Ozzie Guillen is one lucky dude. At least so far. The Miami Marlins moved into Marlins Park, a controversial, publicly funded state-of-the-art ballpark in—get this—Little Havana, just a week ago. Miami’s not a good baseball town—the Marlins have won two World Series championships in the last 15 years and yet have never garnered much fan support. This stadium was meant to change that, along with a team overhaul that brought pricy free agents Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, and a fiery new manager, Ozzie Guillen. Who decided to declare recently, “I love Fidel Castro.”
I can’t say I’m surprised by that. I was back in Miami last week for the first time in awhile — I spent 2007-2011 launching and running Miami magazine — and while lying on South Beach, I read The New Yorker‘s profile of the new-look Marlins, in which Guillen seemed to delight in the fact that he was getting $2.5 million a year to tell people what to do and say what he felt like. A few days later, when I read that he’d blurted out that he loves the Cuban dictator, later stumbling through justifications for this bizarre comment, the Venezuelan skipper seemed like toast to me. You can play in downtown Miami and say you’re bringing your talents to South Beach — LeBron’s geographic lapse drew chuckles locally — but if there’s one thing you absolutely cannot do in Miami, it’s to say anything positive about Castro.
I mean, you can, but you will probably be fired.
The Marlins gave Guillen a five-day suspension. We’ll see if they can stick to that. Cubans in Miami have a complex enough history without a guy who’s supposed to be a role model spouting out his admiration of a man many locals see as the devil — or worse, as a murderer of their forebears. It doesn’t help that Guillen also hasn’t exactly spoken out against Castro’s buddy Hugo Chavez, the dictator of Guillen’s home country of Venezuela (he’s issued non-denial denials about reports of his murky support for Chavez). Chavez’s reign has led to the establishment of a sizable Venezuelan expat community in South Florida; there’s a neighborhood in western Miami known as Little Caracas.
Castro and Cuban politics are best avoided as topics of any conversation in South Florida, unless you’re Cuban. Or looking to start trouble. In 2008, when it was time for director Steven Soderbergh to premiere his lengthy two-part biopic of the revolutionary Che Guevera, Che, he went to Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach. I was one of about 45 people who showed up to watch the films, which were shown with a brief intermission. To enter the theater, we had to endure the taunts and chants of a rowdy, angry group of protestors. The first half of the film chronicles Che and Fidel Castro’s violent Cuban revolution. I’m sure none of the protestors had seen the film yet, but they’d read about it; Soderbergh’s straightforward war flick ends with the heroes rolling into Havana, tired but victorious.
The theater was pretty empty by the end of the second film, chronicling Che’s failed attempt to export the Communist revolution to Bolivia. Throughout both screenings, there was an underlying tension in the theater. This was the type of event that used to get firebombed back when the wounds of Castro’s revolution were fresher.
At the after-party for the premiere on South Beach, while girls flocked to chat up star Benicio del Toro, I spotted Soderbergh off in a corner and had an amiable conversation with him. He confirmed my suspicion: he’d chosen Miami for the premier because of the publicity it’d generate. In other words, it was easy pickins. Say (or film) something positive about Castro, and draw the ire of a still-vocal community of anti-Castro activists, guaranteed.
Ozzie Guillen should’ve known better, but clearly this is a guy who doesn’t think very much. I doubt he’ll be able to recover from this foot-in-mouth incident — “I’m here on my knees,” he said at the press conference outside Marlins Park yesterday. Better to get up off your knees, Ozzie, and head out into Miami’s Cuban community and use some of that $2.5 million salary to treat the city to a round of Cubano sandwiches, cortaditos and happy-hour mojitos. You’ve got five days off, so here are some spots we’d recommend hitting for some comida Cubano. And some more advice, next time a reporter asks you about Cuba, respond simply, “I love Cuban food!”
Versailles Restaurant — This is the Little Havana landmark that should’ve been on our list of Restaurant Tourist Traps Worth The Trip. I used to recommend this sprawling restaurant, cafe and bakery complex to visitors, and people always thanked me. It’s as authentic as you can get—right down to the men in guayaberas sipping strong coffee, smoking cigars and arguing politics. 3555 SW 8th St., Miami, FL, 305.444.0240
David’s Cafe II — I wouldn’t send people here for the food—stick to the toast and the hair-on-your-chest coffee—but if you’re strolling Lincoln Road on South Beach and want a Cuban experience, David’s is a family-run operation with several generations behind it. 1654 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach, FL, 305.672.8707
Puerto Sagua — If you’ve ever stumbled off the heart of the beach and onto Collins Ave., you’ve probably spotted this old-school diner. Again, you can’t go too wrong with a Cuban sandwich here, but grabbing a jolt of caffeine and sugar here is advisable. 700 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, FL, 305.673.1115
Other options: I’ve always wanted to like D. Rodriguez Cuba, the well-known chef’s South Beach attempt at high-end Cuban, but I haven’t had the best experiences dining chez Douglas. Still, it’d be worth checking recent reviews and giving it a shot if it intrigues you (especially if Ozzie’s buying). We did an informal poll with some Miami locals, especially of Cuban descent, and were tipped off to spots including Cafe Vialetto in Coral Gables for creative Cuban cooking; Latin American Grill for weekend brunch; and El Palacio De Los Jugos for a Havana-style experience. Chains such as Sergio’s and La Carreta aren’t well respected, but you can probably score a good media noche sandwich or vaca frita at one of their locations. And I’ve had a decent mojito at the over-the-top, Estafan-owned chain Bongo’s Cuban Cafe, though for first timers, I’ll stick by my Versailles recommendation every time.