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

Avuncular and opinionated, Fuste represents his generation socially and politically, a generation defined by exile. His Weltanschauung begins with an unswerving opposition to Castro and rarely deviates from the hard-line, "over my dead body" philosophy of his friend Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the Cuban-American National Foundation. He is an effective and frequent fundraiser for disaster victims, for foundations, for causes. In 1986 he organized and touted a blood drive for the American Red Cross that collected 1441 pints in twelve hours, a national record. He has been presented the keys to several cities locally and abroad, and in 1988 a college scholarship fund in his name was created at Miami-Dade Community College.

Yet Fuste has also put in the time and traveled far to establish his credentials as a journalist, too, while serving as el exilio's witness to history. In 1967 when Che Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia, Fuste went to report on the guerrillero's end. In 1972 when Nicaragua was convulsed by an earthquake, he delivered both relief supplies and news. He made reporting trips to Angola, where Cuban troops for years were bogged down in a civil war, and had his picture taken with rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. He went to Grenada in 1983, to the Gulf War, to volcano eruptions and earthquakes all over Latin America, and in 1987 took part in the negotiations that freed hostages from rioting Mariel prisoners in Louisiana's Oakdale Detention Center.

Recently Fuste has expanded his role from reporter, discussion moderator, editorialist, news reader, and comentarista to that of ombudsman or even social worker for Miami's Cuban community. Not content just to report on problems, he wants to solve them. Thus, when balseros are overdue at sea, and anxious relatives in Miami know it, Fuste will see what he can find out. When they arrive, he helps with housing or jobs. He is on the board of the Transit House for Cuban Rafters in Key West, and its director Arturo Cobo is a close friend and frequent airwaves guest.

Fuste also deals with visa problems for Cubans stranded in third countries, such as the Dominican Republic, where he has been critical of the policies of his personal friend, 87-year-old president Joaquin Balaguer. Locally Fuste has fought against the county gas tax, a tow-truck law, and casinos.

At the same time, some people sense that in recent years Fuste has mellowed. "He does deserve credit for taking more moderate positions now," says Castell centsn of liberal Radio Progreso. "Fuste has wide influence in the Cuban community, and this is a good sign of increasing tolerance. Maybe everyone is growing up a little bit."

Levin says Fuste began to moderate his political views only when he left WQBA, and he suspects the change is calculated to win ratings points. "It's surprised me," says Levin. "When he was at this station, I felt he was following a very conservative pattern in his editorials, opinions, and guests. He has moved from a very hard line to a surprisingly softer line. Alarc centsn has allowed it. Maybe he's been influenced by more liberal people at the station, or maybe he feels that controversy would bring him and the station ratings."

In Cuban Miami there remains only one true litmus test of one's place on the political spectrum: dialogue with the Castro government and lifting the 33-year-old economic embargo. On those issues Fuste has moved not one iota. The answer is no.

For years it was considered suicidal to voice opinions that deviated at all from the de facto official line. In 1975 writer Luciano Nieves was gunned down in a hospital parking lot for even thinking out loud about dialogue with the Castro government. The following year veteran broadcaster Emilio Milian lost his legs to a car bomb in the WQBA parking lot. In recent years the climate has cooled somewhat. But it still gets hot in the studios of Spanish-language radio. Just last August Fuste had to jump between studio guest Napole centsn Vilaboa, a controversial and mysterious man who helped broker the Mariel exodus in 1980, and an outraged listener who stopped by and wanted to punch his lights out. Fuste yelled for the police on the air and hundreds of listeners dialed 911.

These days Fuste is more willing to give airtime to those with whom he does not agree, including even those who may speak in support of Castro. He has extended open invitations to both Francisco Aruca and Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo to appear on Buenos Dias, Miami or his afternoon show, Confrontaci centsn.

Gutierrez Menoyo, for 22 years a political prisoner in Cuba and now head of Cambio Cubano, which favors lifting the embargo, repeatedly has turned down Fuste.

Aruca, owner of Marazul Charters and a frequent traveler to Cuba, favors dialogue, a position he talks about often on his own daily program on Radio Progreso. For months Aruca also said no to Fuste, claiming his ideological opposite only wanted to engage him "in a program of shouting, a cheap way to get an audience." Finally last month Aruca did come on. Fuste said he suspected Aruca's radio program is subsidized by the Cuban government, and he asked him about that on the air. Aruca denies any backing from the Cuban government; he pays for airtime with profits from his charter business, he says.

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