later, he demanded a mirror to make sure his testicles remained intact. Gutierrez arrived in Miami for the first time on May 23, 1959, with $2.50. He left the Miami airport at 2:30 a.m. on foot. Now he lives on the ocean with an American flag in his front yard. This morning, wearing a suit and shined shoes, he went to Mass, as he does every day. He has no living relatives in Cuba. His home is here, and he can see it changing. They all see the change.

"Some day," Cruz said, "we are all gonna die -- and then what?"

Looking at the wall of departed friends, Gutierrez said: "When we die, and every week one or two of our people die, this place is gonna be closed. All these pictures are gonna go to the garbage, and no one is gonna care."


N

obody thought Max Lesnik would live to see his grandkids grow up, yet there he sat last Friday afternoon, in his breezy house near the University of Miami. He's watched the Ozzie Guillen flap with a sort of wonder, the way a caveman might have reacted to seeing an airplane.

[+] EnlargeLesnik
Thos Robinson/Getty ImagesMax Lesnik and his daughter, Vivian Lesnik Weisman, who directed "Man Of Two Havanas," at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Lesnik lived his adult life in fear because he dared to speak his mind about Cuba. He learned never to sit in a restaurant with his back to the door. He carried a small black pistol, and bodyguards drove his daughters home from school. They checked under the car for bombs. From 1972 to 1994, the offices of his magazine, Replica, were bombed 11 times. When he called the soldiers at the Bay of Pigs "mercenaries," some veterans broke into his radio studio with guns and tried to get him to retract his statement on the air. He refused.

His best friend, Luciano Nieves, said in 1975 that perhaps the time had come for the U.S. to begin talking to Cuba. As punishment, anti-Castro terrorists killed him in the parking lot of a hospital. He was there to visit his sick son. Nieves never came close to saying he "loved" or "respected" Castro. Neither did Lesnik.

"How many people were there?" Max asked.

"Two hundred," I told him. "Maybe less."

He shook his head. "We are talking about one-and-a-half million Cubans living in South Florida," he said.

Guillen's comments, and the measured size of the reaction, allowed Lesnik an opportunity to gauge the progress he's seen. The world came around to him. He remains a minority in the Cuban-American community, but so are the hard-liners who still believe Castro will be toppled. Most people live comfortably in the middle, against Castro but wanting more and more to reconnect to the island of their past.

Lesnik still speaks against the embargo, but with no fear. He still calls the U.S. policy toward Cuba the product of career politicians seeking and maintaining power. Disagreements remain, even hatreds, but the battles are over. He doesn't need to look for bombs under his car. Although he avoids Versailles, the restaurant that's ground zero for anti-Castro exiles, he visits the cafes in Little Havana. Old grudges crumble, in Miami and in Havana too.

A long time ago, he and Fidel were classmates at the University of Havana. They became friends and plotted revolution together, wanting freedom for the Cuban people. Max coined the phrase appropriated by the people protesting Guillen: "Cuba si, Yankee no." In the beginning, Lesnik had more juice in the movement than Fidel. When the forces of Batista hunted Castro, Max hid him in his home, where they stayed for two weeks. Then Castro took power, started executing opponents, began courting the Soviet Union. Max went on radio and declared "I am not a Communist," and fled his former friend's ire, sailing on a small boat with 12 others to Florida in 1961. Max landed with 10 cents. Everything his family suffered in Miami sprang from that long-ago split with Castro.

Max shuffled toward a back room in his home and returned holding an unmarked white envelope, delivered through back channels. Inside was the last letter he received from Castro, dated two years ago. Castro doesn't have a personalized letterhead, writing on three torn squares of paper, his handwriting slanted upward, which experts say indicates confidence and, remarkably, optimism. The letter was addressed to "Friendly Max."

"In Miami," he said, "I think I am the only person that maintains good terms with Fidel. Don't forget I am 81 years old. He's 85. For our generation, there's not too much people here or there."


T

hey're all white-haired and weathered now, wearing faded Cuban shirts, drinking sugary coffee out of thimble-sized plastic cups. They've laid down their weapons. The dream of restoring the Cuba they knew is gone. The Bay of Pigs veterans never toppled Castro. Dreamers like Max never ended the embargo.

They lost more than possessions when they fled. They lost identities that were formed over generations. They lost their stories. That's what they built in the 53 years since: a new story. Their children are Americans. Castro will die, and they will too; then what will be left of their past? They don't want people to forget. That's why they told their children about firing squads and about doctors and lawyers taking jobs as maids. That's why they built political power and why some of them became terrorists. It's why they met with Ozzie Guillen a week ago.

Before he went to face the cameras, Guillen spent time in the Marlins' clubhouse, surrounded by people who knew firsthand of Castro's brutality. The team arranged the meeting. Men and women spoke. One of the 75 dissidents arrested in the spring of 2003 told his story, then one of the Ladies in White, a group of mothers and wives who protested the unjust arrests. Guillen heard how political prisoners in Cuba followed all the Latino baseball stars, including Guillen. They told him they were angry, and that they couldn't believe he'd said those things. Guillen cried as they spoke.

He began serving his five-game suspension, which seemed like a public relations move designed to protect the brand among Cuban fans. The team returned to Miami, where last Friday night it played its first home game. Not a single person showed up to protest. Not one. Nobody booed the big picture of Guillen on the video board. They didn't even boo the Houston Astros catcher, whose last name is Castro.


Eugenio Martinez
Wright Thompson/ESPN.comEugenio Martinez says he's tired of fighting and doesn't care about Guillen.

W

hen Eugenio Martinez looks back at all the times he risked his life, and at the actions of the past five decades, he sees a waste. What was it all for? Nothing has changed -- and everything has changed.

He blames himself for the suffering of the Cuban people in the intervening decades, because the Bay of Pigs not only failed to overthrow Castro, it also entrenched him. Fidel led the counterassault himself, and earned a reputation as a man who could stand up to the Yankees. That's why Martinez doesn't care about Ozzie Guillen. People who get angry about the comments of an "idiot" are fighting cosmetic wars, he believes, and in his small condo, Martinez seems tired of fighting.

"I don't hate," he says. "Normal people hate. I don't know what hate is. I don't hate anyone. I don't hate Castro. If I could kill him tomorrow, I would kill him as a benefit for Cuba. I'm different. Yeah, I would say that I'm different."

He wears his wedding ring on a chain around his neck. He underlines passages about himself in books, his once-steady hands shaking. There are grainy photographs of him on boats, unsmiling in a black hoodie, hands on a .50-caliber machine gun. Some people started new lives here, but he kept fighting for his old one. That's over now, and there's nothing more out of place than a samurai when the battle ends. His missions, even the ones that went well, resulted in failure. In a dinette table in his kitchen, where the cupboards are filled with books, he finds a yellowed photograph. It's him, back in Cuba, with short wavy hair, a thin mustache, a gap-toothed grin. The man in that picture dreamed of being a doctor, but circumstances pushed him into a losing fight.

"I was young once," he says.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @wrightthompson.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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