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On this Friday in late November, Max Lesnik arrives at his storefront shortly before 8:00 p.m. From the outside the West Little Havana location appears to be just a simple tienda peddling cheap knickknacks. But concealed behind the façade is Lesnik's office and that of Replica, the general-interest magazine he founded in 1968.
Tonight the space will undergo a further transformation, for the weekly meeting of the Alianza Martiana will soon be under way. The 71-year-old Lesnik is a rarity in Cuban Miami, where political conservatism, intransigence, and conformity are the custom. Lesnik is an unabashed socialist and champion of free speech who expresses his views despite the very real threat of violence. During the Seventies and Eighties, Lesnik offers as proof, exile extremists planted nine bombs at the former Replica office down the street, of which seven exploded.
Not content with espousing his own principles, Lesnik has created a place where others can gather to express ideas considered heretical by Miami's Cuban-exile leadership. His Alianza has linked more than 100 people who, broadly speaking, constitute el exilio's beleaguered opposition. They are united by a belief that the Cuban embargo must end and the island should draw closer to the United States government. They share another common bond: disgust with Miami's pervasive political corruption. Today, when even the most minor wavering of Fidel Castro's health provokes speculation about a transition for the island nation, these Miami dissidents are emerging from the shadows in order to be seen and heard and recruit new members.
Founded in January 2001, the Alianza Martiana is named after Cuba's great patriot, poet, and journalist José Martí. But despite being firmly grounded in Cuban affairs, Lesnik notes, the group is not restricted to Cubans; a smattering of other nationalities (including non-Hispanic Americans) can be counted among the members. "We picked Martí because there are few figures who are as American and who can unite everyone from Colombians to Puerto Ricans to Anglos," he explains. "And I am sure that if Martí were alive, he wouldn't be in favor of the U.S. policy toward Cuba either."
Milling about the office this night are 26 people, chatting and munching on sausages and crackers. (The Alianza raises money for its activities by selling posters of Martí, holding raffles, and charging a five-dollar monthly membership fee.) The snacks are a prelude to the evening's main event. Often the group meets to view films from the island that members obtain from family and friends. In the weeks to come, for example, they will watch a Cuban television report on the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle. But this Friday one of the Alianza members, Carlos Rivero, is scheduled to deliver a lecture in which he will argue that the United States is the worst terrorist nation in human history.
It's controversial stuff, especially in the aftermath of September 11, and while Lesnik may not agree with all of it, he revels in the fact that such a discussion is taking place at all. "Nowhere else in Miami," he boasts with a smile, "could you find something like this."
As he escorts a visitor through the room before Rivero begins, Lesnik describes the Alianza by detailing what it is not. "We are not ideological or political," he explains. To buttress this he points out Yndamiro Restano, a well-known independent journalist jailed by the Castro regime for five years, and Juan Betancourt, a prominent Cuban human-rights activist also forced into exile. Restano agrees with the assessment. "It's a pluralist group," he says. "There is a liberty of expression [in this room] that is very rare in Miami."
When he first arrived in South Florida in 1996, Restano, who for years battled the Cuban government as a crusading reporter, thought he would find more freedom. "I didn't realize the absolute control the right wing has over the media here," he marvels. "It's a discourse full of hate." On the other hand, Restano adds, the Alianza stands apart from much of Cuban Miami in that no one is here for money or political power. This is all about ideas and open debate.
The group settles down in rows of chairs with Rivero sitting in front. He would seem to be an unlikely candidate for a vitriolic broadside against the United States, yet for the next 45 minutes that's exactly what he delivers. His father was a Batista-era candidate for president. Rivero himself fought in the 2506 Brigade, the exile force that tried to retake Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Now he is a self-styled anti-imperialist.
Lesnik introduces Rivero by noting the controversial nature of his subject and underscoring that the speaker will not be attacking individuals. Then he cedes the floor. Rivero, speaking in Spanish, begins by noting the transgressions against Native Americans and blacks throughout U.S. history. He contends the Civil War had nothing to do with black emancipation and lambastes Abraham Lincoln. "The U.S. even killed Malcolm X," he charges.
Then he lashes out at the United States for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, condemns U.S. involvement in Cuba and Chile, blames this nation for everything bad Israel has ever done, and defends the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by declaring, "It belonged to them in the beginning."
"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.