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"I was a teacher. Students told me I had a way of explaining things that people can understand. Now, this is my way of teaching. I'm a radio teacher. And I like it. It's as simple as that."
Over the past nine years, perhaps no one in Cuban Miami has publicly voiced more controversial opinions, provoked more outrage among the comunidad's conservative legions, or put more money where his mouth is than Francisco Aruca. Not only has he become a wealthy man by legally trading with the Western Hemisphere's only communist regime, a nation of 11 million people the U.S. government has declared off-limits to virtually every other American businessman, but he has spent bagfuls of that money to buy radio air time so he could broadcast his personal views in favor of normalizing relations with the Castro government, including free trade and unrestricted travel.
In many ways, Aruca is also living the cross-cultural life that remains a dream for so many in Miami. He is an American citizen, but he is also a part-time Havana resident. With his multiple-entry visa, he pops in and out of Cuba as easily as another business traveler might go to Tampa. And although Aruca has a wide range of contacts in the Cuban government, it's not all business when he's there. He stays in the home of his best friend and his family, with whom he plays dominoes, dines out, walks the Malec centsn, and visits his mother, who also splits her time between the two nations.
Indeed, Aruca shuttles across the Florida Straits so often that he sometimes loses track of where he is. Recently, for example, he spent the morning in Havana, flew back to Miami, and was picked up at the airport by two friends who drove him to lunch at a restaurant on Calle Ocho. When the waiter approached, Aruca absentmindedly pointed to the menu and asked, "Companero, which of these do you have today?" a common question in shortage-plagued Cuba.
Tipped off by the question and the form of address, the waiter stormed off in a huff, shouting to the manager, "Don't serve these people! They just came in from Cuba!"
Aruca's unusual access to Havana, and his outspoken conviction that all Cuban Americans should be able to enjoy the same, have made him a frequent target of attack. The offices of his Marazul Charters, Inc., have been bombed, a man associated with his broadcast was beaten and robbed at the station office, the station's windows have been smashed, and Aruca himself is often accosted verbally by people who recognize him in public. He has been threatened with death so many times that he often employs a bodyguard just to move around town. About the only question he won't answer is whether he carries a gun for personal protection.
Among his friends, Aruca has a reputation for brains, shrewdness in business, and a somewhat arrogant self-assurance that in Miami's overheated exile political climate can be tantamount to a nervy recklessness. "Aruca is brash; he has never been afraid to speak up, to go against the right wing," says Wayne S. Smith, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. "And when he speaks, he encourages others to speak. He has used the money he has made in a very constructive way."
Sociologist Maria Cristina Herrera, a Miami-Dade Community College professor who has been a friend of Aruca for more than 35 years, says, "He is an ice-breaker, no doubt. On the radio he opened a space on the left. But one of his problems is that he thinks he is the only one who knows what's happening in Cuba. Like all small men, he has a tendency to be Napoleonic. I have great affection for him, but he can be overbearing sometimes."
Mention the name Aruca to a Cuban chosen at random from the Greater Miami telephone directory and the likely response will be "communist." On Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710), Armando Perez Roura regularly labels Aruca a "Castro agent," and callers to Spanish-language talk shows on Mambi, La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140) and WCMQ-AM (1210) routinely castigate Aruca as a vendepatria (a traitor) or worse. WCMQ talk show host and news director Tomas Garcia Fuste says of Aruca: "I don't think he's a Castro agent. But he is pro-Castro, and he angers people here for the same reason that someone who goes to Miami Beach and speaks up for the Nazis would anger people. He has no ideology other than to make money."
Indeed, Aruca does enjoy making money, and although he denies multimillionaire status, he concedes that by transporting at least 160,000 exiles to their homeland since 1979, "I'm well off."
In classic Marxist economic or sociopolitical terms, however, Aruca is the polar opposite of a communist: He is a hard-core capitalist, a savvy dealmeister and American-schooled economist who in many ways exemplifies the type of free-enterpriser that leaders of the Cuban American National Foundation, for example, see as Cuba's salvation. Aruca describes himself as a Christian socialist, a staunch defender of free expression, a "progressive counterrevolutionary" who was once arrested and jailed for plotting against the Castro government.