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

From 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. Fuste is on the air once more with Confrontaci centsn, in which he tries to referee a fight between antagonists whose dispute may be over family visits to Cuba or the height of a backyard fence.

It is usually after 6:00 p.m. before Fuste leaves his Ponce de Leon office for his home in Westchester, where he lives with his wife of 40 years, Amelia, and the two youngest of their five children. He eats something light, maybe takes a walk around the block, and is in bed by 7:30. A schedule like that does not leave much time for a life outside the radio station. "He has no other life," says Lina Bryon. "His life is here."

Fuste always wanted to be a broadcaster. As a child in prerevolutionary Havana he spent hours each day with his ear to the radio, mimicking the announcers, developing a rhetorical style. When his parents or his two younger siblings teased him about his obsession, or suggested his dreams of radio-wave glory were unrealistic, he set out to prove them wrong. On a wire recorder he created a mock broadcast in which the music was suddenly interrupted by an urgent announcement: A huge, killer hurricane had been spotted just off the Cuban coast and was heading this way. Propping the wire recorder up on the window ledge of his house, which faced a grocery store hangout, Fuste pushed the button one tranquil summer day and watched the neighborhood panic as word of the approaching storm spread down the street. Even then Fuste could be very convincing on the air.

By the time he was a teenager Fuste had obtained Certificado de Aptitude No. 669 from the Cuban broadcasting ministry and had found work announcing grocery store specials and furniture outlet sales over loudspeakers mounted on trucks that would cruise around Havana. In 1952 he moved to Santiago de Cuba, where he found part-time work as a radio announcer while also selling ads for the sides of buses. In Oriente he also met the woman he would marry.

By 1955, when Fuste was 25 years old, he returned to Havana and the capital city's lively, competitive radio and television market, where he got his big break, not as a newsman but as a pitchman, chiefly for Trinidad y Hermanos, the makers of Especiales cigarettes. In the days before videotape Fuste would spend his time going from station to station doing live commercials. His renown grew quickly. With a resonant voice, pencil-thin mustache, and smooth good looks, he became a familiar figure, popping up in the midst of news about the bearded rebels in the mountains to urge viewers to relax and enjoy a smoke.

By the time Fidel Castro arrived in Havana on January 1, 1959, Fuste was a Cuban celebrity. In a country where the average income was less than $100 per month, Fuste was making $1300 monthly and living high. And though he had aided Castro's guerrilla movement by sending medical supplies to the mountains, he soon concluded that for his star, Cuba was no longer heaven.

"Fidel would come to radio station CMQ [in Havana] every day after the revolution, and I would talk to the people with him," recalls Fuste. "I heard from him and others what they planned. It was socialism from the start. I told my wife, 'Get visas for us and the two kids. We have to get out of here.'"

Although Cuba's middle class was leaving for Miami in droves by 1960, Fuste's father (a mechanic), his mother, brother, and sister were shocked to hear that he would joining the exodus. They tried to persuade him to stay. "They told me, 'You are a broadcaster. You don't speak English. You can't make a living over there.' But I said I'm going anyway."

Fuste's intention was to settle ultimately in Mexico or Venezuela, Spanish-speaking countries where he could resume his career. But unions and visa problems scuttled those plans, and he looked for work in English-speaking Miami. He got a job restocking cigarette vending machines in Overtown for $50 a week, and soon added a part-time gig reading the news in Spanish late at night over WMIE, which later became WQBA.

In 1962 Fuste began hosting a call-in show on Miami's WFAB-La Fabulosa and began to build his reputation as a staunch anti-Communist who saw his radio role as a voice of the people. He tried a bit of television in the mid-1970s, and in 1976 went to WBNX in New York, where he spent five years before returning to Miami on WQBA.

In 1989 Jorge Mas Canosa asked if Fuste would be interested in directing Radio Marti, which Fuste had helped create, but he said no. "I don't want to work for the government and have to follow their rules," he says. "I have my own rules."

Still, whether working for Radio Marti or not, being heard in Cuba is always on the minds of Miami broadcasters, including Fuste. During his twelve years at powerful WQBA-La Cubanisima, Fuste's two-hour morning show made him well known in his homeland, and when WCMQ's power is boosted later this year, he'll be heard there again. (Although no ratings services measure listenership in Cuba, broadcasts from Radio Marti, WQBA, and the shortwave La Voz de la Fundaci centsn (operated by the Cuban American National Foundation) reach a vast audience on the island. In a survey of 100 Cubans who arrived in South Florida in early 1992, Florida International University journalism professor Hernando Gonzalez found that 95 percent said they learned about the U.S. by listening to foreign radio stations, and 77 percent said over those stations they learned about how to leave Cuba A either through normal immigration channels or by raft. The station cited as most listened to was Radio Marti.)

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