Back in 1997, after a few years out west working for KCBS, I was approached by NBC-owned WTVJ in Miami about the possibility of returning to my hometown. During negotiations with the station over a producer position, I went into pretty good detail about my reservations when it came to going back to Miami. Granted, the job I had at the time was anything but fulfilling -- in truth, working at KCBS was like a daily gangbang of sociopathic debasement and stupidity -- but there were elements of growing up in South Florida that I still couldn't get out of my head and which I wasn't sure I wanted to willingly return to. And so I brought some of these concerns up to my potential new bosses at WTVJ -- and I didn't hold back, certainly not about what I felt was one inescapable fact about life in Miami that I simply didn't want to have to deal with at any point in my life again.
"This is gonna sound crappy, I know, but I've really enjoyed not hearing the name 'Fidel Castro' even once over the past couple of years," I said, bluntly putting it out there.
If you live in South Florida you understand: Fidel Castro is a ubiquitous, all-consuming presence. He's a demonic force which, for a group of people whose numbers are admittedly dwindling but whose political voice and authority are still outsize, can never be effectively exorcized. For years into decades, Castro wasn't simply a man, he was an incorporeal evil whose reach it was a mistake to underestimate because it had supposedly proven that it could place spies in the top levels of city government, knock unfriendly radio and TV stations off the air, and indoctrinate the unsuspecting through a ceaseless stream of revolutionary propaganda. When I was growing up, it was possible to thoroughly ruin a local political candidate simply by accusing him or her of being a communist. I'll repeat that so that it sinks in: You could call a guy running for, say, the Hialeah city council a communist and people would take you seriously.
When I mentioned my reluctance to return to a steady diet of that kind of lunacy, the news director who was interviewing me -- a guy who happened to be Cuban-American himself -- said, "I think you're going to be surprised. The Cuban exile community has really matured. Things aren't the way they used to be." That was August of 1997. Just two years later, Miami would completely lose its mind when a young boy named Elian Gonzalez came to its shores and a shameful political battle ensued that actually resulted in my hometown creating its own foreign policy, one that stood in defiance of the United States government. And so as Cuban exile groups stopped traffic on I-95 in a show of "civil disobedience," an exploitative dog-and-pony show kicked off at the top of every hour at the home of Elian's relatives -- featuring the likes of Andy Garcia, local politicians desperate for a smiling photo-op with the Christ-child, and Daryl "The Fisherman" Dalrymple, all of course sponsored by Gus Machado Ford of 49th Street -- and bananas began piling up in front of city hall as a symbol of how the city was becoming a banana republic, I remember looking my boss right in the eye and saying, "Matured, huh?"
I'll never deny that Fidel Casto is a rotten, murderous bastard the world would be better off without, but the passion-minus-reason approach to his interminable reign has always not only made Miami a madhouse, it's been utterly counterproductive in bringing down the Castro government. While things have certainly improved in South Florida as the old hardline guard finally dies off, replaced by its far more rational and Americanized progeny, the fact is that Miami is still a Republican town controlled by staunch anti-Castro borderline fanatics and represented by said same at the national level. Those voted into the U.S. House by South Florida's Cuban-American community know which side their bread is buttered on and to whom they owe their cushy government jobs, and so, consequently, they know who to pander to when the situation calls for some serious ass-kissing.
Which brings us to Jay-Z and Beyoncé. By now you're aware that the hip-hop power couple recently visited Cuba for their fifth wedding anniversary, leading the usual suspects among Miami's Cuban exile community to ask the usual pointed questions about whether the breathtakingly ineffective U.S. embargo against Cuba had been violated and, regardless of the legality of the trip, if Jay and Bey were indirectly condoning murder and communism and giving Cuba a giant tool for propaganda on a silver platter by falling into Castro's tourist trap. At the top of the list of the usual suspects, for the blissfully unaware, are Republican U.S. representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. Ros-Lehtinen is an irksome little troll who never misses an opportunity to stroke the collective dong of Miami's anti-Castro hardliners by injecting the specter of the bearded devil into even the most trifling of controversies; Diaz-Balart got his job because he's a member of a South Florida political and media dynasty that includes his aunt, who was married to Castro pre-revolution, and his brothers Lincoln, a former representative himself, and Jose, a hack TV news host for Telemundo and all-around pompous ass.
