Capitalist or Commie?
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.
"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.
"I am a total defender of freedom of enterprise -- total," he says. "One of the things I resent about the U.S. government is that it is regulating my industry. So many of my values a conservative would feel very comfortable with. I believe in a market society -- I do."
Says Wayne Smith: "Aruca is the prototype of the Cuban-American businessman. The future government of Cuba and its leaders will come from within the country, but the community [in Miami] will have an economic role. And Aruca is exactly the prototype."
Business opportunities are not officially on the agenda this Saturday, November 4, when Aruca and a couple of hundred other moderate-to-liberal Cuban Americans will be in Havana at the invitation of the Castro government for the second conference called "The Nation and Emigration." The express purpose of the three-day meeting is to find common ground between the Castro regime and el exilio on matters of family visits and immigration. But in the supercharged atmosphere of change wafting over the Florida Straits in recent weeks, and given the Cubans' desperate hunger for U.S. dollars, almost anything could happen. A group of heavy-hitter U.S. business executives visited the island in early October, and in the previous month the Cuban government approved a foreign-investment law that would allow even Cuban Americans to own businesses there. Last week, during Castro's widely publicized visit to New York for the United Nations anniversary bash, Aruca and several other Cuban Americans joined movie stars, business leaders, and politicians at a reception hosted by the Cuban president as part of his campaign to attract foreign investment and sympathy.
Says Aruca: "I have not invested in Cuba, although Cuban Americans and exiles in other countries have. But as soon as it's legal to do it, I will -- with tourism projects. We have a well-established position in the Cuban-American community, with four offices selling retail travel and packages. I am ready as soon as it's legal -- travel business, tourism, perhaps hotels."
Castro himself has shown renewed interest in taking the temperature of Cuban Americans on the issue of normalizing relations, and has met one-on-one with at least five Miamians recently, including former political prisoner Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who has asked permission to return to Cuba as head of an opposition party.
But this past May, weeks before Gutierrez Menoyo's well-publicized meeting, Aruca was in his room at Havana's Copacabana Hotel when the telephone rang. "Aruca," said the caller, a government bureaucrat who deals with exile affairs, "there is a good chance Fidel may want to see you later today. Would you be available?"
"Si, como no," replied Aruca. Of course.
Despite the opinion of many in Miami that he is virtually a salaried spokesman for the Cuban president, he had only met Castro in person twice previously, both times at public receptions. The first occasion was in 1978, during the Havana dialogue that led to the release of 3000 Cuban political prisoners and inflamed passions in Miami for years. The two shook hands again in April 1994 during the first conference on the Nation and Emigration, just after Magda Montiel Davis was caught on a widely broadcast videotape that shows her kissing El Comandante and turning into a pariah.
A second phone call last May came at midnight. Aruca abandoned an American movie on HBO to be escorted to Castro's office in the Central Committee Building, where the president was waiting with Vice President Carlos Lage; Aruca's close friend Eusebio Leal, a historian and Cuban television personality; and a couple of Cuban government functionaries. They sat in a grouping of leather armchairs, and for a couple of hours they talked -- about Aruca's recent vacation in Canada, about eating Alaskan king crab, and finally about what Castro really wanted to discuss: the mood of Cuban-American Miami.
"Basically, he wanted to know my ideas about things in Miami, with the Cuban-American community," recalls Aruca. "It was polite, friendly. He put his foot up on the edge of the coffee table. He seemed relaxed. He said, 'Let me know your opinions.'"
As rare as it may be for a legendary talker like Castro to yield the floor, it would have been equally rare for Aruca to pass up an open invitation for palaver, with Fidel or anyone else. So he didn't. He says he began by telling Castro that a growing percentage of Cuban Americans are not exiles, but immigrants. They may be concerned about Cuba, but their lives are in the U.S., not on the island. At the same time, Aruca went on, Cuban Americans favor changes in Cuba that will lead to democracy, family reunification, and the right to travel to the island. He told Castro that the Cuban government had failed to develop a consistent policy in response to that agenda.
"Castro only interrupted me once," Aruca recalls, "and that was when I said that one day there would be an alternative group in Miami with a broader sense of purpose than the Cuban American National Foundation. He asked, 'What do you mean by broad?' I said, 'I mean a group that would encompass different political views but maintain a strong family and business agenda.' He said, 'If broad, yes.'"
