Breach of Faith

Every weekday evening just before six o'clock, Emilio Milian, Jr., slowly sits down in front of a microphone in the studio of WWFE-AM (670). His neat mustache and wavy gray hair combed back from a deep V hairline are streaked with white. Invariably he is dressed in a conservative suit, his tasseled slip-on shoes brightly shined. He places the Miami Herald in front of him, takes a pair of wire-rimmed glasses out of a brown leather case, and reads as he waits for the woman at the control board on the other side of the window to slip in a prerecorded cassette announcing the start of Habla el Pueblo (The People Speak). Milian introduced this call-in program in 1971 at another station, when he was 40 years old and among the top announcers in Miami's still-fledgling Spanish-language radio market.

Eighteen years later he founded WWFE, having recovered from a 1976 car bombing that tore off his legs and made him a hero. Politically conservative and staunchly anti-Castro, Milian shared the passionate desire of his attackers (who were thought to be fellow exiles, though no one was ever arrested for the bombing) to liberate Cuba. He was assaulted for what he said on the air, condemnations and tauntings of the small bands of right-wing extremists who used terrorist tactics against anyone who defied them. Milian thus came to stand for tolerance, democracy, and freedom of speech during a time when the only cause in Cuban Miami was la causa: the overthrow of Fidel Castro, by whatever means possible.

When he returned to the airwaves, he dubbed his station Radio Fe, wishing to tell the world that his faith in God had been rewarded. He prided himself on eschewing the established political line taken by the major Cuban stations; Radio Fe's slogan, repeated during each station break, identified it as la voz independiente. One local political activist told the Miami Herald that Milian had succeeded in "bringing democracy to Cuban radio."

But in only a few years, Milian was brought down again, this time financially. In early 1993 he was forced to sell WWFE, and today he is an employee of the station he started, a station again in financial straits. For the loss of WWFE he bitterly blames Cuban exile politics and a moneyed, tight-knit elite that wields tremendous power, both overtly and subtly, within el exilio. "I have a lot of enemies," Milian says, his round, almost childlike eyes fixed darkly inward. "They want to silence me."

Few sounds escape from behind the closed office and studio doors on the second floor of this seven-story building on SW 27th Avenue just south of Flagler Street, which WWFE shares with another Spanish-language station. After Habla el Pueblo's theme music and introduction fade, Milian welcomes his audience and immediately takes a call. The woman operating the board leaves the control booth and resumes a conversation with a friend in the hall. A square "On Air" sign on the wall is lit; a small digital clock marks the minutes. Milian is alone with the microphone and the blinking phone.

As usual, a large number of the callers this night are older Cuban exiles. The vast majority want to talk about the proposed federal cuts in Medicare, the theme of the day's three-minute editorial spot by Milian. Also on the agenda: the obligatory denunciations of Fidel Castro and discussions of Castro's latest invitation to have some exile groups visit him. Milian's resonant voice rises and his long arms gesture sharply as he denounces the communist regime for destroying the island's economy. He argues heatedly with a man who has called to opine that the U.S. embargo is responsible for much of the suffering in Cuba.

Milian is a conservative anticastrista, disinclined to see any benefit that might be gained from dialogue with Castro. His pronouncements, while lacking the invective that characterizes some of his competitors' rhetoric, aren't all that different from the opinions heard from Miami's AM power triad: Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710), La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140), and WCMQ-AM (1210). And while the idea of tolerating opposing viewpoints has in recent years made inroads in the local market -- even La Cubanisima, usually a harsh purveyor of hard-line views, recently added La Primera Plana (The Front Page), a news/talk show featuring younger journalists who have shed the advocacy approach favored by their predecessors -- Milian seems to have become uncomfortable with what he sees as an accommodation of pro-Castro elements. "I think they're allowing leftists on the air," he says, "where either you believe what they say or that's it."

Despite the limited influence Milian now exerts on the AM airwaves, to the outside world his name still connotes courage and integrity. He has probably received more mainstream press coverage than all the other stars on Miami's Spanish-language radio combined. His position within el exilio, however, is more complicated. He is not universally revered, as respectful English-language news accounts might imply. The fraternal ties that helped foster Radio Fe are the same ones Milian and others now accuse of ultimately strangling the station, and with it Milian's lifelong dream. Because he wouldn't make his station a tool of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and its allies, he asserts, they conspired to drive him out of business. Yet there are many within el exilio who place the blame for Radio Fe's decline squarely on the shoulders of its creator, who they say did not have the expertise to operate a station in the first place, and who alienated the very people who could have helped him succeed.