Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Man of Two Havanas


By Ciro Bianchi Ross

Max Lesnik, director of Radio Miami, is convinced that Americans do not understand Cuba because they don’t know it. He advocates for the lifting of the blockade and for the fact that Cubans inside and outside the Island become one nation. These are not his feelings only. He knows that many of his compatriots want a change in Washington’s policy towards Havana, even when they don’t say it.

He’s considered a man of the two Havanas and with this title his daughter, Vivian Lesnik, made a wonderful documentary in which she tells the story of his life: his stay at the University, where he made friends with Fidel Castro whom he hid in his house during two weeks to save his life; his enrollment in the Orthodox Party, that of Eduardo Chibás, who devoted his life to clean up the administrative and political systems; his opposition to Batista, his connections with the guerrilla in the mountains of Escambray, the joy for the triumph of the Revolution and his later disagreement, his clandestine departure from Cuba after his stay in an embassy, the exile...

Max Lesnik has lived in Miami for 45 years and there, in a hostile environment, he advocates for the lifting of the American bloackade against Cuba and for the fact that Cubans inside and outside the Island become one nation and follow the same principles. These are not his feeling only. He knows that many of his compatritos want a change in Washington’s policy towards Havana, even when they don’t say it.

With an ethical verticality and an unyielding patriotic commitment, Lesnik has advocated for these changes first in his magazine Réplica, destroyed by bombs; in Channel 23 where he had an opinion program, and more recently in Radio Miami where, in a combative and humorous column signed by pseudonym El Duende, he talks about the daily life of the Cuban community in the United States.

“Having left Cuba is not a sin”, he says. And stresses: “What matters is your attitute once you’re out of your country”. He doesn’t like to talk about a Cuban political exile -a term that was valid for Batista’s followers- but about an economic emigration. And he’s convinced that that work of rapprochement he is trying to do between the two Havanas can only be done from the other side.

“If Americans come to Cuba they could know Cuba. They don’t understand it because they don’t know it. Since the beginning of the confrontation between Washington and Havana, hundreds of senators, representatives, mayors, governors...have visited the Island and have learned the Cuban perspective. Once they listen to the Cuban side of the story, they understand it. Even when some are discreet in their statements and comments, they recognize that Cuba’s right too. It’s obvious that in order to challenge the wrong policy of the United States towards Cuba you have to be in the U.S. I know that reality because I’ve lived it. And, all they way around. I know this one because Cuba is my country. I was born here and I come here quite often.”

Actually, Max Lesnik has come to Cuba many times, since that first visit in 1978. From January to August, 2007, he has visited the Island for times. One visit was to present, in a private exhibition, the documentary El hombre de las dos Habanas; another one was to receive the Félix Elmuza award given to him by the Unión de Periodistas de Cuba. He recently came to be present at the ceremony to commemorate the centenary of Eduardo Chibás’ birth. When seen, many people say that it seems Max Lesnik never left Cuba.

In that first visit, president Fidel Castro asked him the reasons why he left the country. Before answering, Lesnik asked the head of state how he had to call him: President, Commander...

-For you –the leader said- I’m still Fidel.


We met at the bar of hotel Florida, in Obispo street, a key place of Old Havana. I grew up in this zone, Lesnik said. He looked outside through the glass of the door and added: As journalist Luis Ortega says, thanks to Eusebio Leal, today we have an Old Havana not even Lezama Lima would have dreamed about. I ordered an espresso for me and he chose a decaf. He mentioned that El hombre de las dos Habanas, of Vivian Lesnik, got an excellent reception at the movie festival that actor Robert De Niro sponsors in New York. He also said that the documentary will be shown in Havana in the coming International Festival of New Latin American Cinema next December.

-El hombre de las dos Habanas is an ingenious phrase and a wonderful title. But, are there two Havanas, actually?

