Miami's Man in Havana

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

After returning two weeks ago from his most recent visit to Cuba, Lesnik is busy settling into a new office, a storefront in a strip of shops just across NW 7th Street from the old Replica headquarters. The place is brighter, cleaner, and airier than his old haunt, but Lesnik brings the past with him: bound volumes of the magazine, some of the same worn furniture, and, for the walls, history in frames. Here is Lesnik, his hair thick and dark, with Gutierrez-Menoyo after their arrival in 1961. Over here is a photo of the Lesniks editing Replica in the garage of the family home. And there a photo and a letter of appreciation from then-Pres. Jimmy Carter.

As he begins to baptize the new offices with cigar smoke, Lesnik launches into a recapitulation of what he noticed in his latest visit to his homeland. He says there are new white, French-made garbage trucks on the streets of Havana now, and, since the Pope's visit, the city seems remarkably clean. He reports that some 500,000 people gathered on the waterfront Malecon on a weekend that he was there to watch an international Jet Ski competition. "And nobody in Miami knows about that," says Lesnik. "We are 45 minutes from Havana, and the Miami Herald never writes about what goes on there. They only write about Cuba as a totalitarian state, where everybody is starving and people have no rights. But that is such a false impression."

Lesnik did not see Fidel Castro on his latest visit; the Cuban leader doesn't invite him to dinner every time his old friend visits. But when asked about Castro, Lesnik describes him as tenacious, pragmatic, and ruthless. Castro is a man, Lesnik says, "who does all he can do to further the revolution. And I think that Castro does things that Fidel does not want to do."

For example? "Well, when Truman dropped the bomb on Japan, 80,000 people were killed in an instant. I am sure he didn't want to do that. And when the tribunal in Cuba condemned [military hero and Castro friend Gen. Arnaldo] Ochoa and others to the firing squad [in 1989, on charges of drug trafficking], Castro may not have wanted to kill them. But as chief of state it was his duty."

To many exiles, defending Castro is unconscionable. In his museumlike office not far from from Lesnik's lair, aged warrior Nazario Sargen and his Alpha 66 colleagues still record daily shortwave broadcast programs in which they urge Cubans on the island to rebel against the Castro government through acts of sabotage.

Even though Nazario Sargen, now 79, admits that the exile dream of armed invasion is dead, the notion of negotiating Cuba's future with Castro is repugnant. "Max can say what he wants. He is free to do that. But in talking to Castro he is completely wrong," he says.

Raul Chibas, who is the brother of the late Ortodoxo party chief Eduardo Chibas, and who fought with Castro in the Sierra Maestra, worries that Lesnik "seems to be very favorable to the regime in Cuba.

"I don't think it's going to do much to talk to Castro, because he doesn't want to change," says Chibas, now 81 years old and retired in Miami, after years of teaching school in Long Island. "But if he thinks there is solution there, it could be worth a try."

Others in Miami are less charitable about the ethics of Lesnik's personal diplomacy. The UM's Suchlicki, for example, sees Lesnik's fidelismo as insulting heresy. "Would you have a problem if someone says Adolf Hitler was not a bad guy because he knew him back in the Forties?" asks Suchlicki. "Fidel Castro has destroyed Cuba."

Told later of Suchlicki's comment, Lesnik fumes. "That is a stupid statement! To compare Hitler with Fidel, you are in some way glorifying Hitler.

"Mira, people have been killed in Cuba, and Castro has suppressed human rights," Lesnik says. "But Castro long ago was trapped between the U.S. and the Soviets. He chose the Soviets. Now he is choosing the Vatican, which in some ways is an escape route for him. I believe that if U.S. policy changes and the embargo is lifted, then Castro won't be able to maintain his hard line against human rights. If he does, his position is indefensible.

"But the U.S. has to work out a solution with Castro and not wait until he is gone. Because if not, Cuba will be ungovernable later."

When next invited to see his old friend Castro, Lesnik says, "I will tell him. I talk to everybody. Always. The revolutionary and the journalist never retire.

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