Monday, April 04, 2011

Radio Rebelde

I was reading Hemingway In Cuba by Noberto Fuentes when I found an unexpected short passage about radio.(Images courtesy of Cuba5259 via Flickr)
"One Wednesday, the Rural Guards thought something unusual was going on because they saw so many cars going in and out of the place. They thought, surely there's a conspiracy at the Vigia. No such thing was going on. Of course, we did listen to the broadcasts from the Sierra Maestra, but everybody did that. Besides, that only started in 1957. Before that, they didn't have that kind of clandestine broadcast."
The Vigia is Finca Vigia, the name of Hemingways' homestead in in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba. Presently it is a museum, but it was his residence for decades. In the above description he was screening a boxing film with friends, there was nothing subversive afoot. But the Sierra Maestra reference was interesting. Sierra Maestra is a mountain range. It's highest point is at 6,650 ft so you might imagine that it has excellent line of sight. Most sources date Radio Rebelde to 1958, the Hemingway biography sets it in 1957. The difference could be one of a few months, but I can't see Noberto Fuentes making that mistake. The whole idea got me reading about the role of radio in the Cuban revolution.

I know little of the history of Cuba.  I excuse this too easily, knowing that everyone's history classes were incomplete. History is just information about the past. It's the widest possible classification of information. It's almost as broad as the word "data." All our educations have voids. My public schooling covered more about the Bay of Pigs than  Batista. The problem is compounded by conflicting accounts. It turns out that Fuentes was wrong. All other sources put the first broadcast in February of 1958.

The creation of Radio Rebelde begins with the meeting of two people Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Guevara had traveled throughout Latin America, and in Guatemala in 1954 he had seen the operation of a clandestine CIA radio station, La Voz de la Liberacion. It is this station on which radio Rebelde was modeled. The radio equipment for La Voz was assembled in Miami Fl and it's operators trained there in April of 1954. Its first broadcasts were in May of 1954, on Labor Day. The station often operated from over the border into Nicaragua. The station also jammed the signals of Radio Nacional de Guatemala (TGW.)   La Voz shutdown in June of 1954 after just a few months of propaganda (and U.S. political pressure) toppled their government. Having seen this in person, Che really bought into the effectiveness of radio as a political tool..

In May of 1955 Batista released all political prisoners, including Fidel Castro. Castro fled to Mexico and tried to raise funds for a revolution in Cuba. The Mexican government raided his camps regularly and seized their supplies so in 1955 they purchased a yacht and, at Guevara's urging, a transmitter, but they were both stolen. It is unknown if it was ever used. In 1956 they bought another transmitter and another yacht and headed back to Cuba with 82 men. In December of that year they landed and made camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. But within 3 days they were detected by Batista soldiers and they lost all but 18 men or so and were forced to abandon much of their equipment including the replacement transmitter. Because of this, they were printing a rebel newspaper and running telephone lines in the jungle before they were broadcasting. They didn't even make a test broadcast with another transmitter until the middle of February 1958. Pateplumaradio.com summarizes it as follows
"A test broadcast was made in mid-February. The transmitter still needed work, so the 20 minute broadcast only reached a few hundred yards, with Fidel and a few guerrillas around Che's radio and a peasant named Palencho who heard it in his house on the facing hillside as the only audience. But, Fidel was impressed. Work on the equipment continued. A few days later, on February 23, 1958, Radio Rebele was officially inaugurated in its first real transmission. Into the Cuban airwaves went the words that would soon become immortalized in Cuban broadcasting; "Aqui Radio Rebelde! Aqui Radio Rebelde! Transmitiendo desde la Sierra Maestra en territorio libre de Cuba."

The only radio-related rebel action that precedes this was on March 13th 1957. Student leader José Echeverría and a small group take over a radio station in Havana. He was killed while trying to escape Batista troops.


In 1958 Rebelde began regular broadcasts. Their hardware was scant but usable. They  had a 120 watt Collins 32-V-2 transmitter and a tape recorder. In December it was moved into a bedroom in a little corner house at 201 Quintin Banderas Street. Cuban nationals in Miami secretly shipped them more radio equipment. Carlos Franqui, a former editor of underground publications, was brought in to run the radio station. Franqui later fell out with the group and was even removed from official photographs.

Radio Rebelde established a regular schedule, on nightly at 7:00 and 9:00 P.M. on 20 meters and at 8:00 and 10:00 P.M. On 40 meters. The Rebelde network also served as a radiotelephone link for the guerrilla columns, using the call sign 7RR. Batista tried to jam the station but they kept changing frequencies. Radio Continente in Venezuela began to relay the programming as well. It became an informal network called Cadena de la Libertad.  It included Indio Azul & Dos Indios Verdes in Venezuela, Indio Apache in Mexico, and Un Muchacho Unido in Miami, FL. There were several others in the U.S. whose origin is still undetermined. (This continues even today) Batista fled Cuba in January of 1959. They took longer than La Voz, but they didn't have CIA funding either.

Today Radio Rebelde is a legitimate radio service run by the Cuban government. It's a domestic full service radio network serving up music, news, and sports. It' FM signal is on 96.7 FM throughout Cuba, and over a dozen AM transmitters (a total of 44). There's a complete list here. It's also available at 5.025 MHz on the short wave band.  It's original hardware is on display at La Comandancia de la Plata which has been converted to a museum. If the U.S. ever ends the embargo I'll be sure to visit it.