Miami's Man in Havana

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

The Replica of today is a different magazine. As a 50-page monthly, it still carries a few national advertisements -- Honda, Kodak, and Goya, for example -- but there are very few local ads, and no coverage of local exile affairs of the kind that once caused Lesnik to use a bodyguard just to get from his home to the office. The magazine now has a mail-only circulation of 80,000. A recent cover story was a belated tribute to Elvis Presley after the twentieth anniversary of his death. Replica has nothing to say about Cuba or the Cuban diaspora.

But Lesnik does.
Although Lesnik is modest, if not coy, about his contacts and influence within the Cuban regime, his network of close friends in the government there includes university mate Alfredo Guevara, a Castro confidant who now heads the nation's institute of art and film, and top Communist Party official Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is Lesnik's second cousin.

"Max is probably one of most intelligent, most knowledgeable players on the whole Cuba problem," says Miami attorney Alfredo Duran, former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "He can take the temperature of Cuba policy here and there better than anyone I know. I don't know if he wields influence behind the scenes, but I often use him as a touchstone for getting my bearings on Cuba." Although he is often invited to speak out on Cuba now, Lesnik, like so many exiles preoccupied with their homeland, has hours of opinions and only a few minutes of airtime. Thus the wealth of thoughts about the past and future of Cuba is liberally spent in the daily forum he conducts inside the dingy warren of the offices he owns on NW Seventh Street. Here, in what Lesnik calls a "tertulia cubana" (Cuban salon), Lesnik presides over what has become one of the most open, free-ranging, and at times raucous drop-in meeting houses in Miami. The topic of the day is always Cuba.

Max arrives about 9:00 a.m. and briefly goes over the day's publishing business with his wife Miriam, who runs the magazine and writes much of its copy, under the pen name Miriam del Bosque. Although Lesnik occasionally writes an article himself -- under his own name, or using the nom de plume Edgardo Menendez -- his real work is keeping current about Cuban affairs here and on the island, and furthering his intention to again serve as a lightning rod for controversy.

When Lesnik fires up a Monte Cristo No. 1 or a Cohiba Lancero -- which he buys by the box in Havana -- the lamp of conversation is lit, and almost anyone might show up. Frequent participants -- all as opinionated as Lesnik himself, and hardly sycophantic Maxistas -- include Benes, a lawyer who now works as an international consultant, after years in which he was all but unemployable in Miami because of his outspoken promotion of dialogue with the Castro government as far back as the early Seventies; Dr. Jose Alfonso, a former Cuban political prisoner who now publishes a monthly newspaper called Que Pasa ... Miami; George Volsky, a retired New York Times correspondent who spent many years living in and writing about Cuba; Dueny Perez-Alamo, a former member of Castro's 26 of July Movement who defected in 1961 but who now visits Cuba; conservative Miami lawyer Leonardo Viota, author of the ubiquitous bumper sticker "No Castro, No Problem"; and Cuban American National Foundation member Luis Tijera, a frequent visitor from Chicago.

The day's news may trigger the exchanges, but the direction of the conversation is as quirky and spontaneous as the cast of characters. On the day after the Clinton administration announced changes in the policy affecting travel and remittances to Cuba, Benes begins by commenting on the large number of older, conservative exiles who now are talking about traveling to the island. "Where were these people twenty years ago? They were attacking me for saying the same thing!" he says.

From here, the conversation zigzags like a lightning bolt, from Castro agents in Miami to the Mariel boatlift to a meeting with Castro in the mountains in 1956 to the socialist doctrine of the "new man." As the talk goes on, Mario Cabrera, who works for the Lesniks, darts in and out of the room like a comic Greek chorister, bringing in a colada of Cuban coffee or a telephone message. Each time he passes by, he shouts out his all-purpose solution to Cuba's woes: "Kill Castro, the tyrant!"

"Imaginate," says Benes, laughing. "This is Max Lesnik's only employee, and he has the same opinions as [extreme right] Radio Mambi."

Real passion animates these conversations. As the morning ticks away, a shifting cast of voices rises and is silenced. Visitors drop onto the sagging, woebegone sofa, or jump off the corners of battered desks to wave arms in exclamation or to get in an opponent's face, literally, with a finger, a rolled newspaper, or an idea too cogent to be ignored. All the while great clouds of earthy humo roil upward to scuttle along the fiberboard ceiling, and by lunchtime a virtual fog of emotion and exhaled smoke has descended to form an atmosphere that is at once vibrant and dreamy.

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