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!

As an irate Cuban citizen, she badgered several police stations to investigate her "next-door neighbor" for tearing down portraits of Fidel in his home and replacing them with photographs of Mas Canosa. Perez spoke with person after person, carefully explaining the situation, and remarkably almost every person took her complaint seriously and spent many minutes eliciting important details of the counterrevolutionary act. "Listen, let me explain," Perez told one female police official. "When I told him I was tired of looking at those pictures and so was everyone else, his reply was 'AAbajo Fidel!' He's got a color photo of Mas Canosa up there."

"In color?" asked the woman at the police station.
"In color, companera."
"Who gave it to him?"
"I don't know where he got it, but it's big!"
"Well, it needs to be taken down."

"But listen, companera, I'm calling you because all kinds of things are happening there. He constantly listens to Ninoska a la Una. You know that counterrevolutionary program?"

"It's horrible. Does he have the station on now?"

"I think humor and satire have been a permanent element in Cuban political discourse dating back to the Nineteenth Century," says prominent exile businessman and human rights advocate Ramon Cernuda, who like Perez keeps in close touch with dissidents on the island but whose moderate political views are frequently at odds with hers. "Very often things were said through satire and caricature and humor because censorship didn't allow for anything else," Cernuda explains, "and I think Ninoska continues in that tradition. So it is in a way the result of that lack of free speech in Cuba that makes this exercise in satire essentially valid. It's not particularly my preferred form of communication, but I can clearly see a reason for its existence. These bureaucrats in Cuba are often the equivalent of feudal lords. The concentration of power in the hands of some of them is incredible, and there's no way to question that authority or the proper exercise of it."

Still, it is a little pitiful to hear a provincial police commander effusively promising a caller he'll "personally investigate the matter" of anti-Castro propaganda corrupting the caller's young children. The caller is Perez's friend Barbarito Hernandez, a balsero she met when he was being held at the Guantanamo Naval Base a few years ago. Hernandez is making the call to the beleaguered police official because Perez has already played a trick on him: announcing the arrival of a package from the U.S., then calling back as a state security functionary to warn that he's being investigated for receiving illicit shipments, and finally breaking into a tirade (when she identifies herself and her location) against the hypocrisy of officials who don't have to suffer from the embargo.

"Companero, I have a bad situation here," Hernandez plaintively tells the commander. "My next-door neighbor plays that radio show Ninoska a la Una from Miami real loud, and I've got three children and they hear 'Abajo Fidel,' and they're repeating 'Abajo Fidel' and 'Viva Cuba libre' in school and everywhere. It makes it very difficult for me. You know that show, Ninoska --"

"Yes. Where do you live?"
"She plays the radio so loud everyone can hear it. Nothing is being done! This is a bad problem, people listening to enemy radio. It's not as bad for me. I'm 45 and I've been a revolutionary just about my whole life, but my children are still very impressionable."

"I'll personally take charge of this matter. Tell me where you live."
"Okay, I'll tell you where I live." The widening grin on Hernandez's face is almost audible. "I live in Miami --"

The police commander is furious. "You son of a bitch! Then you must be a relative of Ninoska --"

"I'm a very good friend of Ninoska! She's a champion of a free Cuba, and you're repressing the people!"

The commander's departing words have to do with human excrement and sexual violation of the caller's mother.

Some Cuban exiles are not amused. "The few shows of hers I've heard, I guess her point was that there are services in Cuba that not everyone can enjoy," says Francisco Aruca, who produces the controversial left-leaning program Radio Progreso and who owns a company that charters trips to Cuba. "Well, the fact is that Cuba is not as egalitarian as it used to be, and in that sense it's more like other countries. And it seems to me -- I meant one day to maybe ask a lawyer -- it's not really legal to call on a telephone line and pretend to be someone you're not. What if I called offices in Washington and told them I was an agent of the IRS or the FBI and I was investigating them? I'd be arrested in a minute."

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have little problem with the general practice of taping and then broadcasting phone calls, even using false names. Under federal broadcasting laws, though, the person making the call is required to inform the other party that the conversation will be on the air, according to Stephen Barone, an official in the FCC's mass media bureau.

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