Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cuban revolutionary Max Lesnik fights on in Miami

Tuesday December 30, 2008
Cuban revolutionary Max Lesnik fights on in Miami
By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - He helped his friend Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba
on Jan. 1, 1959, and half a century later Max Lesnik is still fighting.

Lesnik ran a rebel propaganda network and served as a head of
clandestine operations in Havana during the revolution, but he quickly
became disenchanted as Castro forged ties with the Soviet Union and he
fled for Miami in 1961 in a small boat packed with other former
guerrilla collaborators.

Even after moving to Miami, however, Lesnik kept his rebellious streak
and he has been the target of violent attacks by anti-Castro hard-liners
in the Cuban exile community.

"I've always been very independent. I said the Cuban Revolution had to
be carried out without either Washington or Moscow," Lesnik, 77, told
Reuters in an interview last week.

He founded a popular magazine called Replica and used it to espouse his
opinions about Cuba and U.S. policy toward the island, which this week
celebrates the revolution's 50th anniversary.

Lesnik has sometimes praised Castro, who handed power to his brother
Raul Castro this year after falling ill, and he has repeatedly called
for an end to the U.S. trade embargo against Havana.

Fidel Castro once considered Lesnik a traitor but the two men smoothed
over their differences and Cuba's government now sees him as a useful
former odd man out on the home turf of its most strident enemies.

Replica's offices in Miami's Little Havana district were bombed 11
times, mostly in the mid-1970s during a period of political violence
that saw drive-by shootings, car bombings and the downing of a Cuban
airliner that killed 73 people.

One of Lesnik's closest friends, Luciano Nieves, was among the victims
of the violence, which he blames on "CIA-created monsters" who targeted
perceived Castro sympathizers.

Lesnik was eventually forced to shut down Replica in the early 1980s in
the face of death threats to himself, his advertisers and businesses
that carried the magazine. But he refused to be silenced, and still
works as a Spanish-language radio commentator with an audience across
South Florida.

Lesnik belonged to the same left-leaning Cuban People's Party as Castro
before the revolution. He says he never fired a shot but braved bombs
dropped by dictator Fulgencio Batista's air force in frequent visits to
rebel-held positions in the Escambray mountains during the conflict.

Unhappy with Castro's alliance with the Soviet Union, he declared he
wasn't a communist on a radio program he ran in Cuba just before fleeing
into exile.

Lesnik called his adopted home a "hell" in a documentary about his life
that was released last year and directed by his daughter Vivien Lesnik
Weisman. In the film, "The Man of Two Havanas," he says Miami is a place
"where terrorists are heroes" and "political assassination is regarded
as heroic."


During the Cold War, when Cuba was an outpost of the Soviet empire just
90 miles (145 km) from Florida, a majority of Americans agreed with a
hard line on a communist government that violates human rights and holds
political prisoners.

Attitudes have changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however,
even in Miami. A recent poll showed for the first time that most
Cuban-Americans in Florida now favor lifting the economic embargo
imposed in 1962.

Lesnik puts it down to a generational change with younger
Cuban-Americans more concerned with domestic issues like the U.S.
economy than with the political situation in Cuba.

He says the poll also highlights resentment over the restrictions on
travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans imposed in 2004 by President George W.
Bush to toughen the embargo.

"I'm not going to tell you that people have changed opinion or suddenly
changed into being pro-Castro," he said. "It's not an ideological
change, it's humanitarian. The right wing has become an obstacle to
reconciliation of the Cuban family."

Lesnik says it is only by lifting the embargo, which critics say has
given the Cuban government its best excuse for the revolution's
failures, that the United States can help open the door to real change
in Cuba.

He says economic and social problems have fueled a lot of discontent in
Cuba, but Washington has to revise its outmoded policies toward the
island, and normalize relations with it, before any real Cuban democracy
can flourish.

"When the United States is no longer a threat, when the United States
isn't the country of the enemy always looking to complicate things for
the Cuban government, change will be possible," Lesnik said.

He hopes now for an improvement in U.S.-Cuba ties under President-elect
Barack Obama. But while Obama has promised to ease sanctions if Cuba
frees its political prisoners and take steps toward democracy, he has
not said what it would take for Washington to end the embargo.

Lesnik first returned to Cuba in the late 1970s and has paid frequent
visits since the Soviet Union collapsed.

He stopped short of saying he wants to return to the island to live,
having grown old and raised his children and grandchildren in the United
States. But he called Cuba "the pearl of the Antilles," and seemed
wistful as he said: "Let's see what happens with Obama."

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