Cool Cuban Heats Miami Tempers

IN the rapid-fire Cuban Spanish that peppers the airwaves of Miami, a lot gets said. But it's what doesn't get said that radio personality and businessman Francisco Aruca is about.

Mr. Aruca's moderate position supporting peaceful change in Cuba has long been viewed as treasonous in the white-hot anti-Castro politics of the Cuban-exile community. His is a perspective few voice publicly in Miami.

So the fact that Aruca's Radio Progreso has survived a year "with just a few windows smashed," he says, may be a sign of change in Cuban exile thought. More broadly, say others, it is a sign that the collapse of Soviet communism and its support of client states is having an effect, however slow, in softening the Cuban exile resolve about the violent overthrow of Fidel Castro.

The monolithic anti-Castro stereotype overshadows a wide spectrum of opinion in the Cuban community, says Mr. Aruca. He was recently in Washington to lobby against efforts to tighten the US embargo against Cuba.

An unabashed free-marketeer, Aruca has made a successful business out of bucking the Cuban-exile stereotype, first chartering tours to Cuba and now broadcasting a different point of view. He doesn't hide his entreprenuerial interest in getting an economic share in Cuba if relations thaw.

Is he anti-Castro? "The point is not what you're against but how you accomplish change," Aruca replies. "The best way to expedite change is to engage them [Cuba] in economic trade. Allow trade, allow travel."

The Cuban government now is hungry for foreign investment and, in the area of tourism, has signed more than 60 deals for foreign investment in recent years, he says.

"I find it hard to believe that if they are allowing private investors to come into almost any sector of the economy, and that they're allowing that investor to administer whatever project he's involved in, that that's not going to have a spillover effect on the political arena," says the small man, whose hands fly as he punctuates his energetic conversation.

Broadcasting this point of view in Miami is a first. It has caused fewer problems than Aruca imagined, he says. Besides having some of its windows smashed, the station is frequently the culmination point for anti-Castro marches (Aruca has good-naturedly delivered lemonade to demonstrators). His commercial sponsors are regularly threatened for buying time on his programs; Aruca is vilified by other broadcasters as a Cuban agent. It could be worse, he says.

Radio has played an important part in fanning rabid anti-Castro sentiment in Miami, and it has "systematically denied us the possibility to engage in critical thinking about the island and our exile," says Justo Sanchez, a social scientist at Miami-Dade Community College who also is not welcome at most Miami radio stations because of his political beliefs. Aruca "is opening territory for dissenting voices to be heard in Miami," he says.

"The majority of the Cuban-American community is readier than people say to face different opinions," says Aruca. "Even if you want to overthrow the Cuban government, how can you make any plans without proper information?" Information has been denied Cubans here, he says.

A recent Florida International University poll in the Miami area found some softening in traditional Cuban-American attitudes: 49 percent support talks among Cuban exiles, dissidents, and government representatives.

While Aruca's detractors say he is selling out to the enemy, his exile credentials are impressive: He spent time in a Cuban prison for participating in a plot to overthrow Castro in the early 1960s. The youthful-looking, small man escaped by convincing his guards that he was a child visiting family in prison. He worked his way through college as a bellboy in a Washington hotel, later becoming a college economics professor.

In 1979 his Marazul Charters was the first to be licensed by the US government to carry passengers to Cuba. Hard-line Cuban exiles see the operation as conspiring with the enemy: Marazul's offices were bombed in 1989. But even hard-line Cuban-Americans have friends or relatives on the long Marazul waiting list for the thrice-weekly flights.

Figuring there was a similar group of Cuban-Americans being overlooked because of the hard-liners' lock on Miami's radio stations, Aruca bought a daily five-hour block of time from a tiny, one-kilowatt radio station.

Aruca says the only way he could get hours on Cuban-American radio was to find a station financially distressed enough to take his business. He has had a core of about 10 steady sponsors, he says, but nearly 80 others have pulled their commercials because of threats to their businesses.

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