Capitalist or Commie?

How a Miami businessman got rich doing business with Cuba - and lived to shout about it

Francisco Aruca sits alone in a wood-paneled room in a small, blue-gray building a few blocks off north Biscayne Boulevard. On the table before him are a few notes written out on a sheet of yellow paper torn from a legal pad and a clipping cut from the morning paper. A glass wall away, another man presiding over a bank of switches and levers gives the thumbs up, and when the red light goes on, Aruca is off, leaning into the microphone, peering over his reading glasses, focused somewhere in the middle distance, where the Cuban moderates live.

"Buenas tardes," Aruca begins. "Aqui como casi todas las tardes en Ayer en Miami, de lunes a viernes a las cinco en punto," and what follows is an hourlong torrent of words, a cataract of verbiage that on this Thursday rolls out over the airwaves of Union Radio (WOCN-AM 1450). In a bilingual city known for loquacity, Aruca is clearly an elite talker, confidently and tirelessly conversant in English and Spanish.

The subject, of course, is Cuba.
"Maybe you heard this report last night on ABC, one of the major American networks," Aruca begins. "The pope has been in communication with Fidel Castro for more than a year. According to this report, which to me seems very credible, the church has established itself as an agent of change in Cuba. And inexplicably this report was ignored by the press in Miami. This is ABC-TV, Peter Jennings, a major American network. . . ."

Toward the end of the hour, Aruca promises there will be some time for callers, but he needs most of the 60 minutes himself. Publicly he has been silent for too long, since late last year, when the Clinton administration's ban on most travel to Cuba knocked Aruca's Marazul Charters for a financial loop and squeezed Aruca right off the air. From 1991 until he pulled the plug this past December, Aruca figures he spent more than $500,000 of his own money buying up to seven hours of air time each day to broadcast what he called Radio Progreso, named after a still-running Havana station known for its nonpolitical programming. From the start, Aruca offended many exiles by broadcasting variety shows from Cuba's state-run networks, music by performers still on the island (Los Van Van, for example), and sports scores provided by Cuba's Radio Rebelde. Within days of going on the air, pickets appeared on the sidewalk outside the station, windows were broken by volleys of industrial-size screws, and those who worked with Aruca were hounded with threats and verbal abuse. But although Radio Progreso's audience never registered in official listener surveys, many admitted they listened, and Aruca contends, "We were successful in influence, with an important audience, in pushing out the boundaries of what could be heard in Miami."

The financial bleeding was stanched over the past ten months through cutting staff, closing several offices, and concentrating on delivery of express mail and packages to Cuba, as well as on Marazul's profitable full-service travel agency, Marazul Tours, in New Jersey.

And now he's back. With a couple of paying sponsors (ironically, the two Miami travel companies that were once his competitors in flying passengers to Cuba), Aruca has returned to the air with a mental catalogue of opinions and ideas about current events in Cuba and Miami so abundant that he won't ever have time to voice them all.

"Maybe you saw this in today's Herald, in English and Spanish," he says to his listeners, suddenly grabbing a newspaper clipping in his right hand and shaking it, as if his audience were able to watch him as well as listen. He goes on to tell the story: The head of Cuba's Democratic Solidarity Party was ousted from office after being accused of falsifying signatures on a letter to the U.S. Congress in support of the embargo-tightening Helms-Burton Bill. "Those responsible for actions like these are not serious people," says Aruca, his voice rising, his dark eyes gleaming with passion.

At age 55, he is a short, squared-off, compact man who clips his hair closely and wears a neatly trimmed goatee salted with gray. He radiates energy and enthusiasm, and once into a verbal groove the words tumble from his mouth as if competing with each other for air. He stands up from his chair, thumps the table a couple of times with one hand while holding the clipping aloft with the other: "They are pushing for confrontation in Cuba, courting violence, flirting with chaos. In Miami thousands of people are used to being manipulated by right-wing radio. This happened before, with the Torricelli Bill, and it characterizes the approach of the right-wing forces. They will do anything to back up their position.

"People, you are not getting the true information on this. This is what is going on, and you have not been told about it. But that is why we are here."

Cut off by a commercial, Aruca turns to his visitor at the studio door, and in the same conversational yet urgent tone he uses on the air, answers a question: Why you? "I have never been a complacent kind of person," he responds. "I have always acted on my beliefs, and when I moved here [from Washington, D.C.] in 1986, I realized there was no free expression here. The fanatics controlled the radio. So somebody has to do it.

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