Ozzie Guillen, Castro, Venezuela, Baseball & ‘Hearts and Minds’

Well today, I thought I’d try something different – a post about baseball.  Seeing as how today is also the first home game for the St. Louis Cardinals (did I mention they are the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals), the timing could not be better.

Where I grew up, we played four things as children: baseball, basketball, football and war.  I wasn’t talented enough to earn a living doing any of the first three so I went with the fourth and joined the military. Today, I get to think about baseball and foreign affairs at the same time – thanks to one Ozzie Guillen.

One of the stranger geopolitical-basedball incidents in recent memory occurred this week when Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen committed an enormous gaffe by openly supporting Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro:

Time quoted Guillen as saying “I love Fidel Castro” and “I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still here.”

Guillen has spouted all sorts of non-sense over the years, but his latest comment tops them all.  The Miami Marlins traded for Ozzie Guillen from the Chicago White Sox (a rare transaction, most managers are just hired or fired) to bring a new vibrant manager with a Latin background into Miami to coincide with the construction of a monster new stadium residing squarely in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood – a community of Cuban immigrants strongly in opposition to Castro’s reign.  Overall, an unbelievably dumb mistake by Guillen to alienate the population supporting his team and salary.

Reference Guillen’s comments, Jeff Emanuel rightly pointed out to me on Twitter:

“Almost never a reason to think too hard about what he [Guillen] said (in no small part b/c he clearly doesn’t)”

Jeff is exactly right.  Guillen says dumb things frequently and I don’t believe for a second this was an original thought of Guillen.  However, I was more interested in where Guillen heard this message in the past and why he would repeat it.  I immediately assumed that Guillen’s Venezuelan background provided the context for his comments and soon the media began providing the evidence.

Guillen twice appeared on a radio show hosted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in October 2005, when Guillen led the Chicago White Sox to the World Series title. At the time, Guillen said: “Not too many people like the president. I do.” Chavez is unpopular with many Venezuelans, especially those living in the United States.

Guillen, while having lived and played baseball in the U.S. for more than 25 years, was born and raised in Venezuela.  Today, Venezuela is led by Hugo Chavez; a well established ally of Fidel Castro and Cuba.

Winning Hearts and Minds

In the strategic communications/public affairs/information operations/psychological operations/political campaign/advertising/marketing/influence business, the goal is to issue a message and have it resonate and influence a target audience.  The term “Winning Hearts and Minds” provides a recent historical example of this objective – resonance.  From 2008-2009, no Washington DC beltway briefing could be conducted without having the phrase “Hearts and Minds” included in it.  The connotation came from the troop surge in Iraq where U.S. forces implemented a nation-wide counterinsurgency campaign that would:

  1. Win the “Hearts and Minds” of Iraqis – convincing them that Americans were there to help them build a new nation, and
  2. Win the “Hearts and Minds” of Americans – convincing them that the war’s costs were merited and that the country would in fact win the Iraq conflict.

I believe the U.S. was successful in achieving both of these objectives by sending a message that resonated in both target audiences – Iraqis and Americans. But, the largest challenge for “Hearts and Minds” campaigns is assessing effectiveness of a message.  As seen with the Afghanistan conflict, how does the U.S. gauge whether a message resonates in Afghanistan? in the U.S.? (Troop Surge in Afghanistan will build a strong Afghanistan and provide the U.S. a victory in a long war)

In traditional advertising and marketing, sales of products and business revenues provide clear measures of a message’s effectiveness.  Usually, dollars equal resonance.   In the public domain, assessing the effectiveness of a message proves far more tricky.  Does a public service announcement about neutering pets result in fewer unwanted cats?  Does a commercial about the dangers of obesity and diabetes lead me to curb my eating habits or instead desire a cheeseburger even more?  Governments and armies have been asking the same question the past ten years: How do we know our message resonates?

In the public affairs and political worlds, polling statistics and focus groups provide a quantitative metric for assessing effectiveness.  However, these numbers have also not proven to be particularly effective in measuring the effectiveness of a message as polling results are easily swayed by everyday factors beyond the scope of a singular message. For example, I may eat more cheeseburgers because the price of meat went down rather than eating less burgers because I heard a public service announcement.

In the absence of good quantitative data for measuring resonance of a message, I’ve begun focusing more on qualitative measures of a message’s effectiveness. In particular, I like one metric above all others – do individuals in the target audience repeat the message they receive?

In public affairs, the two most successful examples might be the slogan “Don’t Mess with Texas” and “This Is Your Brain On Drugs”.  In the first one, “Don’t Mess with Texas” is a slogan spouted by both Texans and those who refer to Texans.  As the book Nudge noted, this slogan comes from a Texas state anti-littering campaign signalling to Texans to stop dirtying their highways.  The “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign not only curbed littering but became the state’s unofficial motto.  In the second, few people who’ve seen the “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” commercials don’t immediately think of an egg in a frying pan.  Today, I often hear friends, relatives and colleagues say something to the effect of “thanks to the Surge we won the war in Iraq.”  Translation: Resonance = message heard + message received + message repeated.  Effective Message = Yes.

Was Guillen’s”Heart and Mind” won?

Back to Guillen! People often misspeak, particularly when they talk impromptu about topics for which they are not really familiar.  If Guillen were to make a dumb comment about baseball, I’d take it more serious than a dumb comment about Castro as he is supposedly an expert on baseball. Quite often, when people make dumb comments about something outside their expertise, they fall back on something they’ve heard rather than something they’ve thought.  My suspicion is that Guillen has heard a message that resonates. He heard these statements about Castro in his social circles and via the media he consumes and simply repeated what he heard.  My opinion is that someone, somewhere crafted a message that Castro should be admired for staying in power for a long time and my guess is that message resides in certain circles in Venezuela.  The message was communicated. The message was repeated. Effective Message = Yes.

Do I believe Guillen is an avid Castro supporter? No.  Do I believe Guillen is under the influence of Venezuelan operatives that are anti-U.S.? Probably not, highly unlikely.  Do I think Guillen heard a pro-Castro message repeated in his social circles? Yes. So my lesson from Guillen’s comments aren’t that he’s a Castro supporter, but that he heard an effective message that resonated, “Castro is a strong man because he maintained his power for a long time”.  I’m guessing this message is not repeated in Guillen’s circles: “Castro impoverished his nation and oppressed his people.”

For Hugo Chavez, baseball has long been a vehicle for influencing his base of popular support.  Chavez is an avid fan and former player.  This past winter Chavez dispatched the Venezuelan military to rescue Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos from kidnappers that seized him from his house.   More recently, an unknown media outlet to this blog and unverified story suggests Chavez even uses baseball players as spies in the U.S.  (A sexy story, but I’m not sure this single source is telling the truth – still fun to read.)

In conclusion, Chavez uses baseball as a means to broadcast messages. In the case of Guillen, it appears a pro-Castro message may have stuck.  So if you despise the evil world of influence, I’m assuming you would now go out and litter in Texas, take drugs, talk down of the Iraq surge, and boycott Marlins’ games.  However, I would encourage you to do the opposite in all four of these scenarios.  Message influence and advertising isn’t always bad and can often be used for good.  See Robert Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge if you want to feel better about how the messages you receive can be used for good.

And for a visual illustration of the Chavez-Castro baseball link, see this photo from Andrew Winning of Reuters.