Miami's Man in Havana

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

In February 1975 Nieves published another article in Replica, declaring that he would return to Cuba if Castro would permit elections. Two days later he was gunned down in the parking lot of what is now called Miami Children's Hospital.

Myriam Lesnik Chavez, the elder of the Lesniks' two daughters, says that she and her sister Vivien did not live in fear during those days. "I was very cognizant that we were different because my father was controversial," says Chavez. "When we started to drive, we had to look under the cars to check for bombs, and park in places that were visible. I remember waking up and finding red paint splattered on the car. And I remember hearing kids say, 'Don't go to Max Lesnik's house -- you might get hurt.' But I wasn't scared. It was just a part of our life." Now 41, Chavez, a lawyer and novelist, lives in northern California and is married to Fernando Chavez, the son of Cesar Chavez, the late leader of the United Farm Workers of America.

Lesnik returned to Cuba for the first time in 1978 with his friend Bernardo Benes, organizer of the controversial dialogue between the "Committee of 75" (a group of Miami exiles), and the Cuban government that resulted in the release of 3600 political prisoners. Weeks before the dialogo, Lesnik met with Castro in the president's office. "I remember asking him, 'What shall I call you? AComandante?' "And he said, 'For you I am Fidel, in the same way as when we talked at the University of Havana.' And we resumed the relationship we had, as friends."

That reunion was never publicized, or widely known in Miami. But in keeping with the nature of exile affairs in Miami, Replica came under increasing suspicion, and then increasing attack, for refusing to condemn the notion of dialogue with the Cuban government. Another bomb at Replica's offices went off in September 1981. In January 1983 a pound of C-4 explosive -- plastered with Omega 7 stickers -- was found attached to the electrical meter on the back wall of the office.

The bombs, placed at night, were powerful but apparently meant to intimidate rather than kill or maim. And advertisers got the message, pulling out of Lesnik publications in a stampede. Lesnik says he could have saved the business by adopting a more conservative political line, and especially by running columns denouncing his friend Benes. But he didn't, and he paid for it. First, the tourism magazine folded after airlines stopped distributing it. Next, the paper went under for lack of advertisers. Then the TV guide. By 1986 only the magazine was left, and it favored stories on the Spanish royals, not Cuban realpolitik. Lesnik says he lost holdings worth about two million dollars.

Today Lesnik owns the building on NW Seventh Street where Replica is still published. "I don't really read it," Lesnik says. "My wife does it. It's her magazine."

His visits to Cuba now are personal, not political, Lesnik says. He is writing his memoirs, structuring the book around the eighteen different homes he has lived in during his life, including thirteen in Cuba. When on the island, he says, "I go to these houses, talk to the people there now, take pictures and remember what happened." He is up to the Forties.

And he also frequently sees Castro, always at the behest of the Cuban president. "I never ask to see him; he calls for me, usually late at night, and there might be several other people there," says Lesnik, including top government officials such as Roberto Robaina, Ricardo Alarcón, Carlos Lage; historian Eusebio Leal, and Castro's secretaries, Felipe Perez-Roque and Chomy Miyar. "We have a friendly relationship in the same way as when we were young. Not political, but personal, as when you have a friend for many years. We discuss times past. We talk about university days, my life, his diet, his swimming regimen. He asks a lot of questions. He is curious about everything."

Two years ago Lesnik's wife and daughter Myriam joined the group for a dinner that lasted until 4:00 a.m. Lesnik's younger daughter, Vivien Lesnik Weisman, was also scheduled to dine in the palace that night but missed the dinner when she had to return to Seattle unexpectedly after her husband Richard Weisman was hospitalized. Hearing this, Castro had Lesnik call the United States on his guest's cellular phone. "Vivien, there is a good friend of mine here who wants to talk to you. His name is Alejandro," said Lesnik to his daughter, referring to the nombre de guerra Castro used in the Sierra Maestra. "We miss you here," Castro told Vivien, beginning a long, rambling chat in which he asked details about her husband's health, offered advice about nutrition, and then joked that if agents from the Central Intelligence Agency were listening, they were probably trying to figure out what coded message was contained in the word "ulcer."

"Castro is quite a talker," said Weisman, age 38, also a lawyer and now a resident of Los Angeles, where she is working on a master's degree in filmmaking at UCLA.

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