Miami's Man in Havana

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

Of course, Lesnik is blowing smoke when he suggests that he helped bring about Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in January by acting as an intermediary between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government.

Or is he?
Indeed, Lesnik is pals with the Vatican's ambassador to Cuba, Monsignor Benniamino Stella, and it may be true, as he says, that he was the only Cuban from outside the island to meet with the pontiff. And he did meet with the Pope -- here's the picture to prove it. Max, in a dark suit, blue shirt, and red tie, is shaking the hand of the Holy Father, hunched and unsteady-looking, as Stella makes the introduction.

"The monsignor introduced me like this: 'Max Lesnik es un buen amigo de la casa' -- a good friend of the house,'" says Lesnik. "I told the Pope that I lived in Miami, that I was Jewish, but my father was born in Poland. And the Pope said, 'God bless the Poles.' What's important is that the Pope also believes that the way for things to change in Cuba is for the U.S. to lift the embargo."

Lesnik was born in the town of Vueltas, in Santa Clara province, in the autumn of 1930. His father was a young Polish farmer who fled his home near the Russian frontier in 1923, two years after war broke out there. Samuel Lesnik, now 94 years old, paid the equivalent of $30 for passage on a steamer to Havana. There, according to family legend, so many Jews had landed as refugees that a black Cuban dockworker welcomed the elder Lesnik to the island in Yiddish. (Two of Samuel Lesnik's brothers followed him to Cuba, while a sister and two other brothers settled in the United States.)

Lesnik's mother, Maria Teresa Menendez, was the daughter of an affluent Cuban family that traces its roots to Asturias, Spain. She is now 82 years old, and both she and her husband -- who followed their son to Miami, by plane, later in 1961 -- occasionally show up in the Replica offices to help Miriam put out the magazine.

In 1933 the Lesniks and their only child, Max, moved to Havana, where Samuel started selling clothing door to door. As a schoolboy, Max says, he received no formal religious training from either his Jewish father or Catholic mother. He does remember, however, his father telling him: "You cannot escape your Jewish heritage." Indeed, like many other members of Cuba's small Jewish community, he was called Polaco, just as many Spaniards were called Gallego. Although Lesnik says he did not take offense at the nickname, and suffered no overt discrimination because of his ethnic heritage, he knew he was different. "Max Lesnik is hard for Cubans to even pronounce," he says.

He remembers that his father made a trip to the United States in the late Forties and returned to report that he found hotels on Miami Beach that he was not permitted to enter.

After graduating from Academia Valmana, a private high school, Lesnik entered the University of Havana in 1948 with plans to become a lawyer. Having grown up hearing talk of the Spanish Civil War, and with an uncle on his mother's side who took part in the 1933 overthrow of Cuban president Gerardo Machado, Lesnik arrived at the university with distinct leftist leanings. It did not take long before he and Castro -- two years ahead of him in school -- became companeros in their shared opposition to the corrupt government of Carlos Prio Socarras.

Both Castro and Lesnik became leaders in the Ortodoxo party's youth section, and they became friends. "From the beginning, Castro was a true leader, taller than the average Cuban, dynamic, impulsive, and filled with ideas about participating in the student movement," Lesnik recalls.

In November 1949 Lesnik may have saved Castro's life. After Castro delivered a fiery speech to some 500 University of Havana students and administrators in which he denounced and named a host of people profiting from corruption tolerated by the Prio government, Lesnik stashed Fidel in his apartment for fifteen days as he hid from armed political thugs. Weeks later, after Castro decided to flee Cuba for a while, it was Lesnik who drove him to the train station for a trip that took him first to his hometown in Oriente, then to New York City.

By 1951 Castro had returned to Cuba and graduated from the university with a law degree, and Lesnik, at the age of 21, had been elected president of the Ortodoxo youth movement. After the suicide of Eduardo Chibas, the leader of the center-left Ortodoxos, and the return to Cuba from exile of Fulgencio Batista, Castro announced his intention to run for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. Lesnik backed his candidacy.

The elections were never held. In March 1952 Batista took over the government with a bloodless coup d'etat that ousted Prio and installed a dictatorial regime that helped spur the revolution.

Over most of the next seven years, as Castro waged war, Lesnik -- his law schooling interrupted by the coup -- worked as a journalist and Ortodoxo activist. In 1955 he married Miriam Alvarez, a former dancer who taught ballet. For a honeymoon that December the couple traveled to Mexico City, where they were met by the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, who had fled the island and were then plotting their return as guerrilleros and hungry for news from home.

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