By Salim Lamrani
August 15, 2021
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Photo, Carlos Rafael Diéguez
“In reality, the United States expects a total and definitive surrender from the Cuban people.”
Born in 1930 in Cuba, in the small town of Vueltas, to a Polish Jewish father who fled the anti-Semitic persecution of his country and a Cuban mother, Max Lesnik became involved early, at the age of 15, in political militancy. He frequented the ranks of the Orthodoxo Party founded by Eduardo Chibás, a symbol of the struggle against government corruption, and quickly became the national secretary of the Orthodoxo Youth in the 1950s.
Max Lesnik acquired fame throughout the country and became friends with Fidel Castro, whom he met at the University of Havana. Fidel was also a member of the Orthodoxo Party and even presented his candidacy in the 1952 elections for the Congress of the Republic before Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état put an end to constitutional legality.
Lesnik, like many young Cubans, revolted against the military dictatorship of Batista, supported by the United States and was part of the leadership of the Second Front of the Escambray, led by Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo in the activity of ideological, political and propaganda work.
At the triumph of the Revolution, on January 1, 1959, Lesnik was the first revolutionary leader to be interviewed on television by journalist Carlos Lechuga. With the installation of the new power, Max Lesnik resumed his work as a journalist, publishing chronicles in Bohemia magazine and hosting a daily program on the National Radio Station Cadena Oriental de Radio.
But Lesnik began to criticize the hegemony of the communists in power. He opposed the alliance with the Soviet Union. According to him, Cuba should be independent from Washington and also from Moscow. Total sovereignty.
In 1961, the situation was critical and Max Lesnik was forced to go into exile in the United States. But he did not join the ranks of the supporters of the old regime, nor did he accept the perks of the CIA, which sought to recruit political figures from exile in order to organize a movement aimed at overthrowing the Cuban Revolution. When he heard the news, Fidel Castro tried to convince Max Lesnik to return to Cuba through their mutual friend Alfredo Guevara, to no avail.
In Miami, Lesnik created his radio program in which he denounced the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 17, 1961 and accused the participants of being mercenaries in the pay of a foreign power. The next day, he was visited by several armed individuals who coerced him into making a live apology to the audience. Max Lesnik refused and saved his life thanks to hesitation on the part of the assailants who decided to leave the studio without carrying out their threat.
In the mid-1960s, Max Lesnik decided to found the tabloid newspaper Réplica, which would become a magazine a few years later with weekly print runs that could reach 100,000 copies. This professional adventure allowed him to acquire great notoriety in the Cuban and Latino community in the United States, as well as a certain economic tranquility.
In the late 1970s, Max Lesnik played an essential role in establishing a dialogue between the Cuban community in the United States and the authorities in Havana. He returned to Cuba and saw his friend Fidel Castro again after 17 years. The rapprochement with Havana was not to the liking of Miami extremists. Max Lesnik was the victim of a first bomb attack in 1979. In all, he was the target of eleven similar attacks. His magazine did not survive the intolerance and the last issue came out in 1990, after the abandonment of the main advertising sponsors, also threatened by the violent exiles from Florida.
Max Lesnik was also involved in the rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Cuban Revolution and in the origin of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba in 1998. “The man of the two Havana’s”, referring to the Cuban capital and Miami’s “Little Havana” where he resides, is today director of Radio Miami.
In these conversations, Max Lesnik talks about the history of Cuba, his personal trajectory, his ties with Fidel Castro and the Cuba of today.
SL: When did you meet Fidel Castro?
ML: I met Fidel Castro at the University of Havana, at the then Plaza Cadenas, in front of the Law School. We met on a bench where students met to talk about current political events and to organize demonstrations against the governments of the time, whether against the increase in the prices of basic necessities, the price of electricity, the price of public transportation.
I entered the University in 1948. Fidel was already in the Faculty and was politically involved in student life. I wanted to meet the different youth leaders who maintained a vertical position in the face of the corruption and gangsterism of the time.
Fidel was a young rebel with political concerns. I understood from the first moment that this was someone who would be the future leader of a different Cuba or a martyr. I believe I was not mistaken. Fidel entered the Pantheon of Latin American liberators during his lifetime.
SL: What were the main characteristics of Fidel Castro?
ML: Fidel was at the same time a politician of great magnitude, a thinker and a lucid visionary. He managed to build a different Cuba and a different Latin America. It is hard for us Cubans to realize that we are the engines of an emancipation process, with our successes and our mistakes. But there is a constancy in the path pointed out by José Martí at the end of the 19th century. Fidel Castro managed to catalyze the enthusiasm and frustrations of several generations to build a revolutionary Cuba.
SL: Could you tell us an anecdote that illustrates Fidel Castro’s personality?
ML: I remember that at the University, on this famous bench in front of the Law School, we fraternized in the foundation of a committee called “September 30th Committee against Gangsterism”.
It was the year 1949, under the presidency of Carlos Prío Socarrás, marked by clashes between violent gangs that fought in the streets of Havana for hegemony within the State bureaucracy. These groups came from the revolutionary elements that participated in the struggle against Machado and Batista. Then, they began to confront each other to get crumbs of power.
In order to obtain social peace, the Government established the “Pacto de las pandillas”, granting well-paid positions in the administration -botellas, as they were called at the time- to the leaders of those groups, who allowed themselves to be bribed. These groups then threatened the students of the University and the members of the Orthodox Youth, who were the only ones to denounce government corruption.
