Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Cuban is at home in two worlds

A Cuban is at home in two worlds
Posted on Mon, Dec. 24, 2007
Associated Press Writer

He fled Cuba in 1961, but still calls Fidel Castro his friend. He can't
stand communism, but bitterly opposes the U.S. embargo. He lives in
Miami, but travels regularly to Havana, even appearing on state-run

Max Lesnik always has an opinion, and often makes someone mad - no
matter which side of the Florida Straits he's on.

"It's always been up to me to be critical. I've always been with the
opposition, not with one government or the other," says Lesnik, a Cuban
revolutionary-turned-South Florida radio commentator, in an interview
with The Associated Press.

"I don't talk out of both sides of my mouth," he adds. "What I say here,
I say in Miami. What I say in Miami, I say here."

'Here' is the sixth-floor executive lounge of Havana's iconic Hotel
Nacional. Lesnik slouches in an armchair by a window overlooking
sparkling Caribbean waters when his cell phone rings. He laughs, then
hangs up.

"The deputy director of my radio program says there's a rumor going
around in Miami that I had an accident and I've gotten killed," he
explains. "I just said, 'Don't deny anything. Say you don't know if I'm
in the hospital, or what. See what happens.'"

There have often been questions about the well-being of Lesnik, now 76.
Arriving in Miami nearly 47 years ago, he spent close to two decades
publishing "Replica," a Spanish-language magazine whose offices in
Little Havana were bombed 11 times, allegedly by anti-Castro hard-liners
in the Cuban exile community who opposed his calls to do away with the
American embargo.

Lesnik's life and politics are chronicled in "The Man of Two Havanas," a
documentary directed by his 45-year-old youngest daughter, Vivien Lesnik
Weisman, which screened this month at the New Latin American Cinema

Shot over 2 1/2 years in Havana, the Cuban capital, and Little Havana,
the Miami Cuban district, the film tells of Lesnik's political activism,
friendship with Castro, and early efforts to generate revolutionary
propaganda when the bearded rebels took to the mountains of eastern Cuba.

Lesnik hosted a Cuban radio program after Castro's forces toppled
dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, but became disillusioned as Cuba
deepened ties with Soviet Union. He finally declared on the air that he
was no communist, and motored to the United States in January 1961
aboard a small boat with 13 other former rebel collaborators. His wife
and two daughters arrived two months later.

Lesnik founded "Replica" in his Miami garage in 1968, gaining readers
and detractors as he proclaimed his continued fondness for Castro.

"He was a fighter who ended up selling himself to Castroism," said Huber
Matos, a former officer in Castro's rebel army who eventually quit, was
charged with treason and spent 22 years in prison before seeking exile
in the United States.

In a telephone interview from Miami, Matos said he and many other Cuban
exiles have "zero respect for Max Lesnik."

"The Man of Two Havanas" includes footage of a U.S. television interview
where Lesnik shows off the pistol he once carried for protection. His
daughter recalls on-screen how he always sat facing the windows in
Florida restaurants to spot would-be attackers.

Though now a U.S. resident, Lesnik retains his Cuban passport. He first
returned to the island in 1978, and began visiting about three times a
year after the Soviet Union collapsed. Both he and his daughter go as
journalists and therefore do not require special U.S. permission.

Lesnik formally patched things up with Castro, and met many times with
him - though he has not seen the Cuban leader since he underwent
emergency intestinal surgery and ceded power to his younger brother Raul
in July 2006.

Vivien Lesnik Weisman was supposed to have dinner with her father and
Castro in 1996, but had to return to the U.S. when her then husband was
hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer. Castro later used Lesnik's cell
phone to call her.

"I remember he made a joke saying U.S. intelligence is now trying to
figure out what the code word 'ulcer' means," said the filmmaker, who
returned to Havana with her father for the documentary's debut.

The elder Lesnik has become increasingly friendly with Cuban officialdom
in recent years. He won a Cuban journalism prize this summer, and has
appeared on state television's leading news talk show.

Lesnik makes no apologies, noting that he defended the Cuban exile
community during one such appearance.

"I said it may look like Miami is a slave to the extreme right ... but
deep down there is a current of tolerance and support for differing
opinions," Lesnik said. "If it were unanimous in Miami, I couldn't live

His daughter, still shopping for U.S. distributors, hopes her
documentary will be shown at the Miami International Film Festival in
February. That might enrage some exiles, she says, but "I think it's a
dialogue Miami's ready to have."

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