Radio personalities Armando Perez Roura and Tomas Garcia Fuste would seem to have much in common. Both were rising young celebrities in their native Cuba during the 1950s, friendly rivals in the lively, competitive news business that thrived in Havana during the days when the casinos were open all night, Miami was an occasional vacation spot, and a young lawyer named Fidel Castro was merely a hothead.
Now, some 40 years later, 66-year-old Perez Roura, of Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710), and 63-year-old Fuste, of WCMQ, are clearly the deans of Cuban radio in Miami A authoritative, popular pundits whose voices are as familiar to Spanish-language audiences as Ann Bishop's face is to those who watch the six o'clock news in English.
And they are still rivals.
But in recent weeks the rivalry has turned nasty. The day after Perez Roura reportedly made a veiled, critical, on-air reference to Fuste, the host of Buenos Dias, Miami answered with an April 15 editorial in which he blasted Perez Roura by name, calling him "an oracle of hate." Fuste went on to charge Perez Roura with promoting a climate of recrimination against recent arrivals from Cuba, and manipulating the exile organization Unidad Cubana for his own ends. Privately, Fuste says he suspects Perez Roura of trying to build a Miami power base to use as a stepping stone to high office in a post-Castro Cuba.
When asked about Fuste's blistering attack on him, Perez Roura smiles and then says, "It is no secret that I am at the top of the ratings. They need an audience, and I am not willing to give it to them. So they want to create controversy. But I am not playing their game. Fuste has the right to say whatever he wants. His words are not important. [His attack] is stupidity. I hate Castro and Castroism, not Fuste."
Ironically the comentaristas' falling out was precipitated in part by their coming together in Unidad Cubana (Cuban Unity), an umbrella organization composed of some 80 anti-Castro groups. The hope of many members, including Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban-American National Foundation, was that a show of solidarity among Miami Cubans would translate into increased political influence in Washington.
But now both Mas, Fuste, and even the militant Brigade 2506 have pulled out of Cuban Unity, while the organization has come under scrutiny for the way it has been spending thousands of dollars, some of it on ocean-going equipment that could be used in military actions against Cuba. Perez Roura remains as Cuban Unity's de facto leader and chief fundraiser.
Perez Roura and Fuste have long had differences of style and local politics. Perez Roura is a more strident radio personality than Fuste, more aggressively antipathetic toward those he considers Castro sympathizers, more receptive to the idea of military invasion of Cuba. In last year's Miami mayoral election he backed Miriam Alonso.
He regularly attacks Francisco Aruca, of Radio Progreso, and Andres G centsmez, editor of Areito magazine and national coordinator of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, as Castro agents. (Both Aruca and G centsmez, in affidavits filed earlier this year with the Federal Communications Commission in objection to the proposed merger of WAQI-Radio Mambi and La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140), charge that Perez Roura often makes on-air remarks that serve to incite violence and endanger their lives.)
Fuste comes across as more tolerant of differing opinions. He thinks urging people into the street to demonstrate is a misuse of his influence. He is a personal friend of Steve Clark, the victor in the Miami mayor's race.
In Havana in the 1950s, Perez Roura delivered the news for Radio Reloj when Fulgencio Batista was in the presidential palace, while Fuste, three years younger, became known as the spokesman for Especiales cigarettes and as an announcer on Havana station CMQ.
Not long after after Castro drove Batista into exile, in January 1959, Fuste, who had been a Castro supporter, began to have doubts about the direction of the revolution, and decided to leave Cuba. He, his wife, and two children arrived in Miami in mid-1960.
Perez Roura had been a Batista backer, but after Castro's triumph, enthusiastically switched his allegiance, according to people who worked with him in Cuba. But eventually, he, too, became disaffected. He arrived in Miami in 1969.
In his 25 years here, Perez Roura has remained monolithically hardline in his anti-Castroism, and inhospitable to other voices. Last year, in a reference to Aruca's Radio Progreso, he reportedly told listeners: "Black Americans do not allow a KKK radio station where they live; nor would the Jewish people allow a Nazi radio station where they live. And here we are, with a radio station serving the Castro regime...."