The University was the banner of the values of the Republic, inherited from Julio Antonio Mella, founder of the Cuban Communist Party and Antonio Guiteras, the soul of the Revolution of 1933. The Government wanted to crush this university resistance, using gangsters against the students. There were even some student leaders who allowed themselves to be bribed.
SL: What was the role of this committee?
ML: Its role was to publicly denounce the gangsterism and the threats against the university. We gathered an Assembly where all the student presidents of the departments were present. This Committee had a collegiate leadership made up of the leaders of the Orthodoxo Youth – of which I was a member – and socialist youth leaders.
Fidel Castro was a member of the September 30th Committee and assigned to denounce who were the ones receiving money from the Government. Fidel was always very skilled at uncovering what was behind the scenes. In this precise case, Fidel Castro took the floor on behalf of the September 30th Committee and denounced one by one all the corrupt and government-sponsored gangsters, even revealing the nature of the “botella”.
The gangsters were close to the University and found out the reality. It was a courageous denunciation on the part of Fidel, who listed names and showed documents to back up his claims. The bandits were enraged and informed the Committee members that they were going to pay with their lives for the denunciation. Fidel received the news as he spoke. But, far from keeping quiet, he spoke more virulently, insisting on the names of each corrupt person.
SL: What happened next?
ML: This generated an enormous scandal because we had unmasked the bandits. When the Assembly ended we met to find out how we were going to get out of the University. I was a leader of the Orthodoxo Youth and I had a certain prestige because I was linked to Eduardo Chibás. We had to save Fidel Castro, who was in danger of death. I knew that they would not take the risk of assassinating Fidel if he met me. Eduardo Chibás, the leader of the Orthodoxo Party, was alive at that time and had a Sunday radio program that all Cubans followed. Assassinating Fidel at the risk of killing the leader of the Orthodoxo Youth was too dangerous for the government. Finally we were able to leave the University without much trouble, although Fidel had to stay hidden in my house for several weeks.
SL: Where were you when the attack on the Moncada Barracks took place on July 26, 1953?
ML: I was in Havana, with two of Fidel’s friends, Dr. Aramista Taboada and Alfredo Esquivel. There was a lot of speculation about Moncada. Some thought that Colonel Pedraza had carried out a coup d’état, while others claimed that there had been an uprising by the garrison.
We analyzed the situation and wondered where Fidel was. We knew he was very bold. The “Chinese” Esquivel went to the house of Mirtha Díaz-Balart, Fidel’s wife, who informed us that her husband had not appeared for three days. At that moment, we were certain that Fidel Castro was involved in one way or another in the Moncada attack.
We then became active everywhere to prevent the dictatorship from assassinating Fidel and his comrades. He was captured and imprisoned for two years.
SL: Did you have any differences with Fidel Castro at that time?
ML: I had no disagreement in principle with Fidel. The problem was that he had carried out the Moncada coup on his own, without notifying anyone. It was a conspiracy that he organized alone, in which I was not involved. Until the last moments, very few people knew what they were going to do -I am talking about the participants-, maybe Raúl Castro, Jesús Montané, Abel Santamaría, that is, a very limited group. Fidel was always very discreet and his comrades had great confidence in him.
When he got out of prison, Fidel Castro began to meet with some people. I had introduced him to Alvaro Barba, who had been President of the Federation of University Students (FEU), as well as to José Antonio Echevarría, of the Revolutionary Directorate.
SL: What was your role in the struggle against the Batista dictatorship?
ML: When Fidel Castro disembarked on December 2, 1956, the political opposition was paralyzed by the great repression unleashed by Batista. The persecution was very strong and there was no space for civic and peaceful political activity.
I had formed a strong friendship with some elements of the Orthodoxo Party who had revolted in the Sierra del Escambray, in the center of the island, and who had formed the Second Front of the Escambray. When I arrived in the area, there was a division between the Revolutionary Directorate and the Second Front formed then by elements of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement that had risen up, in which my friend Roger Redondo and Lázaro Artola, who was head of the Orthodoxo Youth in Camagüey, were included.
After the attack on the Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo arrived in the Escambray area to establish a guerrilla front to strengthen those who had already risen up there. I was appointed in charge of propaganda for the Second Front. I went back and forth to Havana to look for economic resources.
SL: Fulgencio Batista fled the country on January 1, 1959. How did you hear the news?
ML: I was in Havana when Batista fell. I had an important mission to accomplish as a plane loaded with weapons from the United States was to supply the Second Front. I was clandestine and a friend of the Orthodoxo Youth, Lucas Alvarez Tabio, nephew of a Supreme Court magistrate, informed me of the news. When Batista left power, he wanted to give a constitutional form to his departure and appointed Magistrate Carlos Piedra.
SL: What did you do after the triumph of the Revolution?
ML: Many tried to get a position in the new power. This was not my case. I dedicated myself to my profession as a journalist and wrote in Bohemia. I also had a radio program. José Pardo Llada, who was the most listened journalist in the history of Cuba, had his program after mine at one o’clock in the afternoon.
Then the Revolution was radicalized and the Communist Party began to establish its hegemony in all sectors. The United States opposed the new power from the beginning and this hostility led to its radicalization.
I was very critical on my radio program. I stated that I was against U.S. imperialism but I was not a communist either. I did not want to have an ideology imposed on me.
SL: Were you against an alliance with the communists?
ML: I was resolutely against an alliance with a group that had collaborated with Batista in 1944 and had not played a key role during the insurrectionary struggle against tyranny. The communists began to push aside all those who had taken a different position.