Miami Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks
TicketsSun., Oct. 1, 6:00pm
UberTailGate: Hard Rock Stadium Dolphins v Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Dolphins vs. Tennessee Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets
TicketsMon., Oct. 9, 7:30pm
Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 11, 7:30pm
After more than three hours, Aruca and Castro stood to shake hands again. "He said then: 'You have said some things here that we were not aware of,'" Aruca recounts.
On the drive back to his hotel in the early-morning darkness, Aruca says he had a chance to reflect on what had just taken place. He had finally had a chance to sit down with the Cuban president, and, he says, "I think he understood what I was saying.
"I know there are people in Miami who think I see Fidel Castro every week," he continues. "But that was the first time I have had a chance to sit down and explain my opinions to Castro, when he was at ease and ready to listen. I finally got to have a decent conversation with him, and it happened at a very propitious juncture, when we are moving toward normalizing relations.
"That was the first time. I know there are people in Miami who won't believe that. But it's true."
Francisco Gonzalez-Aruca is an only child, born and reared in Artemisa, a sugar-mill town about 60 miles west of Havana, where his father, Francisco "Pancho" Gonzalez, owned a small grocery store. The store provided a comfortable living for Gonzalez, his wife Lilia, and their son until the late 1950s, when a protracted tiempo muerto, the dead time between sugar harvests, left many townspeople broke. Gonzalez extended credit, and the debts piled up until both the store and the family's house were repossessed by the bank in 1957. From the age of eleven, Aruca -- whose friends have always called him by his mother's family name -- attended Havana's Colegio de Belen as a boarding student, and after the loss of the family business, his parents moved to Marianao, a suburb of the capital, so he could finish his education at the Jesuit school. Aruca's father took a job as a salesman at a department store, but his spirit was broken. Suffering from diabetes and depression, he hanged himself from the bedroom door in May 1960. He was 54 years old.
Aruca, twenty years old at the time, came home from his job at a bank to find his father's body. "I was studying law at night while working at the bank," he recalls, "and he was very proud of me. It was a real shock. He was a gentle, generous man who never got used to living in Havana. You carry something like this with you forever. Was there something missing? You ask yourself. It's awful."
After Aruca announced his return to Miami radio this past August -- taking out a series of ironically wry ads in El Nuevo Herald in which he referred to himself as "El Fosforito en nuestra oscuridad informativa" (the Little Match in our information blackout) -- Aruca says he heard Armando Perez Roura, over the airwaves of Radio Mambi, charge that Castro's policies had caused his father's suicide. "Nonsense," Aruca says.
Nonetheless, from the perspective of 35 years, friends of Aruca speculate that his father's suicide may account for his workaholic ways, his drive to put ever more money between himself and the financial brink. The immediate result in 1960, however, was to change the way the would-be lawyer viewed the world, especially the new reality in Cuba. Like many Catholics, Aruca says, "I was taught that communism was intrinsically perverse, and there was no compromise with it. I had to fight against it."
He began to work with Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo (MRP), the organization headed by Manuel Ray, an architect who had served as Castro's minister of public works. Disaffected, Ray's new slogan was "Fidelismo sin Fidel." Aruca was named propaganda director of the student wing, and helped to design and distribute anti-revolutionary leaflets and to organize strikes. But his days in the underground were short-lived. Arrested on January 5, 1961, he was hauled down to G-2, the state security offices, charged with counterrevolutionary activities, tried ten days later, found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years. Short, skinny, and just twenty years old, Aruca was sent to Havana's La Cabana prison.
Within mere days of his incarceration, Aruca saw a way out. "On Thursdays and Fridays, women and boys up to age fifteen came to visit, and I soon realized that because I was so small, and looked so young, this could be my chance," he says. "So I got hold of a shirt, stole a pair of pants, cut my hair, shaved my arms, and one visiting day I told my mother to leave early. I didn't want her to know, because she would get nervous. I went back to my cell, changed clothes, mingled with the other visitors, and not ten or twelve days after arriving at La Cabana, I walked out."
After two days hiding out in Havana, Aruca says he entered the Brazilian embassy and asked for asylum. He spent eighteen months there, living amid a shifting tide of fellow asylum-seekers in the one-time servants' quarters behind the embassy before finally obtaining a safe-conduct pass from the Cuban government. He flew first to Ecuador, then to Colombia, and eventually to Miami.
