By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Dr. Diego Medina, broadcasting on La Voz de Alpha 66, May 1988
Late in Jimmy Carter's presidential term, as U.S.-Cuban relations worsened, the Miami airwaves became increasingly crowded and local residents grumbled more and more about static on their radios and their TV screens. Licensed radio operators groused, too, and the Cuban government fired off complaint after official complaint, hinting it might interfere with commercial stations in the United States unless something were done.
Fidel Castro filed a grievance with the United Nations, which issued a formal reprimand, the first time the U.S. government had ever been cited for violating international regulations of the airwaves, something the FCC considered an "international embarrassment," says the agency's James McKinney. "We took great pride in stringent compliance with international regulations," McKinney says. "Those were the kinds of complaints we were continuously pounding them to issue to the Soviet Union and Cuba for causing broadcast interference."
In early 1980, after nearly twenty years of buying occasional time and appearing in guest spots on licensed Miami stations, La Voz de Alpha 66 appeared regularly on short wave, beginning an ingenious, often slapstick clandestine radio operation, one that would have poorly funded, spit-and-baling-wire broadcasters dodging the FCC for nearly a decade.
Diego Medina, a young Cuban army doctor, arrived in Miami in 1963, after spending eleven months in the Ecuadorian embassy in Havana. Medina already was a founding member of the Alpha 66 Revolutionary Cuban Organization, a violent anti-Castro group formed in 1961 by Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, leader of the Escambray guerrillas in the anti-Batista struggle and an anti-Castro conspirator after the revolution. (In 1965, Gutierrez returned to Cuba to organize guerrilla activity, and was captured. He was released about three years ago and now lives in Miami.) "Alpha 66" is derived from the code name for the group's first commando action - Alpha - and the number of members who attended the organization's inaugural meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1961.
Although he knew nothing about media campaigns, Medina was given the title of propaganda chief. "I realized it was something you study in school, something you could spend a lifetime learning," the 59-year-old physician says. "So I just started reading everything I could, everything I could find on the subject." Out of these studies came Alpha's trademark radio programs of news and commentary punctuated by "commercials" - the notorious arengas calling for lawlessness, destruction, and sabotage. According to Medina, Alpha 66 was encouraged by Comandante David's success, and began to use Jose Gonzalez's transmitter to broadcast its 30-minute short-wave radio programs in 1980.
With the help of other Alpha 66 members, Medina and his wife, Sara Martinez Castro, recorded the 30-minute shows in a small production studio in Alpha's dilapidated Little Havana office. While Jose Gonzalez tangled with federal authorities, Alpha 66 began broadcasting nightly, from 9:00 to 9:30 p.m., using two World War II-era short-wave transmitters. A battered, 250-watt U.S. Army Signal Corps surplus transmitter was permanently installed at the home of one Alpha member, linked by cable to a directional antenna on the roof. Over the Signal Corps label on the four-foot-high transmitter was an Alpha sticker that read, "Contra el Comunismo: Verguenza" (Against Communism: Dignity). Another, identical transmitter rode in a van with Medina, who would drive to an Alpha member's house, plug into an outdoor outlet, and beam his signal through makeshift, 60-foot wire antennas stretched between rooftop television poles and tree branches. "It was pretty crude, but it worked," Medina recalls. "It sure got to Fidel."
In March 1982 the FCC shut down La Voz del Alpha 66 and fined the organization $2250 for operating a station without a license. But within a year, Alpha 66 was back on the air, transmitting from the Northwest 29th Street home of Andres Nazario Sargen, the group's secretary general.
Again the FCC temporarily silenced Alpha's radio voice, this time in August 1983. And again the group's persistence and zeal remained undampened. They continued to broadcast their programs, sometimes directly from their office on Southwest 22nd Avenue, threading an antenna wire through a hole in the ceiling and up to the roof. The vehement arengas that sought the destruction of the Cuban economy echoed down the short passageway and through a broad meeting room, past the hundreds of pictures lining the walls: snapshots of Alpha martyrs posing stiffly for the lens, photos of group members in their guerrilla gear grinning in the Florida bush, caricatures of Castro being pestered by an Alpha mosquito.
Then Medina came up with another idea. He mounted a collapsible, 30-foot ladder on top of his 1978 Ford van, purchased a lead ball at a hardware store, and rigged a counterweight so he could flip the ladder upward. To the top of the ladder he attached two plastic-coated antenna wires that could be extended downward in an upside-down V when the ladder was extended. Two cement-filled plastic milk jugs held the antenna wires taut. "Five minutes and I was ready to go," says Medina.
Inside the van was a gas-powered generator and a 1000-watt Southern Bell surplus transmitter purchased for $30,000 at an auction. Shutting off his headlights and disconnecting his brake lights as soon as he hit the rural dirt roads, Medina cruised the desolate eastern edges of the Everglades, places he code-named "El Laguito" (The Little Lake), "El Canaveral" (The Cane Field), "Los Piratas" (The Pirates) - because it was so remote it required a "treasure" map to find - and "Fin del Mundo" (End of the World). Searching the transmitter's dials with a tiny penlight, Medina broadcast on a frequency of 6666.6 kilohertz, unaware that he was infringing on part of a range of short-wave bands reserved by the FCC for aviation safety communications. "They obviously chose the frequency because of their name, Alpha 66, but they were using a restricted frequency in addition to being unlicensed," says John Theimer, engineer in charge of the FCC Miami field office. "That's a no-no."