SL: Did you have relations with Raul Castro?
ML: We had common friends like Alfredo Guevara, father of the New Latin American Cinema, and Léster Rodríguez, who participated in the Moncada. Raul was Fidel’s younger brother. I remember that during my honeymoon in Mexico, on December 30, 1955, it was Raul who came to pick up my wife and me at the airport, Raul was not yet second in command. Fidel was very careful about hierarchies. He did not want any privileges for his brother. Raul later earned his positions fighting in the Sierra Maestra and the Second Eastern Front to become President of the Republic.
SL: Did you meet Che Guevara?
ML: I never talked to him but I know he had a negative image of me. He had been told that I was a dangerous guy. We met once from car to car but nothing more. It wasn’t my place to go to him and tell him he was wrong. It was not my style. I regret it because I think that if I had met Che in the Sierra del Escambray, things would have been different.
SL: Let’s talk now about your departure from Cuba, why did you decide to go into exile in the United States?
ML: In my radio program I was very critical of the communists and the security apparatus was in their hands. I had become a target and I could not stay in Cuba.
I decided then to leave Cuba clandestinely together with the leaders of the Second Front of the Escambray in January 1961. Actually, I think that someone in the intelligence services who was aware of our departure let us go. When we arrived in the United States, the authorities imprisoned us for several months in Texas.
SL: Was Fidel Castro informed of your departure?
ML: When Fidel learned that I was in prison in the United States, he sent Alfredo Guevara to tell my mother to send me the following message: “Let him cross the Mexican border and return to Cuba. He has no problem here”. I received the message later but, in any case, I would not have returned. But I will always thank Fidel and Alfredo for that.
Likewise, Fidel Castro intervened to allow my wife and daughters to leave the country. The Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs at the time, Carlos Olivares, refused to issue the passports because I had not signed the permission to leave the country, something I could not do since I was in Miami. Fidel personally phoned Olivares to give him the instructions.
SL: Were you at that time in ideological rupture with Fidel Castro?
ML: Not with Fidel, but with the process, yes.
SL: Did you meet with exiled political leaders in Miami?
Yes, with the Prío family, for example. I have an anecdote about that. The Prío family were close friends of the comedian Guillermo Álvarez Guedes. When a brother of Alvarez Guedes died in Miami, at the Caballero Funeral Home on 8th Street and 27th Avenue, we met there for the funeral. I knew Guillermo from Cuba. I went to greet him and offer my condolences. He was at the door of the funeral home with Antonio Prío, the brother of former president Carlos Prío Socarrás and we began to talk. An elderly lady arrived, who had been Orthodoxo and who knew me since my time as a youth leader, recognized Antonio Prío, who had been a candidate for mayor of Havana and Minister of Finance. He had been involved in a big scandal and had been accused of having stolen 7 million pesos, which at that time was equivalent to $7 million dollars and which today would be about 70 million dollars. It seems incredible, Max Lesnik, Orthodoxo leader, you are here with Antonio Prío Socarrás, the thief who stole 7 million pesos, who was punished by the people of Cuba, since he lost the mayoralty to Castellanos”. The lady gave us a tremendous speech.
Then Antonio put a hand in his pocket and said, “Madam, please, I am going to ask you a question: how many millions of inhabitants did Cuba have in 1950, which is when you accuse me of having stolen 7 million pesos?” The lady replied, “Well, seven million inhabitants”. Then Prío replied: “Well, take your peso and don’t fuck with me anymore”.
SL: You played an important role in the establishment of a dialogue between the Cuban community in the United States and the Government of Havana in 1978. Could you tell us the genesis of this historic process of reconciliation?
ML: In 1976, James Carter, former Democratic governor of the State of Georgia, won the presidency. He was a friend of Alfredo Durán, a Cuban involved in American political life, who became Chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. I knew him from my profession as a journalist and editor of Réplica magazine. All the politicians in the United States constantly asked me for an interview because our magazine was not sectarian and gave the floor to everyone, without distinction, open to democratic debate and a plurality of ideas. It was the Spanish-language magazine with the largest circulation in the United States.
One day, Durán asked me and explained to me that he was supporting a candidate for the presidency of the United States named James Carter. He was due to stop in Miami and Durán was in charge of his tour in the city. When Carter visited Réplica, I interviewed him and asked him what his Cuba policy would be. Surprisingly, he replied that he would establish communication with Cuba to improve human rights. It was the first time that a U.S. politician had such a constructive discourse towards Havana.
SL: How did the process unfold?
ML: Carter was elected president of the United States and began a process of discreet rapprochement. Diplomatic representations were opened in both capitals, which illustrated Carter’s willingness to establish direct contact with the island’s authorities and put an end to twenty years of confrontation.
Bernardo Benes, an eminent banker who was part of Carter’s delegation during his visit to Miami, traveled to Panama to see his friend Alberto Pons, a Cuban who had a successful guayabera business. A brother of Pons, who lived in Cuba, was also present and a discussion was opened on Cuba-U.S. relations as well as the human rights situation. Pons had read the interview with Benes in Replica about it and said the following to him, “Why don’t you talk about it with Fidel Castro?”
Benes laughed and replied that he was willing to talk to Fidel Castro. When he returned to Havana, Pons’ brother informed the authorities. Benes, for his part, brought this conversation to the attention of a prominent CIA agent in charge of Latin America, who was based in Mexico. As a banker, Benes had many contacts. He had worked for the U.S. Government at the Inter-American Development Bank. He was a very open man, with relationships all over the place.
