The Phone Is Mightier Than the Sword

Just ask WQBA's feisty Ninoska Perez, whose crank calls to Cuban officials have infuriated Fidel's minions. Miami's exiles love it!

The caller on the phone to the Cuban embassy in Madrid informs the receptionist, in lovely lisping Castilian Spanish, that she's trying to reach Cuba's foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, who has been in Spain on a state visit. "I'm calling for the Royal Galician Association of Dwarves," explains the caller. "We would like to present Secretary Robaina with a special award, because it isn't every day a dwarf becomes a minister. To whom do we have to speak?"

"With your grandmother!" retorts the receptionist, slamming down the phone.
Sure, Robaina, a lofty political presence in Cuba, is on the short side, but he's not a dwarf.

After a few minutes, the embassy phone rings again. The Castilian voice is a bit agitated this time. "This is an insult to our association," she fumes. "We are one of the oldest organizations in Spain. We are funded by the king. The young lady who answered referred to my grandmother. I'm absolutely serious. This is hardly diplomatic language. I can assure you, this snub will not sit well with our members."

The receptionist seems to repent, begging the caller to understand that Robaina has just left Madrid to return to Cuba. "Please pardon the problem, senora."

"Well, could you please give the minister a message? Tell him this call is from Ninoska."

The exchange, one of scores aired on radio during the past three years in a sort of telephonic guerrilla campaign against Cuba's power structure, is the trademark of Miami talk show host Ninoska Perez Castellon. Usually assuming fake names and identities, Perez records her crank calls for broadcast on Ninoska a la Una, a two-hour program she recently moved to WQBA-AM (1140) after three years at WCMQ-AM (1210).

Perez's taped conversations -- with everyone from Cuban hotel and restaurant employees to feared police commanders -- range from courteous to provocative, but they are always guided by the same goal: to reveal the darker or more ridiculous aspects of life in contemporary Cuba. No one else does anything quite like it, and her unique twist on the usual Castro-bashing that prevails on Miami's exile radio has somewhat unexpectedly made the 43-year-old Perez a star.

Ninoska a la Una airs twice a day on WQBA (better known as La Cubanisima), from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. and is rebroadcast from 4:00 to 6:00 a.m. The show isn't just taped phone calls; Perez also interviews guests and takes calls live in the studio. It can be heard in Cuba, but the quality of the reception varies according to place and time. The show is also beamed directly to Cuba on shortwave via La Voz de la Fundacion, the station sponsored by Perez's other employer, the Cuban American National Foundation. (CANF). She has been director of La Voz since its founding in 1990, and serves as a spokeswoman for the foundation.

A poll of Miami's Cuban exile community, conducted by WSCV-TV (Channel 51) and SDR Sampling Services and published in October, and found Perez was the most popular female radio personality among that group. She still does not approach the level of the older, immensely influential Cuban men who rule the Spanish-language AM domain, but her audience may be the wave of the future -- younger Hispanics and Cubans who've arrived in the U.S. in the past decade, according to Perez's boss, WQBA general manager Agustin Acosta. The latest Arbitron ratings, released in late January, indicate a marked increase in the station's audience for the 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. slot. Perez's own ratings skyrocketed nearly 400 percent. "It's part of competition to acquire good talent from other stations," Acosta says. "She had good ratings at one of our main competitors, and I thought she would do well with us. I think she is a very thorough journalist. I get a lot of comments from people who are ecstatic about what she does. At the same time, they're perplexed about how she can actually get all those phone numbers. She represents what a lot of people in Cuba would like to do."

Which is to directly confront the authorities. While it's impossible to gauge the extent of her listenership on the other side of the Florida Straits, Perez can boast of a multitude of contacts within Cuba. She has at her fingertips the fax and office telephone numbers of virtually every high-ranking bureaucrat in the government, including Fidel Castro at the Palace of the Revolution (where she once called, using her real name, for comment on conditions for political prisoners; the office had no comment). She regularly announces the home addresses of top officials. A recently arrived immigrant called to describe the contents of one Cuban official's trash the morning after a big party (Spanish olive oil, empty bottles of expensive liquor). She once urged listeners to visit the marina where Castro sometimes keeps a yacht.

Perez delights in creating confusion in high places, as she did last September when, posing as a secretary at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, she methodically called four government ministries to find out how many people the ministers would be bringing to watch the televised debate between Jorge Mas Canosa and National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon. Naturally the secretaries knew nothing about the debate, which wasn't aired in Cuba, but dutifully checked with their bosses and reserved dozens of seats at the imaginary function.

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