Miami in 1962 -- post-Bay of Pigs, post Cuban Missile Crisis -- was a madhouse of exile politics, and Aruca said he decided to stay away. So he talked to the priests at Miami's Belen Preparatory School, who told him about another Jesuit institution in Washington, D.C. He got a job as a bellboy at the Madison Hotel, studied English, and entered Georgetown University in September 1963 on a federal student loan program set up for Cuban refugees. He graduated in 1968 with a degree in economics, $10,000 in debts, and not even a passing acquaintance with another overachiever, classmate Bill Clinton.
Aruca stayed in the Washington area for the next five years, taking a master's degree in economics from Catholic University, completing all but his dissertation for a Ph.D., and starting a family with his wife, the former Anita Potts, an Oklahoma native he married in 1966. (The couple has three children, all in their twenties.)
Between 1969 and 1976, Aruca put in time as a graduate student in Washington, a college teacher in Puerto Rico, and an economist with the U.S. Department of Labor. And he also became convinced, he says, that "our isolation from Cuba was absurd, the confrontational approach didn't work, and we needed to build a bridge to the island based on reconciliation." In 1974 he became one of the founders of Areito magazine, based in New York and aimed at opening a dialogue with the Castro government. (Aruca is no longer associated with Areito.) Identified then as a dialoguero, Aruca was one of about 75 Cuban Americans invited by the Castro government to take part in two Havana conferences in the fall of 1978. So Aruca returned to Cuba for the first time in seventeen years, and there, during the first sessions of those controversial "dialogues," Aruca had an epiphany.
"It became obvious to me that the Cuban government was intending to open the country to family visits from the U.S.," he says. "I had been searching for years for a connection to the new Cuban reality, and here it was: a travel agency."
While still working for the Labor Department in Washington, and with no financial backing, Aruca opened Marazul in a rented office on Times Square in New York, selling $850 package trips to Cuba on which his commission was about $50 each. Although he had a few competitors in New York, and at least twenty in Miami, Aruca managed to book about one-fourth of the 100,000 Cubans who returned to the island in 1979, and racked up sales of $1.5 million. By June of that year he realized he no longer needed his government job, and he quit.
After the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the number of exiles permitted to visit Cuba dropped off markedly. But by then Aruca had expanded Marazul's services to include tour packages to Nicaragua, Grenada, and other socialist countries, building a client list and a reputation for special-interest travel with a leftist twist. Says Aruca: "We found our niche."
In 1985, in retaliation for the startup of Radio Marti, Castro suspended all family visits. But thirteen months later, in June 1986, Aruca got a call from Havana: The Cuban government was willing to issue 50 visas per week and offered Marazul an exclusive on booking passage and deciding who would go. After negotiating a fixed price of $395 for the roundtrip, Aruca opened an office in Miami and for the first time chartered his own airplane, a DC-9. He sold the empty seats on each flight to journalists, groups of scholars, and Cubans with special humanitarian visas.
At the same time, Aruca moved to Miami himself, warily. "I was concerned about my security, but not frightened," he says. Nonetheless, for a year he lived in a nondescript West Dade apartment across from the Marazul office while his wife and children stayed in Washington.
In August 1987, Aruca announced plans to celebrate the first anniversary of his Miami operation with a party. Some 800 Marazul customers were invited to the Airport Hilton for dinner and dancing to the music of Cuban-born salsero Willy Chirino. "He was my favorite," says Aruca.
But in the days leading up to the party, Aruca's celebration was swept up by the forces of right-wing radio, as commentators labeled Marazul a Castro-supported enterprise, described Aruca as a Cuban spy, and even speculated that a Cuban diplomat would attend. By the night of the party, Chirino had backed out, Bay of Pigs veterans announced plans to picket the hotel, and Aruca feared his $15,000 investment might have been for nothing. But to his surprise, 600 of the 800 people with reservations showed up, and though Chirino wasn't there, the customers danced to his music on tape.
Between 1987 and 1994, Marazul sent 105,000 Cuban Americans to their homeland, while two competitors, C&T Charters and ABC Charters, booked thousands more. With Clinton's executive order of August 1994 cutting off all but humanitarian flights to Cuba, Aruca instantly lost two-thirds of his business. He closed two of his six Miami offices and laid off 30 employees.
