New Year’s Day 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.
The history books cite January 1, 1959; the day American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Havana, as the date of regime change. The revolution had actually taken shape over the previous two years, under the leadership of Che Guevara, and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, in the mountains of central Cuba.
Che Guevara was executed in Bolivia in 1967. Batista died in 1973. In 2006, Fidel Castro transferred his power as president of Cuba to his brother. Rumors indicate his health is failing, or that he may already have died.
One other player in the Cuban Revolution survives: Che Guevara’s radio station, Radio Rebelde.
Che Guevara was aware of the power radio had to spread information. In the summer of 1958, he put a clandestine short wave station on the air, named it Radio Rebelde (“rebel radio”), and broadcast the revolution’s message to the people of Cuba from his mountain hideout.
The website of Pate Pluma Radio has a detailed two-part account of Rebelde’s role in the Cuban Revolution. YouTube has a short video clip of Che Guevara speaking over Rebelde in 1958.
Rebelde evolved into a domestic music-news-sports service. Today, it’s on 96.7 FM throughout Cuba, and on several AM frequencies that can be heard in the southeastern United States. It’s also on 5.025 megahertz, in the tropical short wave band.
The tropical band is so named because broadcasters in Central and South America use frequencies between roughly 4.5 and 5 megahertz for reliable long-distance transmission of domestic services. One short wave station can better cover remote parts of a country than a network of low-power AM or FM stations.
On most nights, Rebelde puts a very listenable signal into Michigan. It can be easily heard on newer, more sensitive, short wave radios without the need for an external long wire antenna.
Rebelde’s appeal, at this distance, is its role as a national Cuban domestic service. I can listen to the same stuff anyone cruising Havana with the car radio tuned to 96.7 hears. Its mix of pop music, news headlines on the hour, interviews, and sports, give it the sound North American full-service stations, all long gone, had in the 60s and 70s.
I recognize a few words of Spanish. Other Spanish words are almost the same as their French equivalents. It’s not necessary, however, to understand every word on a local radio station. The sound of its music, how its announcers speak, its liners and slogans, and station IDs, also paint a picture of everyday life in a foreign country.
Rebelde gives the impression that everyday life in Cuba isn’t as different from Michigan’s as one might think. People in both places go to work, come home, listen to dance music, party on weekends, and go to baseball games. The big differences are that, there, it’s warm all the time, and that a Castro brother runs the country.
Rebelde also serves as a subtle, but powerful, reminder of the importance of separating a country’s people from the policies of its government.
Anyone who grew up on North American top 40 radio will like “Memorias,” on Sunday from 6 to 9 AM North American Eastern time (1100-1400 UTC). Music from pre-war rumbas and boleros to Cuban garage rock may be heard. Cuba, we were told during the Cold War, was the source of everything evil. But bands there liked the Rolling Stones well enough to copy them. So how bad a place could it have been?
“Memorias,” and the other music shows on Rebelde, are also a form of radio irony. Popular music, old or new, is as mainstream as it gets. Yet the station started as the voice of a revolution.
In the wee hours of one summer morning, I heard “Copacabana.” Barry Manilow, singing the English version of a song about the New York night club that was once the hottest spot north of Havana. The hot spots in Havana, and their links to the Batista regime and American organized crime, being a primary reason for the Cuban revolution. Life imitated art, on Radio Rebelde. I rolled a tape.
On the aircheck, the irony is again there in Rebelde’s primary slogan, as it celebrates 50 years on the air: “la emisora (radio station) de la revolución.”