Cuba Over and Out

Created by the U.S. government with assistance from United Fruit Company, which lost large tracts of land expropriated by Castro, the station was so named because it was located in the Caribbean, between Honduras and Cuba, on Swan Island, originally a relay station for United Fruit's Central American radio communications operations and later a Nicaraguan contra supply base. Swan operated under the cover of a commercial station, broadcasting music, soap operas, religion, news, and political opinions voiced by prominent Cuban exiles. Among the speakers was Jorge Mas Canosa, now head of the Cuban American National Foundation and an instrumental voice in the establishment of Radio Marti. There was little agreement among the exiles, leading one Cuban station to comment, "Radio Swan is not a radio station but a cage of hysterical parrots." The CIA agreed, but had bigger things in mind for Swan.

On the morning of April 17, 1961, as Cuban exile forces landed in Cuba, Radio Swan reported that the invaders were advancing, joined by thousands of sympathetic residents. In fact the opposite was true - there was no popular uprising, and as the Bay of Pigs invasion began to falter, CIA propagandists E. Howard Hunt (later of Watergate fame) and Atlee Phillips attempted to confuse Cuban forces by broadcasting gibberish over Radio Swan, speaking of rainbows, fish, and "Chico." Within three days, however, the invasion force had been routed.

This is Radio Libertad Cubana, the only rebel station broadcasting from the only piece of free earth that exists here in the eastern mountains of the Republic of Cuba in the year of liberation from international communism.

Comandante David, clandestine radio broadcaster, actually transmitting from Miami, 1980

During the steamy summer of 1979, residents of a quiet neighborhood in Southwest Dade began to notice wobbly lines on their TV screens during prime time. Coincidentally, listeners in Miami neighborhoods and Cuban cities, towns, and villages tuned in their short-wave sets four days per week to hear the gravelly voice of Comandante David, who claimed to be broadcasting from somewhere on the island and who called for the overthrow of Fidel Castro in explosive diatribes against the dictator.

The comandante's message never varied: Castro's downfall is near. Resist and fight. More acts of sabotage are on the way. And his vague divinations often came true. After one prediction of damage, a November fire destroyed the first floor of the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Another nonspecific forecast of destruction was followed by the torching of the railroad warehouse in Old Havana. Soon the comandante became a folk hero, the short-wave darling of the Cuban airwaves. Anti-Castro posters and signs sprang up across the island in his honor - "Long live Comandante David. Down with Fidel" - and later, exiles who arrived in Miami by the thousands during the 1980 Mariel boatlift said they always eagerly awaited David's vitriolic broadcasts.

Local residents weren't aware of any hubbub; they only knew their reception stank, and they complained about it to the FCC. Already aware of the phenomenon, FCC investigators had begun eavesdropping, tracking the unlicensed signal to somewhere in the area. So began the most-celebrated case involving anti-Castro clandestine radio in the U.S., a case that eventually would lead to ten years of pursuits and disputes between the FCC and broadcasters, between Cuba and the U.S. government, and between the FCC and the White House.

Castro complained to the U.S. government about David in late 1979, and by early 1980 the FCC had pinpointed the radio signal to a house at 8780 SW 51st St., the residence of Jose M. Gonzalez, a 47-year-old exile from Santa Clara, Cuba. Agents warned Gonzalez to quit broadcasting, but the ten- to fifteen-minute programs, broadcast on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights and on Sunday afternoons, continued unabated, including references to attempts to shut down the transmissions. U.S. marshals twice raided Gonzalez's house in 1980, confiscating broadcasting equipment. In July of that year, a grand jury indicted Gonzalez on two misdemeanor counts of violating FCC regulations by illegally operating Radio Libertad Cubana, punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to one year behind bars.

Jose Gonzalez never admitted that he was Comandante David. He did, however, assert that the comandante's broadcasts were aired with the U.S. government's approval, and FCC investigators reported that Gonzalez had told a neighbor, "The federal government is aware of [David]'s broadcasts, and has encouraged him to continue his anti-Castro speeches to Cuba."

Before Gonzalez's trial began, his attorney filed a motion requesting that a federal judge review a classified CIA file about his client, in order to determine whether it contained relevant information. An assistant U.S. attorney from Miami was sent to CIA headquarters to review the file, and afterward, on April 14, 1981, attorneys on both sides of the case met in Miami for an all-day, closed-door session. Minutes before the trial was to begin, the lawyers reached an agreement: all charges would be dropped if Gonzalez ceased to "engage in unlicensed broadcasts from his residence in the future."

The FCC, which had spent more than 1000 man-hours investigating what it considered a precedent-setting case, was incensed. The agency filed a formal protest with the Justice Department, claiming dismissal of the charges was a blatant political move to avoid upsetting the exile Cuban community. "I was furious," recalls James McKinney, then chief of the FCC's field operations bureau in Washington, D.C. "I'm still mad about it. I can remember talking to [then-U.S. Attorney] Atlee Wampler right after he announced he wasn't going to prosecute, and I remember the telephone conversation was not pleasant at all. I was really hot."

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