‘Radio Free Elian’ Foments Cuban Standoff in Miami
The rumor poured out over Radio Mambi last Friday night: Immigration officials were en route to the home of Elian Gonzalez to snatch him away.
Never mind that the report turned out to be false. Within half an hour, thousands of Miami’s Cuban Americans had surrounded the house--testimony to the central role the 50,000-watt Spanish-language station has played for months in fomenting the standoff over the 6-year-old boy’s fate.
Under the direction of Armando Perez-Roura, the station’s 70-year-old general director and anti-communist commentator who has been fighting an ideological war over Miami’s airwaves for decades, Radio Mambi, WAQI, 710 AM, has used its formidable power in the Cuban exile community to keep tempers hot over the Gonzalez case.
“The radio has a great deal of importance for our people,” said Perez-Roura in an interview Monday in his office, its walls filled with memorabilia of the pre-Castro Cuba, where the young Perez-Roura got his start in radio.
“It is a way for our people to hear history and news told with the voice of passion,” he said. “On radio, words are not dead, they are alive. And our words have credibility. Our people know we have been fighting this regime and we will fight this regime until there is liberty for Cuba. And when we tell people to demonstrate, people listen.”
Radio Mambi--named for the Cuban rebels who fought for independence from Spain in the late 19th century--is far from the only radio station serving the more than 780,000 people of Cuban descent estimated to live in Miami-Dade County. Five Spanish-language radio stations battle for listeners in the region with aggressive news coverage that sizzles with hate for Fidel Castro.
But with more listeners than any other Spanish-language commentator in Miami, Perez-Roura is the undisputed dean of the airwaves here. And in the almost five months since Elian was pulled from the waters off Miami, Perez-Roura and the radio station he founded after he left Cuba in 1969 have not let listeners down.
From its studios in the center of Miami’s Little Havana, it broadcasts bulletins on the custody dispute ceaselessly. Perez-Roura and other broadcasters do not hide their contempt for the politicians they tell listeners are the villains of the story: President Clinton, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and the man they always refer to as “the vicious dictator Castro.”
Armando Gutierrez--spokesman for Elian’s great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, and his Miami family--stops in daily. The office walls of the station are covered with posters depicting Elian as baby Moses and as the Christ child. In the lobby sit stacks of poems--odes to Elian and elegies to Elian’s mother, Elisabeth Brotons, who died in the ill-fated voyage across the Florida Straits that the boy survived.
At demonstrations outside the Gonzalez house, the radio station has a booth, and workers for the station walk through the crowd distributing bottles of cold water to protesters swaying in the heat.
And behind the microphone, morning, noon and night, is Perez-Roura, dignified in a suit and tie, his silky on-air voice rolling the r’s of his favorite words: libertad and patria.
Perez-Roura has played such a key role in supporting the demonstrations against returning the Gonzalez boy to Cuba that the latest rumor swirling through the Cuban community is that the Immigration and Naturalization Service plans to block his broadcasts on the day agents storm the Gonzalez house to take Elian away.
Why is the rumor swirling through the community? Well, it doesn’t hurt that Perez-Roura repeats it on the air.
Which is fine with the station’s listeners.
“This station has been here since the emigration began. It’s the very heartbeat of the Cuban community. It’s how we get our opinions and our views across,” said Peter Fernandez, a songwriter waiting in the lobby of the glass-walled office building where Radio Mambi broadcasts, hoping that the station will agree to play a song he has written about the little boy.
“This place gives us a Cuban point of reference, a place for our Cuban soul,” he said. “Of course it’s in the center of the battle over Elian. We wouldn’t expect it to be anywhere else.”
On Monday, with all Cuban Miami waiting for the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that could move the Department of Justice to take action against Lazaro Gonzalez, Perez-Roura was at his hard-line anti-Castro best.
At his microphone in a tiny studio whose scarred walls are adorned with a poster of Jorge Mas Canosa, the founder of the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation, Perez-Roura launched into his noontime commentary.
“In Washington, the government waits for the green light to obligate the family of Elian Gonzalez in Miami to give up the child,” Perez-Roura tells listeners, his voice deep with foreboding. “As you know, Clinton said sooner or later it has to happen.
“The government of the United States keeps warning us to respect the law,” Perez-Roura says, his voice rising. “It has to be said to the president of the United States that we Cubans know how to respect the law, and if he doesn’t know that he should review history. It is Fidel Castro, Clinton’s new compatriot, who does not respect the law.”
As Perez-Roura speaks, he leans into the microphone and clenches his fist. And for a moment the Cold War is alive and the Castro revolution that obliterated the Cuba of the old man’s boyhood is a vivid, wrenching memory.
“We battle not just for the liberty of little Elian,” Perez-Roura says. “We battle for the liberty of Cuba.”
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.