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Martha Flores, Fidel's unflinching foe

For 40 years, she has been the diehard voice of Cuban exile politics in Miami. Now, even her son thinks like an American. But she can understand why.

Just about every fight you've ever had with your mother about Cuban politics has begun with "Martha Flores says . . ."

Martha is the nasal voice of right-wing rabidity, the queen of AM radio diatribe, the woman who has spent the past 40 years stuck in the same tired groove about Fidel.

It's so tired that even suggesting it's tired is way tired.

Martha was that disembodied chatter that lived with you in Little Havana, the patriotic medicine you were forced to swallow every single night. When she wasn't going off on another Castro infiltrator, she was going on about the latest local politico who managed to tuck her in his pocket.

Now here she is sitting across the table from you at the Latin American on 27th and 27th.

There's a word in Spanish for what she is.

Una dama. A lady.

You can't help it. You like Martha.

The hair is a perfect pouf of Mature Cuban Lady Red, fresh from the peluqueria, the Cuban beauty parlor. The nails a glossy burgundy, with those little silver half-moons only a Cuban manicuri could have painted.

You had braced for an ideological scuffle, looked forward to it, really.

But Martha disarms you instantly.

You toss out two of your greatest sins: the Cuban cliches. You've left American dollars in Havana. You've been to all those shows by musicians from the island.

"I can't expect your generation to see things my way," she says with the sweetness of a Cuban aunt. "I have a son who is 38. I can't expect my son, for all that he loves his mother's homeland, to think the way I think. My son thinks like an American. He thinks Castro should fall only when the people inside the island manage to topple him. He's always saying, "Why should this country have to get involved in that fight?' But he's my son. I understand him. I understand your generation."

It's a generation that doesn't bother tuning in to Martha's show. But then again, Martha has never uttered such a moderate thought in 40 years.

"Ever since I came to Miami on Jan. 17, 1959, I've been fighting Castro on the radio. That has been my trajectory since the beginning. I'm not going to change it. But I know it's natural for you to think the way you do. My son rejects anything that sounds like Latin American politics. Your generation grew up in a different system from ours. But I think it's just a different way to see the Cuba problem. I think in the end, we all agree."

She wants to know what made you visit the island. To see your father after a 25-year separation, you tell her.

"I would have done the same thing," she says softly. "I would have gone, too, if I were you."

Can you be coming to terms with Martha Flores over garbanzos and tostones?

She's one of those diehard exiles, the kind who would never, ever think of setting foot in Cuba while Castro's still in power, no matter how much she yearns to see her homeland again.

"I can absolutely justify why you went. But frankly, if you told me your mother went, that I wouldn't understand."

She wouldn't go in a million years. And something Martha says makes you get it on a whole new level.

"I wouldn't have the valor to see Cuba again."

Sure, there's the political stand to take. But could it be politics as defense mechanism? What if going back robbed you of the last thing you had left: your memories of the past?

"To go back and confront the reality, that there's nothing left for you in Cuba, that's the hardest part. My son is here. My mother and father are buried here. I have lived longer here than I lived there."

It's been such a long exile, Martha's generation now speaks of Miami the way it speaks of Cuba, in the longing terms of days gone by.

"When I moved here, you could sleep at night with the windows open. You could walk down Biscayne Boulevard on a Sunday afternoon and not be afraid of anything. The viejitos (the seniors) still had their dances on Ocean Drive. We were a lot more united then as exiles. Everybody militated for the cause. The people who come from Cuba now, they don't want to know about politics. I understand that, too. They've spent 40 years oppressed by politics. But it's just not the same anymore."

Militating for a free Cuba has been Martha's reason for being most of her life. In Cuba, she studied broadcasting and secretarial skills. Her father didn't think radio was the right job for a nice girl. So she worked as administrative assistant to this businessman and that. When she arrived in Miami, her first stop was the only radio station in town that carried Spanish-language programming, WMIA.

"I brought a portfolio filled with degrees, because I managed to get all of my diplomas out of Cuba. That Americano let me talk and talk. And at the end he said, "I'll sell you a space, 15 minutes per day, for $87.50 a week.' Imagine, I had just arrived from Cuba. I didn't have $87.50 a week. But something made me take it."

She worked four jobs, enough to survive on and still pay for the radio show. There was the clothing store in downtown Miami, the garage where she kept the books, the furniture store on Calle Ocho, where she sold exiles their first couches and dining room tables, the Spanish restaurant where she sang.

"I was the first woman on that radio station. My show was Program of Orientation and Combat Against Castro and International Communism. I only talked about politics. It was the Cuba problem, the Cuba problem and the Cuba problem."

She did that for seven years before moving on to La Fabulosa, Union Radio, WRHC-Cadena Azul, WQBA and, now, Radio Mambi.

It's still all about the Cuba problem, though often, it's also about Miami. Lately, Martha has been campaigning for the penny tax for transportation. She happens to be a big fan of Metro-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who's pushing for the penny.

Isn't he kind of a moderate when it comes to Cuban politics? you ask Martha.

"Yes, but I like him."

Not that when it comes to Cuba, Martha is ready to concede even an inch.

"I know it's been 40 years and everything remains the same. But hope is the last thing you lose. Miami has changed a lot, but go spend some time in the parking lot of Versailles. People there are still trying to fix Cuba, just like they did in the '60s."