The CIA agent informed the U.S. Government. Benes made contact with Bob Pastor, a close collaborator of Carter and got permission to explore the possibilities of rapprochement with the authorities in Havana. With Charles Dascal, a Cuban-Jewish president of Banco Continental, where I had all my accounts, Benes met several times with Fidel Castro and obtained the release of 3,500 political prisoners involved in the counterrevolutionary war in the 1960s.
SL: When did you return to Cuba?
ML: During one of those meetings with Benes, Fidel told him that he was inviting me to travel to Cuba. The whole thing was a secret operation because the extreme right in Florida was opposed to any idea of normalization. Only both governments were aware of it.
In 1978 we took a private jet from Fort Lauderdale to Havana. I was with Benes and Dascal. We landed discreetly at José Martí Airport. We were met by Abrantes, a general in the Ministry of the Interior, deputy minister of MININT and head of Fidel’s bodyguard, with him was José Luis Padrón, one of his top aides. I had known Abrantes since pre-revolutionary times, we lived in the same neighborhood in Old Havana, although we were not friends.
SL: How did your meeting with Fidel Castro develop?
ML: The next day, Abrantes came looking for me to tell me that Fidel wanted to see me. We went to the Palace and Fidel showed up. I remember asking him, “What’s the deal?”. It was about the President of the Republic and I had to respect protocol.
Notice that he answered me: “For you, Fidel”. The framework was then established. We began a dialogue that lasted several hours because we had not seen each other since 1960. We talked about the past, about our university days. Fidel likes to recall anecdotes.
Fidel asked me many questions about Réplica. He wanted to know all the details, the print run, the distribution, the technique, the publicity, its influence. It’s one of Fidel’s characteristics. He is very curious. Then, suddenly, he asked me: “But why did you leave Cuba?”. I explained that I did not agree with the Cuban communists and that I was opposed to an alliance with the Soviet Union. With much wisdom Fidel told me the following, “If you had held my position, you would have done the same thing to save the Revolution and prevent Cuba from losing its sovereignty.”
I think Fidel was absolutely right. Looking back on the events, I must say that his analysis was true. I had been wrong. If what I had wanted had been done, that is, to keep Cuba out of the alliance with the USSR, Washington would have crushed the Revolution. If Fidel had not accepted the hand of the Russians, the Revolution would not have survived.
I remember that when we said goodbye, Fidel gave me a painting of Portocarrero, which I still have in my living room and he said something like “you don’t look so old, but you are wiser”.
SL: What did Fidel Castro think about James Carter?
ML: About Carter, Fidel thought he was capable of carrying out the reconciliation process. The prospects were then encouraging.
Unfortunately, the Mariel migratory exodus in 1980 and the political crisis that followed put an end to the bilateral dialogue. People opposed to any normalization with Cuba gravitated around Carter. Zbignew Brezinsky, of Polish origin, a staunch anti-communist, was Carter’s Security Advisor. For him, no diplomacy with the communists was possible. He opposed dialogue and Secretary of State Salius Vans, who was in favor of a rapprochement with Cuba.
Then, when a group of Cubans forced their way into the Peruvian embassy, causing the death of a Cuban guard, the diplomats refused to hand over the refugees to justice. The Cuban authorities then decided to withdraw the custody protecting the embassy and the newspaper Granma published a note saying that all those who wanted to leave the country could do so through the Peruvian embassy. Thousands of people then entered the embassy. Brezinsky took advantage of the occasion to influence Carter and forced him to make that famous statement inviting Cubans to travel to the United States.
Fidel Castro then felt betrayed because the conflict was with Peru and not with the United States. He replied by saying on television that all Cubans who wanted to travel to the United States could do so through the port of Mariel. In total, 120,000 people left the island.
The story is well known. Reagan came to power and ended the policy of rapprochement with Cuba.
What were the consequences on a personal level?
ML: I was the target of the right-wing Cubans because I published articles and chronicles in Réplica in favor of dialogue. In the same way, I had denounced the horrendous crime committed in October 1976 against a Cuban civilian airplane that took the lives of 73 people. Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch had planted a bomb on board. I denounced these terrorist acts while the extreme right applauded them.
I was then the victim of several bombings, like other supporters of dialogue. In total, the terrorists carried out eleven attacks against Réplica. Nobody defended our right to freedom of expression, neither the Miami Herald nor the Inter-American Press Association. The only one who defended us was the Miami News, which does not exist today. We had to put an end to the Réplica venture because we no longer had advertisers.
SL: In 1994, another migratory crisis generated tensions between Cuba and the United States. You acted to avoid an escalation, could you remind us of the events?
ML: I was in Havana with Alfredo Guevara and Eusebio Leal. I expressed my concern about the crisis that could lead to a larger conflict. Clinton was a weak president and could get dragged down. Carter could be the solution and I could contact him through Alfredo Duran.
Eusebio Leal asked me to return to the hotel and wait for his call. At three o’clock in the morning, he called me and said, “Your college friend says to do whatever you want”. It was Fidel. I then informed Duran of the situation and asked him to contact Carter urgently. When I returned to Miami, we met in my office with Durán. On my side, I was on the phone talking to Alfredo Guevara who was with Fidel, and Durán, for his part, had Carter, who was in Atlanta. The former president then sent a message to Clinton.
SL: Let’s talk now about the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998.
