Miami's Man in Havana

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

Lesnik remained the leader of the Ortodoxo youth until 1957, all the while supported by his father, his in-laws, and Miriam's earnings as a dance teacher. In 1958 he went into the Escambray Mountains to join Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo and the Second Front. Although he carried a weapon, Lesnik says he never shot at anyone. He eventually became chief of propaganda, hosting a daily 30-minute radio program over Havana's Cadena Oriental de Radio.

Despite sharing a goal with Castro -- the overthrow of Batista -- Lesnik says that after the triumph of the revolution, he and his old friend increasingly disagreed over the direction of the new government. Lesnik recalls leaving work one day when he heard that Castro and his entourage were on their way over. "I didn't want to see him, and tried to duck out a side door," he says. "But I ran into him anyway. So I said, 'Fidel, I want to ask you a question. What will happen to Cuba when the United States and Russia divide up the world?' It was a rhetorical question, because I knew that Castro was going to choose the Soviets. I thought that was wrong, unacceptable then. But now I think it was the right choice. So Castro was wiser than I was."

At the time, however, the differences between friends pushed Lesnik to choose the ultimate expression of disapproval -- exile. Leaving Miriam and two young daughters behind, Lesnik, along with Gutierrez-Menoyo and eleven others, left Cuba in two small boats in January 1961, among the first of tens of thousands of men, women, and children who have crossed the Florida Straits in everything from a tugboat to an inner tube.

After a voyage of 24 hours, the group landed on the beach in Key West and then walked to a nearby bar to drink coffee and Coca-Cola until immigration officials showed up. After being bused to Miami, the group of thirteen men was flown to McAllen, Texas, where they spent six months in detention, missing the Bay of Pigs invasion. (Miriam and the couple's two daughters arrived here later that year through Mexico.)

When the refugees were released in the summer of 1961, Gutierrez-Menoyo took up the banner of armed struggle and, with fellow refugee Andres Nazario Sargen, founded the paramilitary group Alpha 66 to topple Castro by force. Gutierrez-Menoyo led an invasion of the island in 1964, was captured, and spent 22 years in prison.

Lesnik chose the path of nonviolent opposition and became a journalist. He first worked for radio station WMIE, where he sold ads and then spent $75 from his weekly paycheck to buy fifteen minutes of daily airtime, launching one of the first regular Spanish-language programs in Miami.

Replica was founded in 1968 in the garage of the Lesniks' home near Coral Way. It was a small eight-page tabloid newspaper designed -- as the name indicates -- as an answer to La Patria, a Batistiano paper widely circulated in Little Havana. "I wanted to challenge the Cuban community, and insist that we revolutionaries here had the right to speak," Lesnik says. "As a social democrat, I wanted to maintain the goals of the Cuban revolution."

By 1972, the business had moved from the garage to a rented office, and Replica the newspaper had spawned a weekly magazine -- also called Replica -- that looked much like Bohemia, the venerable Cuban publication that in the Fifties mixed local political news, world affairs, celebrity coverage, society gossip, and lots of photos. The first issue of the magazine -- published in September 1970 -- cost ten cents, and included articles on President Nixon's Cuba policy as well as on Castro's ties to the Soviet Union.

As circulation in Miami, New Jersey, New York, and Puerto Rico grew to 35,000 a week, Replica began to attract an eclectic group of contributing writers, including Madrid-based columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner; the filmmaker Jorge Ulla; Augustin Alles, later with Radio Marti; Armando Perez-Roura, the far-right voice of Radio Mambi; and Tomas Regalado, the talk show host and Miami city commissioner.

The magazine and the newspaper also attracted more dozens of local advertisers as well as national accounts from Seagram and Lorrilard Tobacco. By the mid-Seventies some 40 employees were producing the paper, which featured local news and commentary; the magazine; a Spanish-language television guide, called Mira TV; and a Miami tourism magazine.

With more opinionated writers, and Lesnik's willingness to discuss the hot-button issues of exile, both the newspaper and the magazine began attracting enemies. Although Lesnik did not editorialize or mandate a particular line of political thought in the articles he published, simply serving as an open forum was enough to give offense in the superheated atmosphere of anti-Castro Miami. The first bomb directed at the publisher went off in March 1974, a nighttime blast that gutted the sales office. The fallout was immediate: A weekly 30-minute talk show Lesnik hosted on WLTV-TV (Channel 23) was abruptly canceled after just five programs when advertisers threatened to boycott the station.

That same year a contributor named Luciano Nieves suggested in Replica's pages that there might be a political solution to the Cuba problem, and for that Nieves was targeted, first by someone who broke a chair over his head in Versailles, the SW Eighth Street restaurant, and then by various failed murder attempts.

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