Florida Democrats Sound the Alarm After 'Spanish-Language OAN' Buys Miami Radio Station, Fires Liberal Host

Raul Martinez was the kind of well-connected radio host based in a swing state who got major interviews during the 2020 campaign, like then-candidate Joe Biden, as well as Susan Rice and Alejandro Mayorkas, who eventually joined the new administration.

The former longtime Democratic mayor of Hialeah earned a "tells it like it is" reputation among his supporters for railing against corruption in Miami politics, and was a fan of giving nicknames to politicians he felt were doing a bad job, calling Governor Ron DeSantis, Ron Desastre, or disaster, for example.

But for a Democratic Party that suffered brutal defeats in Florida in November, he was also like water in the desert, one of the very few Democratic voices on air, who in recent months could be heard during rush hour explaining the lack of evidence for Trump's lie that he won the election, talking about "anti-immigrant" forces within the Republican Party trying to stop reform, and giving people details on how to get vaccinated.

But after three and a half years, that era is now over.

The Spanish-language network America CV, which owns América TeVé, exited bankruptcy court and announced it was buying Caracol 1260 AM last week. It replaced Martinez less than 48 hours later, even though he was the host of its top-rated show, "La Hora de Regreso." He was given the news in a 45-second phone call, and when he asked for a chance to say goodbye to his listeners he said he was told "no," that he was just an employee.

Florida Democrats, including Martinez, said his ouster was clear evidence that the new owners, who are still awaiting FCC approval for the acquisition, want to turn Caracol radio into a right-leaning station.

"When Republicans talk of cancel culture, you know why they're accusing Democrats and progressives?" Martinez told Newsweek. "Because they do it all the time."

"América TeVé is the OAN of Spanish-language networks," added Democratic strategist Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, referring to the right-leaning One America News network.

Fernand Amandi, the top consultant for Obama's Latino voter polling during both campaigns, told Newsweek an apt comparison for the Spanish-language network was Fox News or Sinclair, but said the loss of Martinez drive time radio show and replacement by América TeVé personality Juan Manuel Cao, was a blow to Democrats.

"It's like replacing Rachel Maddow with Tucker Carlson," Amandi said, referring to the high-profile MSNBC and Fox News anchors. "This is another expanding tentacle in the right-wing media ecosystem that is trying to implant itself in south Florida by having ideological control of the airwaves that Hispanic voters most listen to."

An América TeVé spokesperson told Newsweek the CEO would call back to address the firing of Martinez and claims by Democrats that it was politically motivated, but did not do so prior to publication.

But the network does have a history of sidelining talent amid accusations that it did so in order to influence election coverage. Pedro Sevcec, a well-respected veteran journalist who worked at América TeVé for a decade, said in a February interview in El Nuevo Herald that his departure from the network was not "voluntary" and that he was effectively excluded from election coverage.

He cited two instances of his pushback on guests on air—one against a guest who said the coronavirus was a creation of the media and another against a Republican who said Biden's win seemed fishy and reiterated Trump's baseless claim of election fraud.

América TeVé denied Sevcec's version of events to El Nuevo Herald and said his ouster was because his ratings dropped from 2016 to 2020.

The upheaval at Caracol 1260 AM is the latest evidence that Florida has become unfriendly terrain for Democrats who saw Trump win big in November, aided particularly by making big gains among Latino voters in Miami-Dade county. Democratic analysts have diagnosed problems with a fractured media ecosystem that makes it easy to spread disinformation on platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp, but have not yet come up with effective solutions.

Carlos Odio, an Obama administration alum and co-founder of Democratic research firm EquisLabs, called the Caracol sale "a problem" for the party. But he cast it as a continuation of decades of Miami Cuban radio and conservative-leaning print papers, "a very developed right-wing ecosystem operating only in Spanish," where disinformation such as the claim that Joe Biden is a socialist flows between closed circuits of information to mainstream media run by conservatives.

"You're not just seeing a wacky thing on WhatsApp but then looking up and seeing it validated across all of media," he told Newsweek.

América CV has announced that it will change the name of Caracol 1260 AM to América Radio. Representatives of the media company told El Nuevo Herald the acquisition is part of its strategy to amplify its reach to South Florida's Latino community and part of a "dream" to reach Cuba—which the station's signal is strong enough to do—and "to see her free very soon."

When Manny Diaz, the Cuban-American former mayor of Miami, took over in January as the new chair of the Florida Democratic Party, it was nearly $1 million in debt. But party officials told Newsweek that the debt has been cleared, and it has raised more than $2 million. They say it's now ready to tackle the challenges it faces, including reaching Latinos, and it can now begin expanding programs and staffing ahead of the midterm elections next year.

"A large component of that is in Hispanic outreach, especially in the South Florida area," Diaz told Newsweek. "This is my community, and as a Latino and a former elected leader in Miami, I am prepared to build an outreach program with nuanced messaging to the Latino community across the state that is unlike anything the party has done before."

While the Democratic Party has lost a radio voice with a large audience in Martinez, the host who served as mayor of Hialeah for nearly a quarter century, he said he's a fast learner, and will reemerge in a podcast and on YouTube and Facebook.

He had a one-word description for what listeners hear over the airwaves now in the local radio market.

"Conspiracy," Martinez said. "It's all about conspiracy."

And what about the future of the Democratic Party in Florida?

"Can we regain the state?" he asked. "I think we can, but it's gotta be all out war."

He said he shares simple but hard advice with those that ask him about getting into the fray of local Florida politics.

"Miami politics is like a knife fight in a dark alley," he tells them. "If you don't understand that, don't get involved."

The strategist Pérez-Verdía was among those who told Newsweek that Democrats should push back forcibly on the Caracol acquisition, but said in general the party should be doing more to respond to November's losses.

"I'm very concerned," she said. "We should have started. That's the point."

To her the warning is clear.

"We stop," Pérez-Verdía said. "They never stop."

raul martinez
Former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez speaks at his home with Presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) during a luncheon September 10, 2007 in Hialeah, Florida. Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images