ML: The pope had named Jaime Ortega a cardinal. I knew the apostolic nuncio in Havana, Monsignor Benjamino Stella. There was a tense situation with the Church. In addition, Ortega had been invited to Miami. In this regard, Fidel told us in a meeting in Havana that after Ortega’s visit to Miami, he was going to return as a counterrevolutionary. I remember saying to Fidel: “Why don’t we give him the benefit of the doubt? I will be there and I will tell you”, I told Fidel.
Fidel found out that I was going to attend the reception given by the nuncio the following day. He then asked Eusebio Leal and Alfredo Guevara to be present as well. The following day, during the reception, to which all the members of the Government were invited, only Isabel Allende, who was at that time Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, showed up.
At two o’clock in the morning, when the reception was over, the nuncio regretted the absence of the government authorities. I then told him that Fidel Castro had personally sent Leal and Guevara and that he wished to normalize relations with the Church. I told him everything, without betraying any secrets. I even turned to Jaime Ortega to tell him: “Fidel thinks you are going to come back from Miami as a counterrevolutionary”. But notice that Ortega behaved well in Miami and that opened the way to a rapprochement between the Vatican and Havana.
During the Pope’s visit in 1998, the Apostolic Nuncio invited me to Cuba. On the day of his departure, the pope received us privately with three other friends, journalists Alfredo Muñoz of Agence France Presse, Luis Baez and the historical commander Manuel Piñeiro Losada, also friends of the apostolic nuncio. The nuncio told the Pope: “Lesnik is from the house”. I remember telling him that I was not Catholic but Jewish and that I was not a practicing Jew. I also told him that my mother was Cuban and my father Polish. The pope said with a certain sense of humor: “God bless all Poles”. Of course, since he was Polish too….
SL: Let’s move on to another topic. As a Cuban journalist living in Miami, what do you think about freedom of expression in Cuba?
ML: It is worth remembering some elementary truths. Freedom of expression is directly linked to the security of the State. I am not referring to the police apparatus or the intelligence services. When a State feels secure, when there is no external or internal force capable of destabilizing it, freedom of expression is total. As soon as there is an internal or external threat – in this case, an external threat which is the United States and an internal threat which is the dissidents supported by a foreign power – restrictions on freedom of expression begin.
Take the case of the United States, which is the most powerful nation in the world. Despite the crises, it is still the richest country. It is said that there is full and absolute freedom of the press in the United States. I am a journalist. I know the subject. In reality, freedom of the press is in the hands of the media owners, controlled by capitalist forces to defend their interests. Media concentration has been reinforced in recent years. Before, a newspaper was owned by the publisher, as was my case. Today, the shareholders of the press belong to the military-industrial complex. Then, when a State feels threatened, it reduces freedom of expression, as was the case under McCarthyism, when fundamental freedoms were violated while nobody threatened the United States.
In Cuba, as the State sees the disappearance of external or internal threats promoted from outside, I am convinced that the space reserved for critical debate will expand.
SL: In a word, the degree of freedom of expression in Cuba depends on the degree of U.S. hostility towards the island.
ML: Exactly. As tensions ease and the U.S. stops using the internal opposition to destabilize the state, there will be more freedom of expression in Cuba. But it already exists. Of course, with its limits, but there is more freedom of expression in Cuba every day.
There is another problem. For years, Cubans, in the name of defending the Revolution, hid their mistakes so as not to threaten national unity. They thought that criticizing the defects of the system weakened them in the face of the enemy, when in fact it is a demonstration of strength. On the other hand, the enemy uses this facade of unity as an angle of attack. When an incompetent leader is criticized, the man is criticized, not the Revolution. Open and healthy criticism from the revolutionary camp to improve the system and denounce corruption does not weaken the process. Raul Castro is the perfect example.
I consider that one of the most important critics of the Cuban press has been and is Fidel Castro himself.
SL: What do you think of the single party in Cuba?
ML: The debate around the single-party and multi-party systems is interesting. Democracy does not arise from parties. It should be a process in which all points of view are debated, even if there is only one party or none. The party has nothing to do with democracy, which is more than 2,000 years old while the political party was born in the 19th century as an institution.
It is said that Cuba is a dictatorship because there is only one party. This is a simplistic reading. There are dictatorships in the world with a multi-party system. Under Batista, there were many parties and yet it was a dictatorship.
SL: What do you think of the opposition in Cuba?
ML: Unfortunately, since the triumph of the Revolution, the opposition is under the control of the United States. I would like there to be a true patriotic and independent opposition in Cuba. But, from the beginning, Washington financed the dissident groups.
If we take a look at history, through the whole Cuban revolutionary process, from the wars of independence to the struggle against Batista, no insurrectionary group was financed by a foreign power. It is important to point out this reality. Cubans fight for a noble cause, for patriotism, not for money. There were never people financed during the war of 1868, nor during the war of 1895, nor during the struggle against Machado or against Batista.
Since 1959, the United States has considered Cuba a threat, before the Revolution declared itself socialist or signed a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union. At that time, the “Revolution was as Cuban as the palms,” as Fidel Castro put it. Washington then began to finance internal groups. That was the opposition’s undoing because Cubans cannot understand that a fellow countryman would accept money from a foreign power to oppose their government. That is why the opposition is insignificant in Cuba and incapable of rallying the population around it.
SL: But there are dissatisfied sectors in Cuba that do not receive money from the United States.
ML: I am not saying that there are not dissatisfied people in Cuba. They must be substantial, especially since the Special Period following the demise of the Soviet Union. But transforming this discontent into political opposition against the government is not easy, because Cubans want to preserve their system and improve it. The vast majority do not want another model.