Most days Aruca works from his Southwest Dade home. But on a deliberately irregular schedule -- designed to minimize the chance of trouble -- he also spends some mornings at Marazul's Hialeah office on Palm Avenue. His cubbyhole is spare, with a desk, two chairs, and unadorned white walls; it's clearly a stopover, a place to do a little work and not get too comfortable. Today he is wearing casual slacks, a gray pullover, and half-glasses that slide down his nose. Soon after beginning a long but well-ordered discourse on the tumultuous state of affairs in Miami and his role in the fray, Aruca is gesturing wildly, looking toward the heavens, shifting frenetically in his chair, dropping and then picking up a yellow pencil with which he doodles, in squares and circles, on a legal notepad.
He says: "I'd say maybe 40 percent of Cubans in Miami share my position on Cuba -- they are willing to negotiate with the government that exists. Maybe 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, I don't know. I don't care. Because Miami and Havana have to be places where one can express different opinions.
"You know Fidel's famous dictum: Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing. It is like that in Miami. Once your anti-Castro bona fides are established, you may continue to live. But without that, you could be dead.
"Some people have told me, 'You must be a very brave man.' I'm not a brave man. But I am in the Cuba-related business. Well, what does that mean? If I have clients who want to travel to Cuba, they know that if their plans are known in the neighborhood, they are going to be criticized. That's why we are very careful with our clients. We never allow journalists to take any pictures inside our offices, for example.
"If any Cuban-American businessman who owns a restaurant, a beauty parlor, whatever, and serves this community at large, and they become a sponsor on my radio program, they would be boycotted.
"I remember in 1991, when we went on the air with Radio Progreso, buying seven hours a day, we had no advertisers. Then this guy who had a roofing company bought some time. Two weeks later he called and I asked him how business was. 'Tremendous,' he said. 'But I'm also getting calls from people who say they're going to kill me, blow me up.'
"The ads usually lasted three days. There was another guy, a cafeteria owner. He bought some time, and I remember thinking: 'This guy doesn't know what he's in for.' He had a rock through his window the next day.
"I am an economist, but I was naive in terms of my belief in the market mechanism. If we showed success, I thought, they would come. That was the essence of Radio Progreso. I thought it would eventually become self-sufficient, but it didn't because people could not advertise. I didn't figure on the tremendous power of fear. Do you know that after the April [1994 Nation and Emigration] conference, not only Magda Montiel Davis [videotaped kissing Castro] had problems, but others did, too. Lots of others lost their jobs, their little businesses. The reason I don't go out of business is I'm doing business with Cuba, and in a sense it is isolated from the pressure. I do get pressure from the people who are against the business. But you have to remember: You can make me disappear. You make me disappear, I disappear. But somebody else is going to do what I do. Because the clients are going to keep coming. In fact, even now, when it is illegal to travel to Cuba, they are going through third countries, and in bigger numbers than when it was legal.
"If you are a businessman in almost any line of business, and start expressing opinions in favor of dialogue, negotiations with Cuba, and so forth, you go bankrupt. And that's why you don't hear that many voices. Isn't it an irony, therefore, that one of the few voices that proclaim freedom of expression makes a profit with a communist government? I think that's an irony.
"I see my role as a strong defender of the most typical American values. When you deal with the Cuban situation, you get a fanatic like Perez Roura, who says 'Castro agent,' and says that any opinion I express can be considered communist, can be considered narrow-minded. But I am the opposite of narrow-minded, the opposite of a very ideological person. I am, broadly speaking, a socialist Christian, or a Christian socialist. I have always been.
"I am totally in favor of freedom of expression. I am a First Amendment man through and through. About the only important political-social institution I belong to is the American Civil Liberties Union. I belong to it, I have helped it, contributed to it.
"I see myself as a practitioner, preacher, implementer of bringing the most beautiful and traditional American values to Miami. And those values are tolerance. I learned tolerance in the United States. I did not grow up in a tolerant society. And the school I went to was not a very tolerant school. Many of the Jesuit teachers I had in Cuba were beautiful human beings, but they were Spaniards from the Franco period. Some of their concepts were very narrow-minded.
"I believe in social justice. That's my leftist side. But why, all of a sudden, should that be considered weird in Miami? Because of the Cuban connection. When I am in Cuba, I say the same things I say here. I have never said in Cuba that I am in favor of centralized public opinion through media. One Cuban official once asked me: 'To what do you attribute your success on Radio Progreso?' Because they knew we had many listeners. I said, 'If you allow any intelligent Cuban to have an hour a day on Radio Rebelde and say what he damn pleases, would he become the most-heard radio personality in Cuba?' 'Sure,' he said. I said, 'That's it.' Miami doesn't have freedom of expression on the Cuban issue. We came, we brought information, we gave a different perspective, and we succeeded.
