Cuba Over and Out

Alert! Alert! Look well at the rainbow. The fish will rise very soon. Chico is in the house. Visit him.... The fish is red.

Radio Swan, a clandestine CIA radio station, broadcasting to Cuba on April 17, 1961, the day of the Bay of Pigs invasion Doctor Diego Medina knew something was amiss long before U.S. Marshals Service agents stuck their semiautomatic rifles in his face. Sitting on a plastic milk crate under an avocado tree, the Little Havana general practitioner had watched the headlights crisscrossing the barren fields around him on the warm May night, inching closer, finally pulling up to the gate of his brother's South Dade ranch.

"Hands up! Hands up! Don't move!" yelled the agents, clad in bulletproof vests. "Get on the ground! On the ground!" Moments later Medina found himself eating dirt, a deputy marshal's knee grinding into his back. "It was like I was Al Capone," Medina recalls. "I think they were expecting a squad of commandos. They shouldn't have made such a big deal out of it. They could have called me at home."

The agents seized Medina's white Ford van, a collapsible painter's ladder attached to its roof, a gasoline-fed generator and a $30,000 short-wave radio transmitter inside. On May 22, 1989, after a six-month investigation, the Federal Communications Commissiongovernment had shut down La Voz de Alpha 66, the radio voice of one of the oldest and most militant Cuban exile groups, bringing to a close the heyday of clandestine anti-Castro radio broadcasts.

No longer would the South Florida radio waves sound like an on-air Calle Ocho domino match, with acerbic exile Cuban commentators illegally signing on to criticize each other as much as Castro. No longer would federal agents spend untold thousands of dollars chasing tanked up, "Cuba Libre" short-wave conspirators across the east Everglades, raiding barns and pig farms, tracking darkened vans that used ladders for antennas, busting a Who's Who of exile leaders who claimed they were just doing America's dirty work. Those operations have taken their business elsewhere, to licensed, evangelical Christian short-wave stations that need the money, to foreign countries that openly support the cause. "It's a crazy world full of strange, crazy characters," says John Santosuosso, a political science professor at Florida Southern College in Lakeland and a clandestine radio expert. "Something about sitting in a dark room somewhere monitoring a radio set just makes people weird - like they say about real life being stranger than fiction."

Although they are seldom used by South American guerrilla groups, clandestine radio stations have played a major role in Central American and Caribbean - particularly Cuban - politics. "It's really a variety

of things - high illiteracy rates, difficult geographic conditions, governments that crack down on the opposition so published materials can't be distributed - that make it so popular down there," says Santosuosso. "Probably the most clandestine radio that's been seen has been against Castro."

And apparently the short-wave signals, which traverse far greater distances than normal AM and FM radio waves, have made their way without much interference to the island, where most radios are equipped with short-wave receivers. In a 1989 listener study based on interviews with 202 recently arrived Cuban exiles, Miami-Dade professors Manuel Mendoza and Juan Clark concluded that 32.8 percent of the island's population was tuning in at least several times per month to La Voz del CID, Miami's most high-tech clandestine station. "Those numbers are considered fairly high," says Mendoza. (Miami AM broadcasts, as well as registered short-wave stations such as Voice of America and its Cuban service Radio Marti, rated higher, with Marti topping the list at 92.4 percent.)

Clandestine radio first flourished as a tool of propaganda warfare in Europe during World War II, but it has been around since the early Thirties, when radio receivers first became readily available. On June 9, 1933, amid strikes, riots, and revolts against the brutal regime of Cuban leader Gerardo Machado, a station run by a student revolutionary group went on the air in the island nation, broadcasting anti-government propaganda and imploring the army to revolt. Days later police burst into a house in the province of Matanzas, east of Havana, and seized the students' transmitter, as well as weapons and documents. The short-lived clandestine station, the first in Cuba and among the first in the world, began that nation's checkered relationship with shadowy political broadcasters.

Nearly 25 years later, on February 24, 1958, the first notes of "Invaders' Hymn" and the words Cubans would hear over and over in the next months came across the airwaves: "This is Radio Rebelde, the voice of the Sierra Maestra." Poorly heard at first, Radio Rebelde, Castro's clandestine short-wave station, established at the urging of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, was to become the primary source of information for many island residents during the revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Although many anti-Batista radio stations surfaced during the war, Rebelde was the most important, and to this day it remains the name of the major radio network - which broadcasts on AM, FM, and short wave - in Cuba.

Within months of Castro's consolidation of power in 1959, stations opposing his regime began to broadcast clandestinely. Deteriorating relations between Cuba and the United States, the presence of the large exile community in South Florida, and the ready availability of short-wave radio receivers in Cuba made a war of the airwaves almost inevitable. The most important of the early anti-Castro clandestine stations, Radio Swan, went on the air for the first time on May 17, 1960.

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