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

Fuste admits that fifteen years ago he would not have opened his microphone to Aruca. He explains, "I understand better what America is now. This is a station where everybody can come to talk. Castro is a dictator, but people have a right to speak in favor of him. Before, we thought that since Castro pushed us out, and showed no respect for our rights, then we should not show respect for the rights of those who support him.

"Maybe I am learning the way of life here. We learn many things from the Americans. I support the right of the people to discuss. If you want democracy in Cuba, you have to respect democracy here."

On the air Fuste conducts what he likes to think of as a barbershop conversation in which he cannot be out-talked. Cubans generally rank high on the volubility index, of course, but Fuste is not only Cuban, he is a professional. It is very Cuban and not unusual for a guest invited to join Fuste in the studio to show up with a retinue of supporters or family members, and Fuste never balks: he brings more chairs into the glass-walled, walk-in-closet-sized room, and he opens more microphones. The hotter the topic the better; in his domain, Fuste can't be intimidated.

If a discussion among two or more guests is going smoothly, courteously, Fuste can be silent for several minutes at a time. As a moderator he does not feel compelled to dominate. But when the emotion and fervor of an exchange rise, or the collective blood pressure heads for the roof, Fuste goes with it, jumping in with his own opinions while taking command of the melee with a firm, resonant voice that always seems more rational and closer to the microphone than any other. "Ay, chico," he might say to someone he thinks has been overwhelmed by the sound of his own rhetoric, "No seas tan bobo."

More often these days Fuste also shows a light touch, even when dealing with topics -- Fidel Castro, for example -- that he personally finds most explosive. In a discussion last month with Miami attorney Eddie Levy, who had just returned from the exile conference in Havana, Fuste listened patiently to comments about the revolution's progress in health care and education before stepping in. "Momento, chico," said Fuste, sounding bemused. "We have to stop for a commercial here. We are capitalists, you know, and if we didn't sell some things we might be like the government-run stations in Cuba...."

Fuste receives some 80 to 100 telephone calls a day, both from people who want airtime and those who want a personal favor. His longevity and popularity give him immense power A to sway public opinion, to color an issue, to bring people into the street. He says he is wary of that power.

At the same time he also relishes being a player, and does not hesitate to become involved in ways that many journalists believe might compromise their objectivity. In Washington this March for a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus concerning the Cuban embargo, for example, Fuste spotted adversaries Jorge Mas Canosa and Jesse Jackson sitting head-to-head, deep in discussion. A Miami Herald photographer standing nearby did not notice, so Fuste called it to his attention. The picture made page one the next day, in English and Spanish. "I play a little bit," he acknowledges. "We are not supposed to be passive, you know, seeing everything and just giving information. We want to participate, because we have power, real power, and we have to use the power for good.

"With visa problems, for example, if I see that no one is doing anything, I will. People ask me, 'Do you want us to picket? Tell us and we will.' No, I am a newsman; picketing, that's your decision. But I will use my power to talk to the people, gather information. But all the action has to be yours."

All this responsibility, all this shepherding of the flock, makes for a long day. Indeed, Fuste gets out of bed at 3:00 a.m. and is in the office an hour later to prepare for his first newscast at 5:00. At 8:00 a.m., in shirt and tie and with his jacket on, he is in the studio, fresh and eager, as the voiceover intones, "Y ahora, Tomas Garcia Fuste y su famoso micr centsfono abierto" A and he is off, presiding over a three-hour, free-ranging talkfest with studio guests and scores of hopeful callers who have been tying up all seven lines since dawn. Fuste does one more newscast at noon before taking a break for a leisurely lunch, usually with a newsmaker or prospective guest, at one of several favorite Little Havana restaurants. After lunch he's back at his desk to write editorials, deal with listeners' visa problems, return phone calls, or catnap. Much of his schedule is determined by Lina Byron and Carmen Horstmann, his assistants-cum-producers who book the guests, remind Fuste of his appointments, straighten his tie, and brush his suit coat like mothers sending a beloved but slightly absent-minded boy off to school.

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