By MANNY GARCIA
Herald Staff Writer
Manuel Vega, retired mill worker, staunch anti-communist, spent 11 years in Fidel Castro's prisons.
``Castro took away my freedom. He took away my country,'' Vega said Saturday, standing outside WQBA radio, where he and other South Florida exiles donated money and relief supplies for the Cuban victims of Hurricane Lili.
``Castro did not take away my ability to trust or love my people.''
Having said that, Vega, 66, handed a $5 bill to Miami Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, the revered exile priest who is spearheading the relief effort.
As with every issue involving Cuba and the exile community, offering disaster relief is an emotional decision fraught with political implications.
Exiles said they felt caught in a no-win situation: You are ``not a good Cuban'' if you donate. You are ``not a good Cuban'' if you don't.
``Helping goes against everything you have learned,'' said Ramiro Sanchez, 40, who delivered six sacks of rice to the radio station. ``You don't help Fidel. You support the embargo. But this is different.''
Starting Friday afternoon and running deep into Saturday, WQBA 1140-AM and WCMQ 1210-AM -- two popular and sharply anti-Castro stations -- feuded with each other over the airwaves.
Tomas Garcia-Fuste, WCMQ programming director, urged listeners to withhold donations. Fuste said the relief effort violates the Helms-Burton Act, which penalizes companies that do business with Cuba.
Fuste said Castro purposely exaggerated the damage done by the hurricane -- to get exiles to send much-needed food and medicine that they normally would not send. He and other advocates said they fear that Castro's government will steal the supplies.
``I respect what people are trying to do,'' Arturo Cobo, coordinator of the Transit House for Cuban Refugees on Stock Island, said in a WCMQ interview. ``How can you question grandmothers making donations? But the one who is going to receive all this on El Malecon is going to be Fidel Castro.''
Agustin Acosta, WQBA station manager and morning radio personality, said the relief effort began at 2 p.m. Friday when the Archdiocese of Miami faxed him a request for help. Acosta said he gathered with other station executives and they immediately realized they had to help. The group organized a radio marathon.
``If there is no electricity, there is no bread,'' said a man calling from Sagua la Grande, a town in Villa Clara province.
Another caller said that children were hungry. A third said, ``Don't let politics blind you from helping us.''
About 10 p.m., Miriam and Mario de la Peña walked into the broadcast booth. Their son, Mario, and three other men died Feb. 24 when Cuban MiG jets shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes.
The couple said they bought supplies at the supermarket after listening to Cubans on the radio, speaking on static-cluttered phone lines, asking for help.
Miriam de la Peña told listeners that her son loved canned peaches. She brought to the station the cans that Mario never got to eat. She donated them.
``We bought powdered milk. And condensed milk -- which Cubans love because it is sweet -- and lollipops for the children,'' she said.
Miriam de la Peña, her voice heard in Cuba, began to cry.
``Mario never met Cuba,'' she said. ``He never saw his country. He was 24. He never made it there in body, but his love will reach the island.''
Saturday morning, several people said her gut-wrenching tribute -- and her ability to forgive, even though Cubans killed her son -- motivated them to donate.
WQBA received support from Cuban exiles like Francisco ``Pepe'' Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation; musician Willy Chirino; Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue; and Armando Alejandre Sr., whose son was also shot down in February.
Acosta, in a deep voice, spoke about the need to do right.
``This is the church of Agustin Roman. The same Catholic church that has helped with the children of Pedro Pan. The same church where we go when things get ugly. I am here, not in Cuba, thanks to a Catholic priest. Maybe I would have drowned on a raft.''
Acosta said the relief effort does not violate the Helms-Burton Act, because the supplies are strictly to aid families after a natural disaster.
All supplies will be sent to Cuba via plane or ship and turned over to Caritas, a humanitarian group on the island.
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald Getting in touch with HERALDlink
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald
Getting in touch with HERALDlink