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RADIO DAYS

RADIO DAYS

Habaneros of the 1940s and early 1950s lived with their ears glued to the radio. Cuba ranked first among all Latin American countries in per capita radio ownership, and its capital city was largely responsible for this figure. In playwright Virgilio Pi?era’s classic drama about this period, Aire Fr?o, a working-class household that can’t afford an electric fan in the summer heat nonetheless owns a radio. Their radio is practically a member of the family, its voice heard all through the play. In those years Havana boasted thirty-four stations (twice as many as Buenos Aires) whose listeners could choose among a vast array of programs.

For news junkies, the all-news, all-the-time Radio Reloj then-as-now reported bulletins punctuated by the sound of a ticking clock. Elsewhere on the dial, the Marine Corps Hymn introduced the evening news show sponsored by General Motors. Listeners devoted to adventure serials hung on the episodes of Tarz?n, played by the famous actor Enrique Santiesteban. Lovers of true-crime shows tuned in to the dramatic, macabre, and daily recreation of bloody events, narrated by the popular Jose?to Fern?ndez and introduced by a catchy country-style melody of Fern?ndez’s own composition, “La Gu?ntanamera,” not yet adapted by Pete Seeger to include lyrics by Jos? Mart?. During baseball season, the feats of the professional teams competing for the championship were delivered as radio play-by-play. Housewives at home and cigar-rollers in the great factories of Partag?s and H. Uppman cried with equal ardor over the tragic events of the soap opera, The Right to Be Born, by F?lix B. Caignet, the model for the later radio and television novelas produced and aired in Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil. Musical shows featured the young composers and singers of the new music called feeling (Cubanized into filin), a form of the traditional bolero influenced by the sounds of cool jazz. F?lin’s leading promoters included a station known by its broadcast frequency, 1010 or Mil Diez. This was the voice of Cuba’s reconstituted and legalized communist party, the Partido Socialista Popular.

Radio captured other principal features of the ’40s and early ’50s, too. Graft and the settling of scores among competing factions and gangs were the capital’s daily bread. From jobs and sinecures in government ministries to positions of leadership in the University of Havana, access to public employment and influence fell into the hands of mafias, often armed to the teeth. Their armed factions, in the ever-present borrowing from the language of the northern neighbor, were called bonches, a species of Wild Bunch. Worker and student leaders, ex-underground-revolutionaries, and leading political figures fell victim to this fratricidal settling of accounts, as did bodyguards, civilians, and ex-officials of the secret police, their murders attributed to political vendettas and quarrels over the spoils from corruption. The most spectacular case of political gang violence was known as “The Events of Orfila,” and it was this one that most famously made its way onto the air.

In the afternoon of September 15, 1947, members of the National Police led by Major Mario Salabarr?a surrounded the residence of a rival police captain named Antonio Mor?n Dopico, head of the force in the municipality of Marianao. The attackers laid siege with machine gun fire for almost three hours straight and received answering fire from within. This battle between opposing factions took place just outside Buenavista in a more prosperous district commonly called Orfila, after a local store on the corner of Avenida 31. Radio Reloj reporter Germ?n Pinelli, who was present from the start, positioned himself as close as possible and narrated the firefight as if it were a ball game, giving a minute-by-minute account over the background of his station’s signature ticking clock.

The residents of Havana listened, horrified, to the moment in the bloody spectacle when the attackers, after swearing to respect the life of Mor?n’s wife Aurora Solar if she would leave the house, shot her down as she walked out waving a white sheet. Only at the end of the carnage, when the massacre was over, did a detachment of the constitutional army appear from nearby Camp Columbia, ensconced in tanks and tossing tear gas grenades.

Not far from Orfila stood two examples of a more peaceful promise held out by the radio — a solution to listeners’ housing woes. It was common for residents to move frequently, from one room to another in tenements from Old Havana to Chinatown to Casablanca, La Vibora, or Luyan?. This cycle ran from the day they arrived with their bundles of belongings and paid a month in advance, to the day they couldn’t pay any more, had used up their security deposit, and had twenty-four to forty-eight hours to move to another and always transitory home. To the vast numbers of working- and middle-class Havanans who dreamed of escaping from the spiraling rents of the ever-more-crowded capital, the Crusellas soap company offered prizes inside its popular bars of Jab?n Candado laundry soap, which wives, daughters, grandmother, and housemaids all over the city used to launder clothes in washboard sinks.

