Francisco Gonzalez Aruca, founder of Marazul travel agency and radio commentator, dies at 72

Francisco Gonzalez Aruca, the Miami radio commentator and Marazul travel agency founder who escaped from a Fidel Castro prison and went into exile but returned to Cuba 15 years later as a supporter, has died at the age of 72.

Aruca received death threats and had to hire bodyguards in the 1980s when he was one of the few public voices in Miami providing favorable commentary on events in Cuba and advocating normalizing U.S. relations with Havana.

“Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know,” said fellow Cuba travel agency operator Vivian Mannerud. “It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”

A note published Monday in Progreso Weekly, a Web page about Cuba launched by Aruca, said he died from a heart attack Wednesday in Denver, where he had moved several years ago to be closer to his children and grandchildren.

The note added that his son Daniel, in an email to Progreso Weekly editor Alvaro Fernandez, recalled some words from his father. “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”

Aruca often credited his Jesuit education from the age of 11 for both his decision to oppose the Castro revolution in 1959 and 1960 and to support it 15 years later as a well-meaning if flawed experiment in socialism and nationalism.

Jesuits at the Belen High School in Havana taught him that communism was “intrinsically perverse,” Aruca noted in a 2008 interview. So when Castro moved toward communism in 1959, he joined the anti-Castro People’s Revolutionary Movement as a propagandist.

The 20-year-old was arrested after a few months for designing pamphlets and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but escaped from the notorious La Cabaña prison by taking advantage of his slight build and baby face. He shaved his arms, cut his hair short, and during a visitors’ day he passed himself off as the son of a prisoner and walked out.

Aruca took refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Havana and spent 18 months there until Cuban authorities gave him permission to leave. His Jesuit connections later helped him enroll at the Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington while working as a bellboy.

His studies in economics made him more open to socialism, Aruca said in the 2008 interview, and together with the Vietnam War and civil-rights movement of the late 1960s propelled him toward a rapprochement with Cuba after he graduated in 1967.

Aruca taught economics in Virginia and later in Puerto Rico, and in 1974 joined other young Cuban-Americans in founding the magazine Areito, which called for ending U.S. sanctions on Cuba and received several prizes from Havana’s cultural agencies.

Aruca returned to Cuba in 1975 and three years later joined the so-called “dialogue” between exiles and the government that led to the release of more than 3,000 political prisoners and Havana’s decision for the first time to allow exiles to visit the island.

In 1979, he founded Marazul to handle the exiles’ travel and in 1986 moved from Puerto Rico to Miami to supervise his booming business, which like all the other Cuba travel agencies required the approval of Havana authorities.

“I don’t get into the business just for money. I get into the business fundamentally looking to forge a normal relation” with Cuba, he said in the 2008 chat with Edmundo García, his co-host in the radio programs The Night Moves and The Afternoon Moves.

“He was brave to confront a reactionary community that threatened bombs and bullets,” said García. He noted that Aruca remained a majority partner in Marazul after he moved to Denver but distanced himself from the day-to-day running of the company.

Anti-Castro Miami radio commentator Ninoska Perez had a different view. Aruca “was a businessman who, for a slice of the Cuba travel business, dedicated his life to defending the Cuban dictatorship,” she said.

Aruca founded the morning program Radio Progresso in 1991 and regularly attacked — on air and in letters to the editor —what he saw as The Miami Herald’s and el Nuevo Herald’s biased coverage of Cuba.

His “voice on the Miami radio represented an alternative to the mediocrities that prevail in a city prostituted by corruption, hatred and lack of common sense,” said fellow Miami radio commentator Max Lesnik.

There was at least one plot by radical exiles to bomb his offices and perhaps kill him in the early 1990s, but one of the plotters alerted authorities, according to police officials who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the case.

Aruca is survived by his wife of 45 years, Ann, as well as children Daniel, Michele and Debby and three grandchildren.

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