Nirvana Does Havana

Fairfield, Ohio, could not be called a hotbed of Cuban exile activity, but at least one resident of the Cincinnati suburb has made his home on Windermere Lane a base of operations against the Castro government. From there Victor Garcia-Rivera, a 35-year-old Cuban American, is using shortwave radio to try to deliver a blast of metal, hardcore, and other rock and roll to residents of his native land.

On November 6 he launched Radio Roquero, a weekly half-hour broadcast targeting the island's young, bored, and angry. The program, taped on what is commonly known as a "portastudio" -- a self-contained recording studio often used by musicians to make cheap demos -- airs every Saturday at 5:00 p.m. on the nineteen-meter band at a frequency of 15,675 kHz. Although he is just one man, without the backing of Miami exile organizations and drawing only a modest salary from a day job as a sales representative at a chemical plant, Garcia-Rivera maintains he is filling a gaping void in broadcasting aimed at Cuba.

"I know what's going on on the airwaves, and I think it's insufficient," says Garcia-Rivera, a longtime shortwave aficionado who has been monitoring La Voz del CID and other exile radio transmissions for years. Noting that more than half of Cuba's population was born after the 1959 revolution, he maintains that radio programming from the States would have a greater impact on Cuban youth if it abandoned heavy-handed political commentary. "Some older Cubans may listen to the polemic on these stations, but it's like preaching to the converted. Young Cubans hear that stuff and they just turn the dial. Even Radio Marti, which plays some mainstream pop and Latin music, doesn't reach them the way I want to. To do that, I've got to broadcast something that appeals directly to them and their sense of alienation and frustration." That "something" is rock and roll, everything from Nirvana to Husker Du and Stiff Little Fingers to the Chilean group Los Prisoneros.

It is thanks to such music that Garcia-Rivera himself has been able to tolerate Cincinnati, which he calls "a white-bread, one-dimensional town." Born in Havana, he left the island in 1960, when his parents became disillusioned with the Castro regime. After three years in Miami, his father, a physician, moved the family north to Ohio to set up a practice. In the mid-Eighties, Garcia-Rivera led a band called the Edge, which toured with the likes of Hsker D, Dinosaur Jr (then called just Dinosaur), and several bands of living, strumming Dead, including the Kennedys and the Milkmen.

He also continued to indulge in his other passion, shortwave radio, tuning in regularly to broadcasts from the BBC and Radio Netherlands, among others. And when announcers read aloud from listeners' letters, Garcia-Rivera noticed a pattern. "The majority of letters received on these shows are from Cubans, who are desperate to have access to the outside world," he says. Inspired by his own, Cincinnati-centered desperation, the young exile amassed about 50 pen pals, several of them roqueros -- young fans of rock and pop music.

After corresponding off and on for several years, Garcia-Rivera decided to return to Cuba to meet some of his new friends. He says he was shaken by experiencing first-hand the problems he had read about -- the food shortages, the blackouts, the political repression, the apathy, and the tourist apartheid. "I went to the Coppelia ice cream park and saw these kids waiting three hours on Saturday night just to eat one lousy scoop," he grumbles. "And I hated the feeling that this was the kind of thing that my friends faced every day."

Owing to a bad rainstorm that caused communication and transportation problems, Garcia-Rivera managed to meet only four of his dozen or so roquero pen pals, two of whom made special trips to Havana from outlying towns. He did what he could for them, giving out dozens of tapes and music magazines he'd brought along.

Months later, back in the States, he penned a song called "Himno Racional," an electric guitar-laden take-off on the Cuban national anthem, which tells the story of Pablo and Yolanda, two typical Cuban teenagers doing their best to cope with the black market, prostitution, and tourist apartheid. "Yolanda walks around looking for a foreigner to take her to dance in a discotheque for tourists that she cannot enter alone," Garcia-Rivera sings in Spanish. "And Pablo walks around looking for a foreigner with dollars to change." The song ends with the chorus from the actual "Himno Nacional," calling the nation to arms.

Garcia-Rivera sent a demo tape to several Miami radio stations, including Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710) and La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140) in hopes that program directors would give his song some airplay. He was not surprised, however, at the lack of response. "I guess they didn't like me using the national anthem in that way," he speculates. "They must have thought it was unpatriotic or something."

Then he received in the mail an advertisement for Radio Miami International, a locally based brokerage service, offering him a corridor into Cuba via a station in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The price: only $25 per hour.

A radio show was born.
Garcia-Rivera spends about three hours to produce each show, typically devoted to the music of his favorite bands and a smattering of what little Spanish-language rock he can get his hands on in Cincinnati. Garcia-Rivera, whose first cousin is married to Andy Garcia, says the film star introduced him to prerevolutionary Cuban music by artists such as Trio Matamoros and Arsenio Rodriguez. "I like that music a lot," the DJ says. "But I don't want to play it on Radio Roquero, because Cubans already have access to it and to all the latest salsa and merengue."

A recent broadcast included a song by Los Prisoneros entitled "¨Por que no se van?" ("Why Don't They Go?"), which Garcia-Rivera dedicated to the Castros, Fidel and Raul. But such commentaries are kept short and humorous. His strongest criticism of the Castro regime emerges from his "Himno Racional," which he plays at some point during every program. "I don't want Radio Roquero to be confused with the Miami stations," the DJ explains. "I don't want to turn people off before they even start listening."

But is Radio Roquero reaching Cuba? According to Radio Miami International's director, Jeff White, the Honduras station beams a clear signal to all islands in the Caribbean. "It's not a powerhouse station by any means, but it's an adequate signal and it's definitely getting there," says White, adding that a vast majority of Cuban citizens have access to shortwave reception because many of their radios were manufactured in the former Soviet Union and have the technology built in. Whether anyone is tuning in to Radio Roquero is another matter. Garcia-Rivera says he isn't sure -- his program hasn't been on long enough for mail from Cuba to reach him. "Fortunately, the production costs are practically nil," he says. "I'll keep doing it because I've got very little to lose, and the roqueros in Cuba have a lot to gain.

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Stan Yarbro