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Latin America Report

The controversial sale of Miami's Radio Caracol halts — but the controversy doesn't

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Radio Caracol

Cuban and Latino Democrats scored a rare victory in their effort to counter right-wing Spanish-language radio in Miami. But is it really the win they hope for?

WSUA, known as Radio Caracol, isn’t Miami’s largest or top-rated Spanish-language radio station. But in the past year, Caracol (1260 AM) has gotten outsized attention as the target of an attempted purchase that’s heightened the bitter political rift inside Miami’s Cuban and Latino community.

This month that sale of Radio Caracol unexpectedly fell through. But it’s far from certain if this marks the end of the dispute — which started a year ago this month when Caracol fired popular talk show host Raul Martinez.

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“I stepped on too many toes,” Martinez told me then. “But the way they shut me off, they don’t want the truth in our community.”

Martinez is a Democrat and the former Mayor of Hialeah. He was dumped at the same time the América CV network announced its bid to buy Caracol. One of América CV’s co-founders is conservative Miami attorney Marcell Felipe. Both he and Martinez are Cuban exiles — and they’re serious political foes.

Felipe denied he pressured Caracol to fire Martinez, as he told me at the time:

“This is a fabricated crisis … It’s a false narrative.”

READ MORE: Why the sale of a Miami radio station has set off a national alarm for Democrats

Radio Caracol is one of the few Spanish-language stations in Miami that doesn’t have a conservative, pro-Republican agenda. So Democrats saw Martinez’s ouster as an omen that Felipe and América CV would make Caracol another right-wing outlet — one, they argued, that would air the kind of right-wing disinformation so many Spanish-language stations here have been cited for in reports, including the lie that former President Trump lost the 2020 election because of voter fraud, or the aggressive promotion of widely discredited COVID-19 treatments such as ivermectin.

“I looked at this absurdity that goes on in Hispanic media and I said, ‘No, enough is enough,’ ” said Democratic lobbyist and former Miami Congressman Joe Garcia. He too is Cuban American — and there is no love lost between him and Felipe, either.

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Pedro Portal
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Miami Herald
Marcell Felipe

Felipe insisted that was not his or América CV's plan for Radio Caracol. In any case, it seemed highly doubtful the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would step in and scrutinize the proposed Caracol sale simply because Democrats objected to the political content the station might broadcast under new ownership. Just about every media law expert agreed that would raise serious First Amendment issues.

But Garcia saw another way into the fracas. He filed an objection to the Radio Caracol sale with the FCC that pointed out an apparent discrepancy in the application for Caracol’s license that potentially violated FCC rules.

The purchase application suggested the buyer was Felipe and a trust he controls, ATV Holdings. But América CV’s CEO, Spanish businessman Carlos Vasallo, signed it — and he did so live on América TeVé, the conservative Spanish-language TV station América CV owns in Hialeah.

“I’m buying Caracol,” Vasallo said in an April 2021 América TeVé broadcast.

The Caracol sale ended because the guys who wanted to buy the station couldn't answer basic questions required for the responsible operation of broadcasting.
Joe Garcia

Garcia argues that proves Felipe and Vasallo were misrepresenting who’s really buying Radio Caracol.

“What it showed,” Garcia said, “is that they can’t even answer basic questions that are required for the responsible operation of broadcasting.”

And that turns out to be an FCC issue.

Felipe and Vasallo did not answer WLRN’s requests for a response. Last year, they insisted to the FCC that their Caracol application was not misleading. But the FCC directed them to answer the questions Garcia raised. Instead, this month the application was withdrawn by Caracol and subsequently dismissed by the FCC.

UNAUTHORIZED CONTROL?

But even if, for now, neither Felipe nor Vasallo and América CV are Radio Caracol’s buyers — are they nonetheless the station’s operators?

“That’s another question for the FCC,” said Jose Parra, who heads the communications firm Prospero Latino in Miami, which frequently monitors Spanish-language media.

Parra, like Garcia, points out Caracol has moved its operations to América CV’s facilities in Hialeah — and that América CV put its archconservative talk show host Juan Manuel Cao in Caracol’s important afternoon slot.

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Roberto Koltun
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El Nuevo Herald
Former Miami Congressman Joe Garcia

FCC records don’t show, as rules require, that América CV is operating Caracol or renting air time from its current ownership (which itself seems a matter of confusion, though at the moment it appears to be Grupo Latino de Radio, the U.S. subsidiary of PRISA Radio based in Spain). If it is, Parra says the FCC will likely be asked now to look into that arrangement.

“This would be an end run around having a license, because you still get control over programming,” said Parra, who like many Latino Democrats complains the FCC has for too long let Spanish-language radio and television outlets fly under the scrutiny it applies to English-language broadcasters. (The FCC denies that charge.)

“At some point here [Felipe and Vasallo] are crossing the line — taking unauthorized transfer of control” of the station, said Arthur Belendiuk, a Washington D.C. attorney who represented Garcia in his FCC complaint.

In response to a WLRN query, the FCC would not comment on whether it is now scrutinizing Caracol's operation.

Either way, the Radio Caracol battle reflects a larger fissure in the Cuban community — on U.S. politics but also on whether to engage or isolate communist Cuba. Felipe made it clear last year, for example, that he envisioned Caracol as a radio version of América TeVé, a voice for the community’s majority pro-isolation cohort.

But the other side of the Cuban discussion argues the virtual broadcast monopoly that majority holds makes it too easy for more moderate Cuban voices here to be at best drowned out — and at worst demonized as “comunistas.”

Cuban-American author Carmen Pelaez’s new play “The Cuban Vote” opens this month in Miami Beach, and she says it deals in part with media message-control feuds like the Caracol quarrel.

“What’s important here is not only that non-Cubans understand this fissure is real, that the diversity of opinion in our community is real — but that Cubans know it,” Pelaez said, “because unless we have real conversations from all perspectives, we’re only hurting ourselves.”

It’s not clear who, if anyone, will buy Radio Caracol now, or if Felipe and Vasallo will make another, revised attempt. But the problem for more moderate Cubans and Latino Democrats is this: There don’t seem to be a lot of liberals or even moderates who want to purchase Spanish-language radio stations.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.