Along with the company’s radio jingles about the purity and endurance of its soap, Crusellas advertised that the lucky buyers of certain bars of Jab?n Candado would find a small plastic capsule embedded in the middle of the soap. Inside that capsule would be a slip of paper announcing what gift the customer had won. The top prizes were houses or apartments. Two of these “casas de Jab?n Candado” stood on 41st Avenue near Buenavista, halfway between the Tropical Stadium and the block where the Events of Orfila had taken place. They’re still standing today, identifiable by the padlock logo (candado means padlock) pressed into the plaster, as it was into the bars of soap.

Hand in hand with gangsterism, government corruption matched any of the true crime stories on Jose?to Fern?ndez’s show. Though run-of-the-mill embezzlement by the “kleptocracy” had ceased to be news in Havana, the case of Minister of Education Jos? Manuel Alem?n was an exception, a story out of the Arabian Nights. On the afternoon of October 10, 1948-the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Cuban independence struggle-Minister Alem?n led a fleet of trucks from his offices through the narrow streets of Old Havana, to the Treasury of the Republic at the corner of Obispo and Cuba, where they had a mission to fulfill. Alem?n’s men, with himself at their head, entered that edifice through the doors of its Wall Street fa?ade and passed through the Art Deco interior to the vaults, where they withdrew funds variously estimated from $50,000,000 to $174,250,000, loaded these stacks of bills into the trucks, and then drove to a chartered aircraft. The Minister, his followers, and the money all took off for Miami, where they passed through customs without any difficulty, and that was that.

Attacking the rampant corruption tolerated and promoted by the Aut?ntico administrations, a new breakaway opposition party called the Ortodoxos adopted the slogan “morals over money,” gaining instant popular support. The chief communications medium of its charismatic leader, Havana’s Senator Eddy Chib?s, was his radio hour. From the studios of station CMQ, he denounced cases of public embezzlement and the abuses of the Cuban Electric Company (which was, despite its name, owned and headquartered in the United States). Naming names and exposing more than twenty individual cases of high corruption, Chib?s’ weekly broadcasts made him a dangerous magnet for popular discontent, a likely candidate for president in the elections scheduled for 1952, and a growing threat to the powers-that-were: political parties, sugar barons, government officials, the established press, and even the radio networks themselves.

In typical stormy style, Chib?s one Sunday afternoon denounced Minister of Education Aureliano S?nchez Arango, the infamous Alem?n’s successor, for having diverted school breakfast funds to buy real estate in Guatemala. But the minister mounted a spirited defense, questioning the basis of the charges, and enlisted the support of powerful groups including the owners of Chib?s’s own platform, Radio CMQ. Research by Chib?s’s associates failed to turn up definitive proof. Put on the defensive by the acid attacks from S?nchez Arango and his followers, and seeking to keep the morale of his movement alive, Chib?s came to the studio on Sunday, August 5, 1951 with something dramatic in mind. He broadcast his most famous speech, the most dramatic appeal to the public conscience heard during the years of the Republic. “People of Cuba,” he concluded, “this is my last clarion call!” Then, with the radio microphone still open, he shot himself in the chest. His motives have never been completely established (some say he meant only to wound himself), but he lingered for a week in critical condition, and his funeral ceremonies lasted for another three days-the largest popular funeral to that date in a city that knew many.

Although Chib?s’s death was a blow to his new party, some of the younger Ortodoxos who came of age in the shadow of his leadership played important roles during the tragic days surrounding his death. One of them, whose statements over the radio during Chib?s’s deathbed days first made him known outside the precincts of the university, would later be the subject of a good deal of talk. As a law student he had been involved in one of the campus bonches but had lately taken another path. He was running as an Ortodoxo congressional candidate in the elections scheduled for the following year. Fidel Castro was his name.

February 2008

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