Immediately following word of Jay-Z and Beyoncé's arrival in Havana, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart, sensing an opportunity to invoke the dark hand of America's #1 enemy, sent an official letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department expressing "concern" and requesting more information about the trip. The letter featured the kind of imperious posturing that Capitol Hill has turned into an art form, with Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart lecturing no one in particular on the ways in which traveling to Cuba funds "the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people." Adam Szubin, director of OFAC, immediately got on the request, since his job apparently involves catering to the self-serving whims of every idiot congressperson who feels that he or she has already solved the country's many pressing problems and can now just relax. It turns out the trip was totally on the up-and-up: Yesterday Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart received assurances in writing that Jay-Z and Beyoncé had traveled under a licensed program that encouraged "meaningful contact" with the people of Cuba. The trip was organized by a non-profit out of New York City called Academic Arrangements Abroad.
So, there. That settles it -- controversy over, right?
The follow up letter from Mario Diaz-Balart begins as follows:
"I am outraged by the vague response from the U.S. Department of the Treasury that failed to answer the simple questions posed by my colleague Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen and me regarding the apparent tourist activities of celebrities Mrs. Carter-Knowles and Mr. Carter in Cuba."
And things just get more pissy and ridiculous from there.
It's like this: You have two generally useless congresspeople with only one pet cause to milk to keep the mental patient constituents back home happy and they both happen to be members of a political party that sees Obama-related conspiracies everywhere it looks, so what do you expect will become of something like this? Diaz-Balart, naturally, is claiming that the Treasury Department and the Obama administration are purposely ducking his inquiries into what really led to two of the most famous hip-hop stars in the world being approved for travel to Cuba and he vows to continue pressing the White House for answers on this "issue of profound importance." Ladies and gentlemen, I give you "JayBeygate," which, if anybody gave a crap about anything Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart had to say, would spend months occupying the Fox News airtime that wasn't being taken up by the insatiable search for answers in the Benghazi non-story.
It's a testament to both the thickheaded obstinance of South Florida's Cuban-American voting bloc and the power it's wielded for decades in Washington, DC, that the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in effect, despite being a foreign policy failure so inarguably profound that it's actually visible to the naked eye. The embargo has been in place for more than 50 years, defended at every turn by the Cuban exile hardliners, and it hasn't done a damn thing to pry Castro loose; all it's ever done is hurt the people of Cuba. I've used this example before but it holds up nicely: If your family were trapped inside a burning house and you ran up to the front door in an effort to save them but found it locked, how long would you continue pulling at the doorknob before trying to find a window or some other -- any other -- way in? A couple of minutes? An hour? How about 51 years? How stubborn and stupid would you have to be to keep trying the same locked door for 51 years? You know what they say the definition of insanity is, right?
What Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart are doing is what they've always done, what's always been successful not for the people they claim to care about passionately and often to the exclusion of every other consideration -- the people inside Castro's Cuba -- but for the people they truly care most about: themselves. Pulling the kind of nonsense publicity stunt that allows them to invoke Castro, capitalize on the names of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and rebuke Obama may be a cynical political hat trick, but it doesn't do a damn thing to Fidel Castro besides maybe give him something to laugh at and give his government ammo to use against those who purport to fight for the noble cause of a free Cuba. People like Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart -- certainly the resolute exile-friendly hardliners -- claim to be part of the solution simply because they hate Castro with an indescribable passion, but that passion has blinded them to the point of embarrassing irrationality and the irony is that because of this they aren't the solution at all; they're the problem.
Things are indeed improving in Miami, albeit very slowly. I always respected the strong antipathy my friends' parents and grandparents had toward Fidel Castro and understood that it was only logical for it to sometimes manifest in heedless overreaction. But their kids, the people now my age, and their kids -- the next generation -- are removed enough from the immediate memories of pain, loss, and betrayal that they've shown an ability to make the measured, intelligent decisions and take the practical steps that were always required to finally topple the failed "revolution" that's kept Cuba in a death grip for decades.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé traveling to Cuba doesn't make Castro look good and it doesn't make the communist government of Cuba look good. It makes Cuba look good. As for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and those like them: Relying on the tired, failed tactics of the past, whether in the hope of effecting genuine change or simply in the name of cheap political pandering, is nothing more than shameless folly.
It's time to truly mature when it comes to our stand on Cuba, who champions it at both the local and national level, and the way they conduct themselves. The clownish antics of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and the hardliner holdouts who support them and for whom they speak have to end once and for all. For the good of both Cuba and the U.S.
Told you: JayBeygate. These people will try to turn anything -- anything -- into a scandal they can hang around the neck of Obama. It would be hilarious and pathetic if it weren't so infuriating, because this is what the GOP is doing instead of governing.