An honest political opposition must be in favor of national sovereignty and against U.S. economic sanctions. It must be willing to defend José Martí’s dream of a free and independent Cuba. It must seek Cuban solutions to Cuban problems and not look to the North. It must rid itself of its inferiority complex and of being submissive, which consists of believing that it always has to ask Washington’s permission to undertake an initiative.
SL: Why are there no revolts in Cuba, as there are in Europe and the rest of the world?
ML: The media dissidents cannot benefit from popular support. They have neither a defined program nor a leader. The fabricated opposition is caught in a contradiction. To fight for freedom, one must be free. However, the dissidents are prisoners of U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba. The day the annual budget of $20 million that Washington dedicates to it disappears, that opposition will also disappear.
SL: How do you analyze the changes in Cuba’s economic model?
ML: To answer your question, I must first define myself from an ideological point of view. I have always been and am a socialist. As a socialist, I consider that capitalism does not distribute wealth in society, but [gives] privileges to the richest. When capitalist society is transformed into a statist Revolution, as in Cuba where almost everything is in the hands of the State, the capitalist bureaucracy, which is efficient, is replaced with a party bureaucracy, which in many cases is inefficient.
Today, the Cuban process allows Cubans to work on their own and favors the cleansing of the State of this unsustainable bureaucracy that impedes development. But Cuban society should favor, in addition to individual work, cooperatives. In other words, socialism is not State capitalism. Socialism stipulates that the means of production must be in the hands of the workers. The role of the state is to carry out this process over the long term. When a license is given to a person to establish his trade, it is a positive step. But the State must be bolder and turn the enterprises over to the workers and transform them into socialist cooperatives.
The problem in Cuba, with the bureaucracy and paternalism, is that everyone considers that everything belongs to them. That is why there is so much theft in hotels and state enterprises. The administrator, in charge of the proper functioning of the structure, in certain cases is the first to steal. There is only one way to break this vicious circle: by bringing criminals to justice and, above all, by socializing the means of production. In a cooperative, theft is no longer possible because the workers are members and will not allow this type of criminal behavior. If a member of a cooperative, let us say of a restaurant, wants to take a ham home, it will be impossible for him to do so because he will run up against the opposition of his fellow members. Thus, the property of the cooperative will be better protected.
SL: Should the State leave the entire economy in the hands of cooperatives?
ML: No, the State should keep control of the big companies, of the country’s basic industry, as well as tourism and nickel. It should keep control of the nation’s strategic resources.
On the other hand, barbershops, restaurants and other small businesses should be out of state control. Economic reform should not be limited to small private enterprises but should also include cooperatives. This is a fundamental objective. I am quite optimistic about this and I hope that Cubans will feel, with each passing day, more proud of their nationality.
SL: What are the main obstacles to these changes?
ML: They are of two types: internal and external. Externally, the United States will take advantage of the new situation of free enterprise to use it against the Revolution and to destabilize the country. This is the first risk.
Then, Cuban leaders should not let the bureaucracy fabricate phantoms to preserve their power. They must differentiate an efficient official from an incompetent bureaucrat who pretends to scare the State in order to keep his position. Those are the two challenges.
SL: What do you think of the way the Western media portrays Cuba?
ML: I have been a journalist for more than half a century. It is clear that there is a double standard when it comes to Cuba. Some time ago, the media reported the story of an opposition leader arrested by the police and released a few hours later. That same day there was a demonstration in the Dominican Republic. The police fired and three people were killed. The Western press did not say a word [about that]. An event that goes unnoticed in the rest of the world becomes news when it comes to Cuba.
SL: Why does the United States continue to impose economic sanctions on Cuba, more than a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War?
ML: Initially, the economic sanctions were imposed following Cuba’s decision to nationalize some U.S. companies. But it is worth remembering that U.S. hostility, or at least distrust, of Fidel Castro predates the triumph of the Revolution. Washington did everything to prevent Fidel Castro from coming to power and supported Fulgencio Batista until the last moments. After the dictator fled, the United States imposed a military junta but it lasted only a few hours and was destroyed by the popular and revolutionary wave. It is important to remember this historical reality.
Since that time, the Revolution has been in power and the United States has taken every possible and imaginable measure to try to overthrow it. All the diplomatic rhetoric elaborated since 1959 to justify the state of siege against Cuba is a succession of pretexts that do not stand up to analysis. Washington thus evoked the nationalizations, then the alliance with the Soviet Union, then Cuba’s aid to revolutionary movements throughout the world, then the single party, then human rights. In reality, the United States expects a total and definitive surrender of the Cuban people, something that has not happened in more than half a century and which, in my opinion, will not happen.
SL: However, Washington normalized relations with China and Vietnam and ended sanctions against these countries. Why is it different with Cuba?
ML: The policy of sanctions against Cuba – the objective of which is to starve the Cuban people – has failed. And I think the United States is having a hard time being clear-headed about this and admitting this reality. The maintenance of the sanctions is aimed at preventing the country’s development and the neighbor to the North refuses to recognize its mistake and maintains an obsolete and cruel state of siege that arouses the opprobrium of the international community, even of the United States’ most faithful allies.
I believe that sooner rather than later the United States will have to lift the sanctions against Cuba. Even President Barack Obama has spoken out against those sanctions and now it will be up to the U.S. Congress to take the initiative by interpreting the sentiments of the U.S. people.
