The Man and the Microphone

In the turbulent and often virulent world of Spanish-language radio, two things are certain: Fidel will be the debate, and Tomas Garcia Fuste will prevail

For several days last month Topic A was hotter than ever. On a Tuesday afternoon Fuste got word that both Dade County and Miami city officials had received an advisory from the U.S. State Department to get ready: Fidel was either dead or growing colder in a hurry.

Rumors about Castro's health circulate continuously through Cuban Miami. After all, the deathwatch has been going on for more than 30 years, and the fact that el tirano looks as healthy at 67 as he did at 35 has done nothing to dampen the hopes of el exilio. Some think deliverance will come as a result of a heart attack, others say a stroke, while more than a few subscribe to the magic-bullet theory: one assassin, one shot to the temple, and suddenly it's 1956.

Over the years Fuste has heard a lot of rumors and followed up on many, but these seemed different. After confirming with local officials that they had indeed received a legitimate "get ready" bulletin from Washington, Fuste began to add up the other signs: Fidel's brother Raul Castro was in Guantanamo, where he was reportedly warning Cubans against using the U.S. Naval Base as a route to leave the island, while assuring the Americans they would be safe in the event of trouble; the fact that Fidel himself had not been seen for several days; reports of extra security at a leading Havana hospital where government officials and important visitors are often treated; and the presence in Cuba of two of Spain's leading doctors. It all seemed too much for coincidence, too strong to dismiss.

So at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 19 A 45 minutes past his normal bedtime and hours ahead of any other reporter in Miami A Fuste went live on WCMQ with a special report: "Unconfirmed information, received from Cuba and coming from impeccable sources, speculate about the possibility that Castro may have been the target of an attempt on his life." Fuste went on to say that as a result of the incident, Castro may have suffered a stroke or a heart attack.

The news swept through Cuban Miami like a wind-driven contagion. At last, so many wondered, had the prayer been answered? Not only was Castro reported to be dead or dying, but the source of the report was Tomas Garcia Fuste, the community's best-known, most-trusted, least hysterical source of Cuban news. After holding its breath for more than three decades, Miami was about to exhale.

Less than 24 hours later Fuste wasn't just giving the news, he was part of it. He led WSCV-TV (Channel 51)'s 6:00 p.m. Wednesday broadcast, shown in his office and at his studio microphone talking about Castro's likely condition. At WLTV-TV (Channel 23), the Castro rumors were not quite the top story, but by 6:05 there was Fuste on videotape, some of it taken at his home after the station called late Tuesday and woke him up. Although they made less of the story, Miami's English-language television stations eventually got onboard also, and A what else? A they sent crews to Fuste's Coral Gables office at WCMQ, too. Ironically Cubans on the island also heard the rumors of Castro's poor health from Fuste, albeit indirectly. Marcos Castell centsn, a reporter with Miami's Radio Progreso, mentioned Fuste's reports and the subsequent frenzy of anticipation in Miami during his live hookup over Havana's Radio Rebelde, one of three such broadcasts he does every week. Soon after he began his comments about the rumors, however, the telephone line suddenly went dead. Castell centsn says the satellite links, made through Canada or Italy, break often and that the timing was coincidence. (Hearing that explanation later, Fuste just laughed.)

By Thursday morning, April 21, Cuban government officials were denying that Castro was dead or in ill health, and Fidel's sister, long-time Miami resident Juanita Castro, had been on the air with Fuste also to say that there was nothing to the story but wishful thinking. Still, Fuste continued to insist that "something happened; he may not be in grave condition, but I think something happened."

Midway through Thursday's Buenos Dias, Miami program, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called from Washington to say that she was tracking the rumors through the State Department. There was a lot of talk going around, she said, but nothing had been confirmed.

Then, with several news crews from Miami's English-language television stations crowded into his studio, Fuste asked Ros-Lehtinen to do something that is almost never done on Spanish-language radio in Miami: He asked her to repeat her comments in English. With that, Fuste was not only throwing a sound bite to his English-language colleagues, but also was confirming the cross-cultural importance of the news. At the same time, he was acknowledging his own stature as news reporter-newsmaker, too, by reminding all segments of the community that to keep abreast of this story, stay tuned to Fuste.

Of course, on this story Fuste turned out to be wrong. On Sunday evening Fidel showed up to bestow blessings on Miami attorney Magda Montiel Davis and others attending the farewell session of the controversial "The Nation and Emigration" conference, and those who met with the Cuban president in the Palace of the Revolution said el caballo indeed looked as strong as a horse.

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