"I would like to do anything I can to promote the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. That is for the benefit of both countries and both peoples. And the only way moderate Cubans are going to have the legitimate influence they deserve is by organizing. Moderates have not learned that yet. If they had, [Republican U.S. Rep.] Lincoln Diaz-Balart would not have run for re-election without an opponent.
"Organizing is something CANF [the Cuban American National Foundation] did well. The Foundation is a very American organization. But their values are not very American."
Aruca and Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF chairman, may be the yin and yang of Cuban politics in Miami, the magnetic poles of yes and never, but in fact they have much in common. Born in Cuba less than a year apart to parents of modest means, both once aspired to be lawyers. Uprooted by the revolution, each arrived in the U.S. with little more than a prodigious ego, a buzz-saw work ethic, and a determination to work their will. Both are wealthy, although in Aruca's estimation, "Mas has ten times what I have."
They have met in person only once, on an airplane, in 1991. Both had been in Washington to offer diametrically opposed views on the Torricelli Bill, and were heading home to Miami when they found themselves face to face in first class. According to Aruca, after the plane was airborne, Mas got up from his front-row seat and was heading back to confer with colleagues in coach when he spotted his ideological foe.
Mas stopped in the aisle, Aruca says, put his hands on his hips in an ironic, declarative posture, and exclaimed, "Aruca. Cono."
"Mas. Cono," Aruca responded, mirroring Mas's body language.
"¨C centsmo estas?" asked Mas.
"Muy bien. ¨Y tu?" Aruca replied.
Mas nodded and walked by. And that was the end of the exchange. It did not go unnoticed, however. Aruca's non-Cuban seatmate, a stranger, turned to him and commented, "So, you saw someone you know."
"Yes," said Aruca. "We're the Cono Brothers."
Over the years, each man has probably muttered that Spanish exclamation more than once in reaction to the words and actions of the other. At the same time, since Mas Canosa's 1985 triumph in pushing Radio Marti through Congress, there has been no comparison between the two men in terms of political clout. Mas Canosa had it and used it effectively during the Reagan and Bush administrations, when he had the ears of both presidents, while Aruca struggled during that period to be heard by almost anyone.
But under the Clinton administration, Mas's political influence has waned. And although Aruca has no organization, and no real power to broker in Washington, he does have something that may prove to more marketable in the future: contacts in Havana.
"Mas is a brilliant guy," Aruca concedes, "and the Foundation is the single most efficient organization created by the Cuban-American community. But Mas has painted himself into a corner. He became obsessed with one objective: overthrowing the Cuban government by creating a revolt within Cuba, and then negotiating a transitional government in which Castro would be replaced, probably by Jorge Mas Canosa. That's the essence of the Torricelli Bill.
"But if he were to succeed in that, Cuba would be ungovernable for 100 years, and sick again for another 300 years after that. That scenario means being controlled by the U.S. It is the Plattist mentality [after the 1902 Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution, which gave the U.S. the right to oversee Cuba's foreign relations and intervene in internal affairs], always trying to obtain private objectives through private deals. Cuban nationalism will not allow that to happen. This is creating tragedy."
Although ideological rivals in the court of public opinion in Miami, Aruca and Mas don't compete head to head in business (Mas made his fortune through Church & Tower, a construction firm that has feasted on lucrative contracts to string cable for Southern Bell and Dade County). Nonetheless both men put their money toward their own political ends. And in that context, they do compete.
For example, Aruca says he believes that Mas knew the consequences for Marazul Charters when he lobbied President Clinton for the severe restrictions on travel to Cuba that went into effect in August 1994 during the rafter crisis. "It would be arrogant on my part to think that it was the objective of Jorge Mas Canosa, when he convinced the president to impose those regulations," says Aruca. "I don't think we were the main objective. But I think we were one of the objectives."
Ultimately, though, Aruca is confident that he will be the winner in the Cuba of the future. "Mas will remain an influential man in this community because of his ideas and his money," he says. "But one difference between us is that I realize the realities of American society: Even with money, you cannot always do whatever you want.
"I think Mas personally will have great difficulty getting into the Cuba of the future. He may be able to invest through a corporation."
So the Castro-bashing, inflammatory Mas will not be able to buy a Havana hotel across the street from the one Aruca plans to own? "No. But he can stay in mine.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.