SL: What is the impact of the economic sanctions on the Cuban community in the United States?
ML: The economic sanctions constitute not only aggression against the Cuban people but also affect the American people. Preventing a U.S. citizen from traveling to a country 90 miles away is an attack on a constitutional human right.
Likewise, the Cuban community in the United States suffers because in order to travel to Cuba, the land of our ancestors where more than 80% of the Cubans living in American territory were born, one must face a whole series of administrative obstacles imposed by Washington.
For example, under George W. Bush, U.S. Cubans could only travel to their country of origin for two weeks every three years. This, at best, was because a permit had to be obtained from the Treasury Department. To obtain such authorization, one had to prove that one had a direct family member in Cuba. For everyone, an aunt, cousin or nephew is a direct family member. But the Bush administration gave a definition of family that only applied to Cubans. Thus, only grandparents, siblings, children and spouses were part of the family. So, a Cuban from Coral Gables who only had an aunt in Cuba could not travel to their country of origin. Imagine the impact it had on the Cuban family when we know that the family is the basis of society. In Cuba, the concept of family is important and broad because not only those who are linked by blood are part of the family, but also those who are linked by friendship.
This political aberration had the support of the Cuban extreme right-wing in Florida, which has a visceral hatred for the people of Cuba. It is not only a question of a desire for revenge towards the Castro brothers but of a real aversion towards the Cuban population since the majority of them support the Government.
SL: How do you respond to those who say that the economic sanctions are simply a bilateral issue between Cuba and the United States and that Havana can develop its commercial relations with the rest of the world?
ML: Those statements do not stand up to analysis even for a moment. To say that Cuba can trade with the rest of the world is to ignore the extraterritorial character of the economic sanctions. Let me give you some examples. Since 1992, any ship entering a Cuban port is prohibited from entering a U.S. port for six months. What is the consequence for Cuba? It must pay astronomical sums, above market rates, to convince international carriers to bring it goods. Remember that the United States is the world’s largest market.
Likewise, if a foreign company wants to export its products to the United States, it must prove to the Treasury Department that its products do not contain a single gram of Cuban raw material. How then can Cuba export its products to the rest of the world with such obstacles? Likewise, Cuba cannot import anything from the rest of the world that contains more than 10% U.S. components. Given the technical and technological leadership of the United States, they have a monopoly in many sectors. The most emblematic example is the medical sector. The United States is the world leader in this field and Cuba cannot import any medicine or medical equipment produced in the United States or containing more than 10% of U.S. components. Take the case of the aeronautical sector. The vast majority of aircraft contain U.S. products and cannot operate in Cuba. That is the reality.
SL: According to Washington, the sanctions policy is the best way to restore democracy in Cuba.
ML: It is ridiculous to think that economic sanctions can have positive results for the United States. It is a criminal weapon against the people of Cuba and will not have any favorable outcome. There will be no political changes in Cuba orchestrated from the outside. Cubans will never accept it. Even during the period of the Soviet Union, Moscow could not control Cuba’s domestic and international politics. To claim that sanctions will change the position of the Cuban leadership is ignorant. Changes in Cuba have taken place since 1959 by the natural law of life, but they have been made only by the will of the Cubans themselves.
As for democracy, what kind of democracy does the U.S. want to export, that of Miami where vice, corruption, vote-buying and selling are rife, where lobbies choose who will be the next president? I am sure Cubans do not favor this kind of democracy. They already experienced that when Batista was in power.
SL: Cuba has not compensated the nationalized U.S. properties.
ML: Let the United States present the account. The Cubans will also present the account of the damages caused by the economic sanctions and the policy of aggression since 1960 and we will get the true account of it all. I think it will be Washington’s turn to draw the check.
SL: What would be the benefits for the American people in the event of the lifting of economic sanctions?
ML: First, U.S. citizens would regain their right to travel to any country in the world. They have been deprived of this constitutional right for more than half a century. Next, it would restore the fraternal ties between the two peoples that a political dispute that divides the two nations has broken. U.S. citizens will discover that Cuba is undoubtedly the only country in the world where an American flag has never been burned. U.S. diplomats in Cuba walk the streets of Havana without the need for protection. The Cuban people have always shown goodwill towards the American people.
From an economic standpoint, American businesses would be the great beneficiaries of removal of sanctions and could enjoy the opportunities offered by a country of 11.2 million people 90 miles from Key West.
SL: The U.S. regularly brings up the human rights situation in Cuba.
ML: To talk selectively about human rights in Cuba as a political and propaganda tool is absurd and grotesque. Not a day goes by without massive human rights violations in the world, including in the United States, without any possible comparison with what could happen in Cuba, without any reaction from Washington or the Western media.
When a police officer in the United States commits an outrage against a citizen, the responsibility lies with the municipal services. On the other hand, when it happens in Havana, they immediately accuse the government of the “Castro brothers” and blame them. This double standard is not acceptable. A magnifying glass is used to dissect Cuba’s defects and we purposely forget that these same defects exist in the greatest Western democracies.
What moral authority does the U.S. have to lecture on the issue of human rights when it has set up a torture center in Guantanamo, secret prisons all over the world and carries out extrajudicial executions in Iraq and Afghanistan? All this is public.
SL: What is the main achievement of the Cuban Revolution?
ML: Without a doubt, sovereignty. If Fidel had to change its name, it would have to be called Sovereignty. For the first time in its history, Cuba is sovereign and independent.
