The Phone Is Mightier Than the Sword

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.

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.

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.

"When I broadcast that to Cuba," Perez says, "people went insane. It just went on from there. I'm talking to people on the phone who are giving me more ideas, people coming from Cuba are calling me, I'm getting letters."

She almost always does her calling from phones in the La Voz office and studio, the same phones she and her assistant use to keep up contacts on the island. Perez does not make calls while on the air because she never knows, of course, how many times she'll get wrong numbers or be transferred, kept waiting, or hung up on. Monthly phone bills run in the thousands of dollars, she reports.

Hanging alone on one wall of the CANF offices where La Voz programs are produced are two newspaper clippings within the same frame. There are two photographs of a group of Cuban men taken prisoner after a 1959 rebellion against the new Castro government. Among the men is 22-year-old Roberto Martin Perez, son of a colonel in Batista's national police. Perez would remain locked up -- shuttled from Isla del Pinos to Boniato to La Cabana to Combinado del Este to other prisons all over the island -- for the next 28 years. He, like other plantados (political prisoners who refused to be "rehabilitated" into good communists), suffered deprivation and torture, and, like others, he wrote poetry and accounts of his experiences in the tiniest of scripts on allotments of toilet paper smuggled out by departing prisoners. His name is prominent in a poem by another former political prisoner, Armando Valladares: "With bayonets/They lacerated testicles:/To Roberto Martin Perez they did it." (He had actually been shot in the testicles during a protest at Boniato.)

Ninoska Perez Castellon read that poem in 1981 and realized that Roberto Martin Perez was the son of a close friend of her family's in Havana. Her father had been a police colonel too. She remembered Roberto's father once bringing her a rabbit in a shoe box, but she didn't remember Roberto. She does vividly recall the upheaval that beset her family when the revolution triumphed. "I grew up in a world where everything was rose-colored," Perez says. "Then comes December 31, 1959. Everything turned upside down, and you're a kid trying to make some sense of it."

Since her father was a high-ranking officer in the Batista government, he left the country on a plane for New Orleans on New Year's Day. She and her mother, sister, and two brothers stayed in their home for the next several months while the revolutionaries confiscated their possessions; she remembers two men outside the house shooting each other over who was going to drive off in her father's new car. On Mother's Day, 1959, she went with her mother and grandmother to visit her uncle in La Cabana prison. After standing in line for about twelve hours, they saw Che Guevara drive up in a Jeep. "'There's no visits today!'" Perez recalls him shouting. "'And even if my mother was in there, there would be no visits.' My grandmother takes her umbrella and pounds on the Jeep, and she yells at him, 'That's because you have no mother!'"

After several years as a liberal arts student at Miami-Dade Community College and as owner of a boutique called Camille on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Perez found herself in a "process of rediscovering my roots." She became involved in protesting human rights abuses in Cuba. "I'd have people in the back painting signs for pickets and there'd be someone in the front trying to buy a designer gown," she remembers. She sold the boutique in 1978 and began freelancing for Spanish-language print and radio outlets.

By January 1987, when Perez helped launch an international campaign to free Roberto Martin Perez, she had her own hourlong talk show on WRHC-AM (1550), known as Cadena Azul. The program, dedicated to a variety of mostly nonpolitical topics, nevertheless helped publicize the plight of Perez, who was considered the longest-held political prisoner in the West. Through a petition drive, letter-writing campaign, and the efforts of an array of political figures (notably Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who negotiated with Castro), Perez was released in May 1987. Ninoska was among the group of relatives and journalists who welcomed him to U.S. soil. Less than four months later, they were married.

Ninoska subsequently wrote in an essay published in the Miami Herald: "From the beginning, love for us has been a mixture of ideals and attraction, desire and admiration. It has also been a process of learning through each other.... I have taught him the art of living in a world of electronic devices. He has taught me forgiveness. Recently I saw him embrace a man who was Castro's commandant -- the same man who betrayed Roberto 28 years ago."

At home in the Doral-area townhouse that Ninoska has filled with altar pieces and statuettes of saints and virgins from all over Latin America, the couple relaxes over cafe cubano even as the phone rings every ten minutes and Ninoska's mother and sister drop by. A tree-shaded lawn stretches out from the back patio door, but the family likes to sit inside with the cafe, talking Cuban history, remembering the deceits and conceits of Castro, recognizing heroes and martyrs, discussing the current situation on the island and in world affairs.

"No matter how good things are here," Ninoska says, "you can never forget how bad things were back there." If either of them harbors bitterness or hatred, it's almost certainly not Roberto. Of course he has aged; his gray hair is now thin, but his face, dominated by an aquiline nose and luminous brown eyes, is barely lined. A member of the board of directors of the Cuban American National Foundation, he also runs a glass business.

Roberto is the first to say he's been fortunate compared to most of the former long-time political prisoners who have arrived in Miami. He's helped many of them find work, usually unskilled jobs they're thankful to have. "They need help in so many ways," Perez says. "They're traumatized. Most were so young when they went in that they don't have schooling or professions. They arrive very poor."

The themes of separation and reconnection that run through their lives, and the lives of displaced people everywhere, are whimsically expressed in one of Ninoska's statuettes. It's a simply carved virgin in long maize-color robes; both she and her infant Jesus are wearing tall black crowns on their heads. But when Ninoska bought the Madonna at an antique show several years ago, there was no baby in her arms. It was about six months later that, while browsing at the booth of a different vendor at another antique show, she happened to see a figurine of a baby painted in the same colors as her Madonna and wearing the same distinctive black crown. She took it home and set it in the mother's arms, where it fit so well no one could tell it hadn't always been there.

She has at her fingertips the telephone numbers of virtually every high-ranking bureaucrat in the government, including Castro.

"It's entertainment by humiliating and insulting people. She's one more person who makes a good living as part of the anticommunism industry."

"I called a restaurant saying I wanted to make reservations. They asked me if I was paying in dollars, and when I said no, they hung up.


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