-Yes, there are, and their views about Cuba and the world are completely different. The idea of the two is related to the 30s when due to the amount of Italian emigrés people talked about little Italy in New York. It’s not about comparing the little Havana over there with the great Havana here. The one on the other side is limited to an specific zone of the southern part of Miami but strong in economic terms; for political reasons, it affects the fate of all Cubans –inside and outside the Island- and has led the American government to follow a failed policy towards Cuba still in force by the politicians of that Little Havana and the influence they have thanks to the current electoral system. Undoubtedly, there are two Havanas. The one in here, increasingly open to the world and the one on the other side which we expect to be smaller every time.

I was born in this Havana and I live in the little Havana of Miami. I spend time between one and the other looking for the best relations between both Havanas and trying to make Cubans inside and outside to be one nation and follow the same principles, and this, of course, depends on the solution to the dispute between Cuba and the United States.

- Are you alone on this? ¿Are you the only voice?

- Voices that reflect others’ opinions have always been there and I wouldn’t say most exiles share my feelings but there’re many Cubans that think the same way. When the enemy refers to our presence in Miami, this means that what we say matters and that we’re not alone. I have no personal ambitions, I don’t hope for anything in the United States. We just want the American policy towards Cuba to be changed and we count on the support of many compatriots.

-How do you deal with the adverse atmosphere and the threats of the most radical wing of the exile? Aren’t you afraid?

-I live with all these. I’m used to all kinds of pressures. Since those times in which magazine Réplica was pusblished we earned a great deal of hostility of the irrational Right of Miami. It made our publications the targed of several terrorist attacks. We’re lucky to be still alive. But, being afraid...fear is so human that everybody experiences it. But you get used to be in danger and you live it, but not because of courage but because you get used to it. At first you don’t pay attention to threats, then you forget them and fear vanishes.

Lesnik added that, like his generation, he grew up in risk and lived in hostility. He was only three when, in November 1933, during Grau San Martín’s first term of office, he heard from his house, near the Palacio Presidencial, the night bombing of the executive and in the next morning the shots and the rejoicing of the counterrevolution that wanted to take control of the Palace and eliminate or arrest the President. Years later, while still a child, when Grau founded the Partido Auténtico, he was a pioneer of this political organization. He lived –while studing at the university-the gangsterism and opposed Batista. His journalistic work in magazine Bohemia as well as in radio station Cadema Oriental de Radio was characterized by his open political oppposition against Batista’s dictatorship until the moment he joined the II Frente Nacional del Escambray.

- I could say I’m immune. I can say I was really concerned for what could have happened to my wife Miriam and the girls due to my behavior in Miami. When the girls were younger we always told them not to leave school with anybody but us, to reject anybody’s company even when they migh have seen that person at home. One afternooon we went to pick Vivian up and she was not at school. Luciano Nieves, a former captain of the Rebel Army where he had served as an assistant to Commander Camilo Cienfuegos, had picked her up to make us a favor. Nothing happened that day but four days later, Nieves, who was trying to get closer to the Cuban government, was a dead body. He had gone to visit his son, who had been hospitalized, and on his way to his car he was shot in back.

When the Revolution triumphed Lesnik went back to work at a radio station. One day he said in his programme that he wasn’t an imperialist or a communist because he did not want to and when he left the studio the radio operator warned him that he would turn microphones off if he said something like that again. Lesnik decided not to return to that radio programme. It was the time in which the Organizaciones Revolucionarias Integradas (ORI) –the later Partido Unido de la Revolución Socialista (PURS) to finally become the current Partido Comunista de Cuba that would gather all revolutionary organizations- was being founded. The II Frente was also welcomed to join but that group decided to dissolve itself and, in a manifesto written by the very same Lesnik, allowed its members to choose the political path they wanted. Lesnik spend sometime at the embassy of Brazil not as a refugee but as a guest of the ambassador. Later, he left the island in a boat, clandestinely.

- I told Fidel that I did it because I was in disagreement with the course of the Revolution with regards to the policy towards the Soviet Union. I did not tell him I was against the death penalty. It’s a matter of principles. But to agree or disagree with something like this is not the main thing. No matter how much I try but I do know there are some crimes that deserve such penalty. By the way, when I told Fidel about the close relations with Moscow he told me: Had you been there, you would have done the same.

-Now that time has passed, do you regret having left the Island?