In October Perez Roura roused more than 100,000 people to parade through the streets of Little Havana in opposition to the Cuban regime, and in March he urged protesters to march on the Colombian consulate to protest a plan to sell oil to Cuba. About 1000 listeners responded.
In March 1993 when the pro-Cuba Antonio Maceo Brigade announced a demonstration in front of Radio Mambi's Coral Way offices to protest the station's support of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Perez Roura urged his listeners to confront what he called the Castro agents. A mini-riot ensued; sixteen people were arrested.
Perez Roura and Fuste share a fundamental, unshakable opposition to the rule of Fidel Castro; for both, ridding Cuba of Castro is raison d'etre. But they are also locked in a pitched battle for listeners, ratings points, and status in the exile community that may have as much to do with ego as political ideology.
But this feud is bathed in bad blood, too. In the early 1970s, when Fuste was news director of WFAB-La Fabulosa, Perez Roura was involved in an effort to organize station employees in a union. Fuste, after a spat with station owners, left La Fabulosa in 1972, but came back two years later as general manager. By returning to the station, Perez Roura charges that Fuste crossed a picket line, and with that, he says, "has shown the capacity to be a traitor."
A decade later Fuste and Perez Roura worked together at WQBA, and remained cordial. "This has never been personal," says Fuste. "We are public figures, and this [verbal sparring] is part of the life." Nonetheless, Fuste acknowledges that Perez Roura's latest outburst has escalated the war of words to a new level.
In an interview in his Coral Way office, Perez Roura refused to confirm that he made critical allusions to Fuste, offering only the Spanish equivalent of "If the shoe fits...."
The shoe not only fit, it evidently pinched. Here, translated from Spanish, is a transcript of Fuste's April 15 editorial:
"I am tired of hearing innuendos, slurs, allusions, and accusations concealed within radio commentaries that say a lot, offend deeply, but name no names.
"In this commentary, I am going to refer specifically to a broadcast I heard yesterday because a friend called to tell me: 'I think they're sticking it to you; they don't name you but it could be about you.'
"And indeed, the commentator referred to several people, one of whom could have been me, because he spoke of bringing up ratings and since, all modesty aside, this is my specialty. I think the commentator could have been referring to me, so today I am going to refer to him. I am not going to give him a nickname, nor am I going to invent a name for him, nor am I going to say I'm talking about a person who works at a Coral Way radio station. I am going to call him by his name: Armando Perez Roura.
"In the aforementioned commentary, the central feature is hate -- as is his custom -- and this time the hate is directed at me, at those who don't agree with him. Other times Armando Perez Roura aims his hate at those who have made mistakes, those who arrive here burdened by misery and failures, forgetting that he once came to Miami with those same miseries and failures, and those who were here did not reproach him nor remind him of the early years of the revolution when he was the union leader of the association of Cuban commentators, in those first few years convulsed by executions and interventions.
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"In yesterday's commentary, the threats were against those who cannot return to Cuba because the 'grand marshal' was going to shut the door on them, or he was going to sic the people on them, with 'people' understood in quotations as the new rapid action brigades that perhaps he wants to put into place in Cuba.
"He also said in his commentary yesterday that the people will avenge themselves, that they will hit the streets in search of those who are responsible for everything bad that has happened in Cuba. How lucky you are, Perez Roura, that Goar Mestre died last month. The Cuban people have suffered enough; I don't think they deserve to be frightened by the oracle of hate that you have become in this city.
"Of all the problems that have befallen Unidad Cubana, one of the worst has been your manipulation in trying to lead a group of good Cubans, filled with hope, who have come together in Miami to work for Cuba.
"Enough already, Armando Perez Roura! Stop the hate, the diatribes, the poison, the bile, the bitterness, the rancor. Cut out your tongue, because with that attitude, you may be raising the ratings of Radio Mambi, but you are doing a disservice to Cuba!