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!

Florida laws prohibiting the recording of phone conversations without the consent of those involved may apply in this case, according to prosecutor Joe Centorino, head of the Dade State Attorney's Office's public corruption unit. But Centorino says he can't comment about Perez's show because he's not familiar with it and his office has not received any complaints.

Eddie Levy, who as director of Jewish Solidarity travels to Cuba several times each year, thinks the program is simply in bad taste. "The people who live in Cuba know a lot better than she what is going on in Cuba," says Levy, who is a childhood friend of Perez's husband. "She is a good representative of the people in the media in this town. They feel they know better than the Cubans. Her show makes us look like people who laugh at their critical economic situation, their political situation, that we consider ourselves superior to them. It's entertainment by humiliating and insulting people. She's not the Ninoska I used to know. She's part of the farandula [show business]; she's one more person in Miami who makes a good living as part of the anticommunism industry."

Perez does indeed make a comfortable living. Besides the $29,500 salary she earns at the Cuban American National Foundation, she received a big raise this past September when she was hired away from WCMQ by La Cubanisima. El Nuevo Herald reported at the time that WCMQ had been paying her $52,000 a year when WQBA offered $70,000. Perez confirms the latter figure but insists she was making a lot less than $52,000 at WCMQ (she won't say how much less) and didn't even have a contract. WCMQ owner Raul Alarcon was publicly indignant after Perez left, complaining that she was turning her back on the station that had made her a success.

Perez scoffs at Alarcon's claim; her only misgiving, she says, was parting from her boss, WCMQ news director Tomas Garcia Fuste. One of Miami's most popular radio personalities, Garcia Fuste himself had made a controversial jump from his long-time post at La Cubanisima to the lower-rated WCMQ. Garcia Fuste was the man who offered the little-known Perez her prime-time job in 1993 and who defended her against complaints from listeners who didn't like her ties to the Cuban American National Foundation.

"I needed somebody for the show in the afternoon and I believed she could do it, so I gave her the show, and she was very successful," says Garcia Fuste. "I never figured she was going to leave without talking to me. I understand if somebody offered you more money, but she didn't give me the opportunity to offer more."

By the time Perez began Ninoska a la Una, she had been working for more than a decade as a freelance writer, radio journalist, and activist within the exile community. Perhaps most significant, her position as director of La Voz de la Fundacion allowed her to build extensive telephone contacts with dissident groups inside Cuba.

The idea of making the crank calls grew out of Perez's experiences at a 1992 summit of Latin American leaders in Spain, which she was covering for La Voz. After Castro was whisked away from a contingent of exile journalists, Perez and others began yelling, "!Cobarde! (Coward!)" at the comandante, a cry picked up on tape recorders and in newspaper copy. "I got letters saying I'd said what they wanted to say," Perez recounts. "When I realized that had such an impact, that's when I really started thinking about confronting the leaders in some direct way. I started thinking about a show that would unveil what is going on in Cuba, that people in both countries could listen to. And then when Fuste went over to CMQ, he called me."

In late 1993, when Perez launched her show, telephone connections between Cuba and the U.S. were unreliable and scarce because the trade embargo forbade upgrading the equipment used to link the two countries. But provisions in the Cuban Democracy Act, which had become law the previous year, called for increased communications between the two countries. By November 1994 telephone service was vastly improved. That meant it was no longer necessary to wait days or weeks to get through to the island, and it meant Perez could make contacts that much more easily and quickly.

Ideas came easily, too. When Perez thought about the privileges accorded to tourists and government officials with access to dollars, she decided to find out for herself just how well they were treated in comparison to humble, peso-earning Cubans. Posing as a secretary to an interior ministry official, she called the Peacock restaurant in Havana to make reservations for the minister and a guest, ascertaining that the steak the minister liked would be available. "Oh yes, the filet with bean sprouts," the restaurant owner gushed. "It will be ready for him."

Perez recalls: "Then I called another restaurant saying I just got married and I wanted to make reservations for a celebration dinner. They asked me if I was paying in dollars, and when I said no, they hung up." She did the same type of thing with a new medical clinic also touted in a tourist magazine. As the daughter of an Argentine man with epilepsy, she was promised all the latest in neurological treatments. As a Cuban daughter who couldn't pay with dollars, they wouldn't discuss the matter further.

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