CubaNews / February 2009
By Larry Luxner
If President Obama keeps his campaign promise and grants Cuban-Americans unfettered permission to visit their families in Cuba, few in South Florida’s exile community will be angrier than Ninoska Pérez-Castellón.
The “on air personality,” as her business card reads, is a familiar voice on Miami’s WAQI-Radio Mambí. And everyone knows exactly where she stands on the Cuba issue.
“Basically, we’re hoping Obama will take a closer look at Cuba,” she said. “It’s very simple to say, ‘I want restrictions lifted because Bush put them in place.’ But why reward a regime that has not given any indication it will change? When the EU lifted sanctions it had imposed after the arrest of 75 dissidents in 2003, what did it get in return? Nothing. We’re still hearing about dissidents being arrested.”
It’s a subject Pérez-Castellón knows all too well. Her husband, Roberto Martín Pérez, spent 27 years languishing in one of Fidel Castro’s prisons. In July 2001, both of them resigned from the Cuban American National Foundation in protest over the CANF’s “softening” of its once-hardline stance against the Castro brothers.
Along with several other prominent CANF defectors, the couple helped form the Cuban Liberty Council, a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Miami’s Little Havana district. The organization currently has 40 directors who pay $5,000 each annually, and between 3,000 and 4,000 members who contribute anywhere from $5 to $100 a year.
Early last month, we sat down with Pérez-Castellón in between radio shows, in an effort to understand where her deep-seated bitterness against the Castro regime comes from.
Born in Havana, Pérez-Castellón came to Miami at the age of 8. That was 50 years ago; she hasn’t been back since.
“I keep that dream alive every day of my life,” she said. “But I do not go to Cuba as long as there’s a dictatorship in power. That’s my choice. Even if I wanted to go to Cuba, they wouldn’t give me a visa.”
Pérez-Castellón recalled a conversation she had in 1998, right before Pope John Paul II was due to begin his historic trip to the island. She phoned the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to inquire about her pending application for a journalist visa.
“I told them every reporter I knew who was going to Cuba already had their visas, but I didn’t have mine,” she said. “When I gave them my name, [Rafael] Dausa got on the phone and started screaming at me, saying ‘we will never give you a visa to go to Cuba!’”
Curiously, Dausa — one of Cuba’s highest-ranking intelligence officers — is now ambassador to Bolivia, while Pérez-Castellón enjoys widespread popularity on the Miami talk radio circuit. She’s on the air from 8:30 to 10 a.m. and then again from 3 to 4 p.m. Monday through Fridays. She also has a TV show from 7 to 8 p.m. on Univisión’s local affiliate.
Pérez-Castellón says that while the Cuban government jams Radio Mambí’s signal in the Havana area, “we get a lot of people along the north coast and even as far as Camagüey” listening to her show — which is one reason she insists that taxpayer-funded Radio and TV Martí must keep broadcasting their signals.
“I am a firm believer that Radio and TV Martí should be there, because I know what Radio Free Europe did to help bring communism down,” she said.
We asked Pérez-Castellón if the term “hardliner” offends her in any way.
“No it doesn’t, but I find it funny that I’m a hardliner,” she replied, “while people who defend a 50-year-old dictatorship are considered progressive.”
She also doesn’t believe the recent Florida International University poll which concluded that, for the first time, a majority of Cuban-American exiles in South Florida favor a complete lifting of the embargo and normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“Look at the election results,” she said, noting that all three of South Florida’s Republican lawmakers of Cuban origin — Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart — were returned to office by a comfortable margin of voters.
Even in Hialeah, where a lot of Cubans — probably Republicans — voted for Obama be-cause they were concerned about the economy, only one precinct went for [Democratic challenger] Raúl Martínez. Mario’s district has a majority of Democrats, and still he won.
“This also happened when Mario ran the first time,” she added. “Annie Betancourt, who is highly respected and dearly loved in this community, said she wanted to lift the embargo — and ran on that premise, based on polls that told her the community had changed. In the end, Mario won the election.”
Asked to explain the phenomenon, Pérez-Castellón says she has a simple answer: “Those polls don’t represent the majority of Cuban-Americans. They’re always saying the Cubans who came earlier have no connection to those on the island. Well, even if you’re a marielito, you’ve been here at least 28 years. They want to portray the Cuban exile community as a bunch of old people.”
She added: “We are looking for a solution for 11 million Cubans — not for the few who might still have relatives there.”
But Pérez-Castellón’s problems with the CANF began long before the debate over Cuban-American travel restrictions. She left the foundation eight years ago after its ideologies had shifted following the 1997 death of its guiding light, Jorge Mas Canosa.
“I had my radio show, and was spokesperson for the CANF, and also director of the Voice of the Foundation on shortwave. That sadly was closed after I left, and also on the same day as Jorge Mas Canosa’s birthday,” she recalled. “We were very close. He was a friend, a mentor. I don’t think I’ve learned more from anybody else.”
Those warm feelings do not extend to Mas Canosa’s son, Jorge Mas Santos, who in Pérez-Castellón’s view softened the foundation’s opposition to Fidel Castro as he tried to extend CANF support beyond the Cuban-American community.
The final straw came in 2001, when Mas Santos — warned that it could give a platform to Cuban artists working for the Castro regime — lobbied anyway to bring the Latin Grammy Awards to Miami without consulting opposing CANF leaders, she said.
Pérez-Castellón told CubaNews that one of the proudest moments of her career was when President George W. Bush called into Radio Mambí eight days before turning over the reins of power to Obama.
“I would have liked to implement the plan for a post-Castro Cuba that we had prepared. Obviously, the Castro brothers continue there, and continue to repress the people,” Bush told her on the air. “I think it is in the best interests of this country to promote liberty everywhere and at all times, and I sincerely hope that the Cuban people will be able to live in a free society sooner rather than later.”
Asked if Bush failed because the Castro brothers still run Cuba, Pérez-Castellón shook her head.
“I don’t think he failed. [Bringing democracy to Cuba] has been every president’s goal, but it’s not up to the United States to achieve that objective. Bush kept his word, he kept the sanctions, and he said he’d veto any attempt to lift the embargo. And more than any other president, he made the cause of Cuba’s political prisoners known, every chance he had.”
At the same time, Pérez-Castellón has little sympathy for Cuban-Americans who don’t like the restrictions on travel and remittances.
“I don’t have a problem with people who feel they have to visit their families. I do have a problem with people going to Cuba for tourism,” she said. “On the other hand, I also respect the U.S. for making sanctions. It’s our right to impose those sanctions. If you don’t like it, don’t live in the United States. And if you can’t live without your grandmother, then you shouldn’t have left her behind.”
Before ending our interview, we asked Pérez-Castellón what she might say to Raúl Castro if given the chance.
“What would I say to him?” she mused, thinking out loud for a second. “I’d say, ‘Leave!’”