Voices in the Wilderness

Max Lesnik and his group, Alianza Martiana, are reminders that not all Cuban exiles think alike

"These are the people who accuse Cuba of being terrorist," he says angrily, "but the [United States] is [supposedly] the saint of the world."

When he tries to pin the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor on U.S. forces, a heated discussion breaks out among audience members. He finally loses the crowd when he suggests that the moon landing in 1969 was faked. At this point a few participants bolt for the door.

Rivero raises his voice in conclusion: "The imperial United States is the greatest assassin of human history. It is the greatest criminal delinquent of all humanity." The crowd applauds, some more boisterously than others.

Lesnik steps outside, where a small group is voicing its anger. One member suggests it's a mistake for Lesnik to allow Rivero to talk. He disagrees. "This is what I understand democracy and liberty to be," argues the long-time journalist. "I'm not saying that what he said was true. His points are polemical and many don't agree, but he is a member and if he asks to give a talk, we have to let him."

In an attempt to provide balance, Lesnik arranges for another Alianza member to present a rebuttal the following week. It's the kind of give and take he believes is not possible with exile hard-liners like Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) general manager Armando Perez-Roura. "We would welcome them here to express themselves in our forum, although they won't come," he shrugs. "We only ask that they allow us to express ourselves in their forum."

The following week a table is adorned with a small American flag. In another irony the man who has chosen to defend the United States lost a brother fighting with Castro in the attack on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953. Miguel Guitart also fought with Castro's forces to repel the exile invaders at the Bay of Pigs.

He begins by introducing himself as one of the more humble members of the group, the one who always goes out and fetches coffee. Guitart then admits he did not come prepared like Rivero, but in the end the simplicity of his presentation carries its own power.

He suffered exile twice, once under Batista and again under Castro. "This country saved my life," he says with feeling. "When our family came to the United States, it wasn't because we wanted to. It was exile or prison. I went to the embassy and they said, “We'll give you a visa immediately.' I would be an ingrate if I didn't appreciate this."

The point of Alianza Martiana, he asserts, is not to attack the United States, especially at this time. "The Alianza should not convert itself into an anti-American organization," he insists. "This country is at war, and don't think we are not."

While staring at Carlos Rivero, Guitart goes on to recount the horrors of the Bay of Pigs. "[The Bay of Pigs] was driven by imperialism, but today ... we have to express solidarity with the American nation," he stresses.

As Rivero rises to defend the position he took a week earlier, several in the audience groan. Lesnik steps in and tries to restore order. Later he muses about these two former antagonists still bitter over 40-year-old events. "The Bay of Pigs left a lot of open wounds," he notes. "Rivero is speaking from a nationalist view. At the bottom of the debate, it's irreconcilable."

Overall, though, Lesnik is pleased with the interchange. "Why is the word dialogue a bad word in Miami?" he asks. "If we learned anything here, it should have been about a spirit of tolerance."

Although he and the Alianza are doing their part to foster that spirit, it's still something of a risky endeavor. At the end of the night, Lesnik securely locks up the storefront, cloaking the space until a new round of passionate debate and divergent views brings it to life again.

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