Miami's Man in Havana

Unrepentant leftist, friend to Castro, and loyal Cuban, Max Lesnik continues to defy the ideological mandates of el exilio

It's high noon in Cuban Miami. Knives and forks are clanging on the plates at the Rancho Luna restaurant and waitresses are bustling around ferrying loads of pollo asado and moros to hungry diners. Owner Jorge Rabelo describes his Little Havana restaurant as "un pedazo de Cuba bajo el cielo de Miami" -- a piece of Cuba under the Miami sky. It is one of the oldest Cuban eateries in South Florida, and with old Cuban coins and postcards imbedded in the plastic tabletops and worn flags on the walls, the place has the feel of a nostalgia museum. AClaro! A lot of impassioned talk has bounced off these walls.

Through the lunchtime hubbub, conversations ebb and flow; people come and go. Here a table of businessmen in dress shirts and neckties, there an office party of women in suits, and now a couple of T-shirted guys splattered with plaster or paint. In the commotion of comida, no one pays any attention at all to the three men at the small table in the corner. This trio has finished lunch, pushed aside the coffee cups, and now each is gripping a microphone and talking, in Spanish, Cuban-style.

"Oyeme, chico," says Max Lesnik, who is wearing dark wire-rim sunglasses and speaking with intensity and clarity. "I was in Havana last week. I know there are shortages and hardships there. No es facil. But the problems of the Cuban people are the direct result of the U.S. embargo. The embargo has forced Castro to take the measures he has."

"That's absurd," says a younger man on the other side of the table, his voice rising. "The Soviets gave Cuba billions of dollars a year in subsidies. I was in prison during those years. And there was no food then in the jails, and not on the street either. So don't speak nonsense like this."

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," interrupts the third man, Salvador Lew, the veteran broadcaster who is serving as moderator of this exchange and is sending it out live over the airwaves of radio station WRHC-AM (1560). He hosts this show, called La Pena Azul, every weekday between noon and 1:00 p.m.

Lew knows that many of his listeners will find Lesnik's opinions infuriating. Indeed, in recent months the editor and publisher of Replica magazine has been a guest many times, "and I am always criticized for having him on the air," Lew notes of his old friend.

Still, Lew says, "I know Max to be a very dynamic person, very smart, a man who has been in public life for many years, a man who sometimes can be right or sometimes very wrong, but always personally honest."

On this day, the counterweight to Lesnik's leftist avoirdupois is Pedro Corzo -- the speaker who interjected "That's absurd" -- a Cuban who spent nine years in Castro's jails as a political prisoner before coming to Miami about eight years ago. He is a reporter for WRHC, where Lew is the director of public relations, and Corzo's on-air role is to keep Lesnik from running away with the program or turning it into an apologia for the Castro regime.

Over Corzo's protestations, Lesnik insists that the U.S. embargo of Cuba serves only to punish ordinary Cuban citizens; it provides Castro an excuse for the failures of the government and should be ended. In the wake of Pope John Paul II's visit to the island in January, of course, many exiles are concluding that the 36-year-old trade ban is an anachronism.

But as usual, Lesnik goes further than that. Lesnik not only supports lifting the embargo and establishing normal relations with the Castro government, he also describes Fidel Castro as his friend, a companero from the days when both were firebrand law students and members of the same political party. Politics came between them nearly four decades ago -- and led to Lesnik's arrival in Miami. But the personal breach has been mended and now Castro is an old pal whom Lesnik chats with regularly over late-night dinners in the comandante's Havana office.

Moreover, Lesnik genuinely likes Castro and enjoys his company. "Fidel Castro can be a very charming person," says Lesnik. "He can talk about anything -- food, wine, science, politics. It is not Castro's fault that he is an intelligent person. Or that his enemies are so stupid."

For someone like Corzo, who suffered imprisonment under Castro, Lesnik's proclamations seem outrageous, and even Lew wonders what his radio guest means when he suggests that Castro wants to reach an accommodation with the United States before he dies. "Max has not been going to Cuba as a tourist," Lew says. "I think Max has been trying to negotiate a way out for Castro. But Castro wants to die in power."

Almost as an afterthought, Lew adds: "Max is not Castrista. He is not Marxista. He is Maxista."

Over the past 37 years, since he arrived in Miami as a refugee from the revolution he helped foment, no one in el exilio has offended more people than Max Lesnik. He counts himself as a social democrat, a man still true to the early ideals of the Cuban revolution. In a city that has set new standards for intolerance when it comes to Cuban issues, he has begun to talk openly of his long-standing friendship with the most hated man in Miami -- Fidel Castro.

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