BRIEF UPDATE, September 2015 Next week I’ll be returning to Cuba. This has been my longest time away since 1999 when I began regular visits. It’s been a year and a half. So much has changed since then! The Five are free and home. Diplomatic relations, broken by Washington in 1961, have been restored, and the process Cubans call “updating their economic model” has been continuing, as Raul Castro described it, “sin prisa, pero sin pausa”, which means “without rushing, but without stopping”. There’s so much to be learned and said about the process, which even the most attentive observer from abroad can barely begin to grasp. So now I’m looking forward with great anticipation to being able to catch up with friends and colleagues there, and to share with readers what I can see, hear and begin to try to understand. Below a link to my first extended commentary on Cuba, written after my second visit, fifteen years ago. Some remains valid, some has long since been resolved. Well, enough for now.
Los Angeles, California
September 8, 2015.
TWO MONTHS IN CUBA
Notes of a visiting Cuba solidarity activist
by Walter Lippmann
These are some notes on my visit to Cuba from November, 2000 to January, 2001. Some things in Cuba are very similar to the US, but many others are very, very different.
This essay doesn’t pretend to be a full-scale analysis of Cuba. That would be beyond its scope. These are my own observations, reflections and comments on things I myself personally saw, heard and did. Before and after visiting Cuba, I spent some time visiting Mexico, to get some perspective and to make a few comparisons. I hope you’ll find it useful.
On the final page of this essay, you’ll see links to some other pictures I took, and a page of references for useful English-language sources on Cuba so you can research Cuba further on your own.
WHY CUBA? WHY ME?
My interest in Cuba has deep family roots. My father and his parents lived there from 1939 to 1942. As Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, they were unable to enter either Great Britain or the United States, despite having close relatives in each. The Roosevelt administration strictly enforced a restrictive quota on Jewish immigration. My father and his parents had to wait in Cuba until 1943 before obtaining permission to enter the US. I was born in New York City in 1944. (A good history of the Jewish experience in Cuba is Robert M. Levine’s 1993 Tropical Diaspora (ISBN:0-8130-1218-X). There’s also a novel which eloquently evokes the time when my father lived in Cuba, Passing Through Havana, by Felicia Rosshandler (ISBN: 0-312-59779-7).
My father took me to Cuba in August, 1956. We visited his old residence and met some of his old friends. I don’t remember much about it except that Cuba was a very hot and sticky place. (I was only 12 at the time.) We stayed briefly at the Hotel Nacional, and after that we moved to a smaller hotel. We traveled to Pinar del Rio with one old friend, John Gundrum, also a German immigrant, but one who’d never left Cuba.
In November, 2000 I made my second visit to Cuba as an adult. I’d spent three weeks there in late 1999, on a delegation of yoga teachers and students meeting and practicing with our Cuban counterparts. I knew more than most in the US about this Caribbean nation. I’ve read a lot of Cuban history, and followed Cuban affairs closely. Now I wanted to take a much closer look.
How do Cubans actually live, day-to-day? I wanted to get a sense of how they work, their likes, dislikes and so on. It’s one thing to hear and read about a place, in the media (Cuba is terrible place! People are dying to leave!) or, on the other hand, uncritically favorable accounts among the few left media sympathetic to Cuba.
My Spanish is limited, so I often had to depend on bilingual friends and acquaintances for answers and directions. During my 31-year career as a social worker for Los Angeles County, I learned some simple “street Spanish,” but not enough to carry on a complex conversation. I met many who speak, and wanted to practice, English, so I was able to get answers to my many questions.
In Havana I stayed with a Cuban family I’d met in 1999. One family member had recently quit the public sector job he’d had for 13 years, and entered self-employment. He translates Cuban TV scripts from Spanish into English as an independent contractor. Cuba hopes to sell these to providers like the Discovery Channel. He also translates for visiting journalists and filmmakers. Weeks before my arrival he’d worked with Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, filming the Washington, D.C. ballet’s visit to the country. His mother is an engineer working for a government ministry. She belongs to the Cuban Communist Party. I didn’t pay rent, but bought the food and other items for the family. I often shopped and sometimes cooked for the family. I don’t think they’ve eaten so much garlic in their lives! (Fortunately, they like garlic…)
CUBA’S HISTORIC GOALS:
INDEPENDENCE AND A JUST SOCIETY
Essential to understanding today’s Cuba is the bitter history of US-Cuban relations. The two nations have had a long, close and tense connection. Nineteenth century US politicians discussed annexing the island. They tried to derail its independence, or thwart its efforts to forge a just society where the interests of Cubans was put first. Even now, most US politicians still act and speak as if they have the right to tell Cubans how to run Cuba. The revolution led by Fidel Castro and his compañeros is the most successful of Cuba’s efforts.
Backers of the overthrown Batista dictatorship were welcomed to the US. Washington opposed Cuban efforts to take control over national resources from foreign (mostly US) companies. It has opposed, and tried to turn back, the revolution at every turn. Washington and its supporters call this policy “the embargo.” Cuba calls it “the blockade.” This is because Washington relentlessly tries to bulldoze all other countries into supporting its anti-Cuban activities.
SINCE THE COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET UNION
During Cuba’s alliance with the USSR and the states of Eastern Europe, the island received long-term contracts for its commodities at stable, and sometimes well-above world market prices. This provided the economic and military foundation for Cuba to survive Washington’s decades-long effort to starve it out. Washington had to think twice about military intervention. The island’s politics and economics were heavily influenced by the Soviet model.