-Yes and not. I think nobody should leave his country and there’s nothing that could justify such an action, especially now. I did in a moment in which political reasons led me to do it. The exile is not new in the Cuban history. The exile is not a sin. What matters is your attitute once you’re out of your country.

-Do you consider yourself an exile now?

-No. The exile has changed a lot. It was a political exile but circumstances changed and now there’s an economic migration. Except for the case of Batista followers and some others, we can’t talk about a political exile. For those, the term was ok. Others, the majority, who did not leave the Island for political reasons, speak of an exile too. They talk about living in exile as if they were using a geographic term, the “portable homeland” Luis Ortega mentions. I, as a man of the two Havanas, don’t think of myself as an exile. A man that spends time between the two Havanas and who hopes that all Cubans, those here and those there, could do the same, is not an exile.

In the ceremony in which the Unión de Periodistas de Cuba gave Max Lesnik the Félix Elmuza award, Dr. Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban parliament, described him as a great patriot and journalist, an example to be followed by the press professionals. Alarcón made emphasis on his contribution to free the five Cuban antiterrorists imprisoned in the United States and to put an end to the blockade against the Island.

-What are the similarities and the differences between the journalism you practiced in Cuba and the one you practice in Miami?

-My eagerness as a young orthodox fighter against Batista’s dictatorship led me to the current battle I wage today. I’ve always been the same, a rebel, before and after the coup led by Batista on March 10, 1952. I’ve always been in the opposition. While I lived in Cuba, I was consistent with the position I defended in the radio programme I had in Cadena Oriental de Radio and my journalistic works for magazine Bohemia. If we were to read those articles and listen to those recordings now, we would see the author is the same man that directed magazine Réplica, kept his show on Channel 23 and writes his column El Duende nowadays.

-Why El Duende, a character that’s dead, as it’s pointed out everyday? Why not Max Lesnik, openly? Is this a way to evade your responsibilities?

-The dead live forever. El Duende is a ghost that live in a cold grave. When I left Cuba, El Duende was with me. En San Antonio de Vueltas, the town where I was born and belongs today to Camajuaní municipality, in the province of Villa Clara in the central part of the Island, a newspaper titled Jalisco was published...A goblin wrote for the paper and it said everything the others didn’t. I remembered that character and I revived it. He’s under my control but there are too many people now. There are goblins in Madrid, Washington and New York, Havana...even in El Nuevo Herald a goblin is infiltrated. It has reproduced itself, like the amebas. There are too many goblins now but that does not evade my responsibilities. I assume them in legal, personal and moral terms. The thing is that El Duende, with its impersonal and sometimes timeless comments, gives certain easiness and expressive freedom - I can even use jokes- I can’t have or use when in Radio Miami I make te commentary of Réplica.

-How do you see the provisional status of Raúl Castro?

-Raúl is a man that was in all battles: the University, the Moncada, the Granma, the Sierra Maestra, the Rebel Army. He is a wonderful organizer. He has demonstrated it with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. His current responsibility is not something he has inherited, it’s due to a constitutional mandate. He was given something he had no choice but to accept. However, he knows his mandate is limited by time and that there’s a new generation on its way.

-What critics would you make to the Revolution?

-To criticize for the sake of doing it is senseless. I think the imperative now is to change the United States’ policy towards Cuba. When it’s changed, any reform could be analized if it doesn’t put the Cuban process at risk. As long as Washington hangs over the fate of Cuba any transformation could become an open door for the enemy.

-You began your political life quite young; with only 21 you were the general secretary of the Juventud Ortodoxa. You had, for sure, a promising future in politics. The triumph of the Revolution put an end to any possibility you migh have had in that sense. Do you see this as a frustration?

-I never had political ambitions. I did have political aspirations. In order to see a political dream come true it’s necessary to seize power and the presidency of the Republic is the greatest ambition of all politicians. But to yearn to be the president of the Republic goes beyong being it and I was always convinced that my hard-to-pronounce-name would be against me in a nomination. To be honest, I would have liked to be Prime Minister in a parliamentary regime not in a presidential one, as the Cuban was. A prime minister with my name was possible in Cuba; a president, never.


September 10, 2007

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