Miami's Man in Havana

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

For years, Lesnik was blacklisted from the Miami airwaves. When Ronald Reagan and George Bush ruled in Washington, and Jorge Mas Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation drew the boundaries of public discussion in Miami, Lesnik and his incendiary views were off-limits. But Reagan, Bush, and Mas Canosa are gone. Economic necessity has forced Castro to open his markets. American politicians and businessmen and women are junketing to the island regularly. The Pope has made talk of ending the embargo safe for everyone. And, at age 67, Max is back.

He is on the air with Lew, with Tomas Garcia Fuste on La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670), and on the CBS Spanish-language news program Telenoticias. He has also made a pilot of a cable television show, modeled after CNN's Crossfire, which he has been shopping to the local Spanish-language stations. On what he calls Polemica a Todo Color (Polemics of Every Stripe), Lesnik, of course, occupies the seat to the left. He has enlisted old friend and former Batistiano Santiago Rey to represent the right. WLTV-TV (Channel 23), among other local stations, has had a look at the tape but so far none seems interested.

Lesnik says he knows many in Miami don't want to hear what he has to say. The paramilitary group Alpha 66, for example, has been plastering Dade County with a flyer that reads: "La sangre de los martires no permite el dialogo con el verdugo" (The blood of martyrs does not permit dialogue with the executioner), and, quoting Cuban hero Jose Marti, "Visitar la casa del opresor es aprobar la opresión" (To visit the house of the oppressor is to approve of oppression). Alpha 66 leader Andres Nazario Sargen -- who came to Miami 37 years ago in the same 24-foot boat that brought Lesnik -- says the broadsides are not directed solely at his former friend, but at all those "who hurt the cause of Cuba. Fidel Castro is an egomaniac, and Max Lesnik counts for nothing."

Cuba scholar Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami is another who thinks talking to Castro is the ultimate in futility. "I have no hope that Castro is going to change because [Lesnik] knew him in their student days. These are illusions," says Suchlicki.

Even one of Lesnik's oldest and closest friends, former banker and fellow exile Bernardo Benes, suggests that Max is being naive. "Max is respected in Cuba, and he may feel more at home there than he does here, even though he is not a communist," Benes says. "But he is fooling himself with Castro. Fidel has no friends."

But Lesnik is not about to stop talking. "There is a little light in the tunnel, and I am trying to expand that," he says of the future of U.S.-Cuba relations. "If I keep opening my mouth, maybe others will speak out too."

As for his those who oppose him, Lesnik says, "I understand that. But truly, I don't care about the opinion of my enemies. I am a journalist, and as a journalist it is important to be controversial. The Cuban issue is controversial, and I want to provoke discussion. I am committed to ideas and ideals. And I will continue to express my opinions, even as our intolerance and lack of respect continue."

Lesnik expresses particular scorn for "those people who claim to be democrats while acting as fascists. I will always be a target of these people. They think that I am in some way the focal point of a trend. And the trend in Miami is to move to an open society." Although his relationship with the Cuban president is founded on the past, Lesnik insists, its significance is tied to Cuba's future. "Look, I can go there and speak to the chairman of the revolution. And I can tell him that I would prefer that Cuba be more open than it is now. Which I do," says Lesnik, a short, stocky man with swept-back thinning hair.

"I am not the link between the governments of the U.S. and Cuba. As a Cuban, I cannot be a mediator, because a Cuban is always suspect as either an agent of the CIA or an agent of Castro. And if you try to mediate, you get crucified by the Cuban community.

"Castro is a communist and I am a socialist, and that is a fundamental disagreement," Lesnik says. "But I have a good relationship with Fidel Castro as a man, an old friend. Right now we don't discuss ideology. But in the future, maybe having an open channel to him can help improve relations."

Over the years in Miami, people have been beaten up, had their businesses bombed, and even been killed for much less than claiming Fidel Castro as a friend. In fact, Max Lesnik has been threatened many times, and his place of business -- the offices of Replica -- has been bombed at least seven times. During the Seventies and early Eighties, when the magazine was vital and opinionated, Replica was a flashpoint for controversy. The owners of many Miami stores and newsstands were afraid to to carry it on their shelves.

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