Miami's Man in Havana
It's high noon in Cuban Miami. Knives and forks are clanging on the plates at the Rancho Luna restaurant and waitresses are bustling around ferrying loads of pollo asado and moros to hungry diners. Owner Jorge Rabelo describes his Little Havana restaurant as "un pedazo de Cuba bajo el cielo de Miami" -- a piece of Cuba under the Miami sky. It is one of the oldest Cuban eateries in South Florida, and with old Cuban coins and postcards imbedded in the plastic tabletops and worn flags on the walls, the place has the feel of a nostalgia museum. AClaro! A lot of impassioned talk has bounced off these walls.
Through the lunchtime hubbub, conversations ebb and flow; people come and go. Here a table of businessmen in dress shirts and neckties, there an office party of women in suits, and now a couple of T-shirted guys splattered with plaster or paint. In the commotion of comida, no one pays any attention at all to the three men at the small table in the corner. This trio has finished lunch, pushed aside the coffee cups, and now each is gripping a microphone and talking, in Spanish, Cuban-style.
"Oyeme, chico," says Max Lesnik, who is wearing dark wire-rim sunglasses and speaking with intensity and clarity. "I was in Havana last week. I know there are shortages and hardships there. No es facil. But the problems of the Cuban people are the direct result of the U.S. embargo. The embargo has forced Castro to take the measures he has."
"That's absurd," says a younger man on the other side of the table, his voice rising. "The Soviets gave Cuba billions of dollars a year in subsidies. I was in prison during those years. And there was no food then in the jails, and not on the street either. So don't speak nonsense like this."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," interrupts the third man, Salvador Lew, the veteran broadcaster who is serving as moderator of this exchange and is sending it out live over the airwaves of radio station WRHC-AM (1560). He hosts this show, called La Pena Azul, every weekday between noon and 1:00 p.m.
Lew knows that many of his listeners will find Lesnik's opinions infuriating. Indeed, in recent months the editor and publisher of Replica magazine has been a guest many times, "and I am always criticized for having him on the air," Lew notes of his old friend.
Still, Lew says, "I know Max to be a very dynamic person, very smart, a man who has been in public life for many years, a man who sometimes can be right or sometimes very wrong, but always personally honest."
On this day, the counterweight to Lesnik's leftist avoirdupois is Pedro Corzo -- the speaker who interjected "That's absurd" -- a Cuban who spent nine years in Castro's jails as a political prisoner before coming to Miami about eight years ago. He is a reporter for WRHC, where Lew is the director of public relations, and Corzo's on-air role is to keep Lesnik from running away with the program or turning it into an apologia for the Castro regime.
Over Corzo's protestations, Lesnik insists that the U.S. embargo of Cuba serves only to punish ordinary Cuban citizens; it provides Castro an excuse for the failures of the government and should be ended. In the wake of Pope John Paul II's visit to the island in January, of course, many exiles are concluding that the 36-year-old trade ban is an anachronism.
But as usual, Lesnik goes further than that. Lesnik not only supports lifting the embargo and establishing normal relations with the Castro government, he also describes Fidel Castro as his friend, a companero from the days when both were firebrand law students and members of the same political party. Politics came between them nearly four decades ago -- and led to Lesnik's arrival in Miami. But the personal breach has been mended and now Castro is an old pal whom Lesnik chats with regularly over late-night dinners in the comandante's Havana office.
Moreover, Lesnik genuinely likes Castro and enjoys his company. "Fidel Castro can be a very charming person," says Lesnik. "He can talk about anything -- food, wine, science, politics. It is not Castro's fault that he is an intelligent person. Or that his enemies are so stupid."
For someone like Corzo, who suffered imprisonment under Castro, Lesnik's proclamations seem outrageous, and even Lew wonders what his radio guest means when he suggests that Castro wants to reach an accommodation with the United States before he dies. "Max has not been going to Cuba as a tourist," Lew says. "I think Max has been trying to negotiate a way out for Castro. But Castro wants to die in power."
Almost as an afterthought, Lew adds: "Max is not Castrista. He is not Marxista. He is Maxista."
Over the past 37 years, since he arrived in Miami as a refugee from the revolution he helped foment, no one in el exilio has offended more people than Max Lesnik. He counts himself as a social democrat, a man still true to the early ideals of the Cuban revolution. In a city that has set new standards for intolerance when it comes to Cuban issues, he has begun to talk openly of his long-standing friendship with the most hated man in Miami -- Fidel Castro.
For years, Lesnik was blacklisted from the Miami airwaves. When Ronald Reagan and George Bush ruled in Washington, and Jorge Mas Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation drew the boundaries of public discussion in Miami, Lesnik and his incendiary views were off-limits. But Reagan, Bush, and Mas Canosa are gone. Economic necessity has forced Castro to open his markets. American politicians and businessmen and women are junketing to the island regularly. The Pope has made talk of ending the embargo safe for everyone. And, at age 67, Max is back.
He is on the air with Lew, with Tomas Garcia Fuste on La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670), and on the CBS Spanish-language news program Telenoticias. He has also made a pilot of a cable television show, modeled after CNN's Crossfire, which he has been shopping to the local Spanish-language stations. On what he calls Polemica a Todo Color (Polemics of Every Stripe), Lesnik, of course, occupies the seat to the left. He has enlisted old friend and former Batistiano Santiago Rey to represent the right. WLTV-TV (Channel 23), among other local stations, has had a look at the tape but so far none seems interested.
Lesnik says he knows many in Miami don't want to hear what he has to say. The paramilitary group Alpha 66, for example, has been plastering Dade County with a flyer that reads: "La sangre de los martires no permite el dialogo con el verdugo" (The blood of martyrs does not permit dialogue with the executioner), and, quoting Cuban hero Jose Marti, "Visitar la casa del opresor es aprobar la opresión" (To visit the house of the oppressor is to approve of oppression). Alpha 66 leader Andres Nazario Sargen -- who came to Miami 37 years ago in the same 24-foot boat that brought Lesnik -- says the broadsides are not directed solely at his former friend, but at all those "who hurt the cause of Cuba. Fidel Castro is an egomaniac, and Max Lesnik counts for nothing."
Cuba scholar Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami is another who thinks talking to Castro is the ultimate in futility. "I have no hope that Castro is going to change because [Lesnik] knew him in their student days. These are illusions," says Suchlicki.
Even one of Lesnik's oldest and closest friends, former banker and fellow exile Bernardo Benes, suggests that Max is being naive. "Max is respected in Cuba, and he may feel more at home there than he does here, even though he is not a communist," Benes says. "But he is fooling himself with Castro. Fidel has no friends."
But Lesnik is not about to stop talking. "There is a little light in the tunnel, and I am trying to expand that," he says of the future of U.S.-Cuba relations. "If I keep opening my mouth, maybe others will speak out too."
As for his those who oppose him, Lesnik says, "I understand that. But truly, I don't care about the opinion of my enemies. I am a journalist, and as a journalist it is important to be controversial. The Cuban issue is controversial, and I want to provoke discussion. I am committed to ideas and ideals. And I will continue to express my opinions, even as our intolerance and lack of respect continue."
Lesnik expresses particular scorn for "those people who claim to be democrats while acting as fascists. I will always be a target of these people. They think that I am in some way the focal point of a trend. And the trend in Miami is to move to an open society." Although his relationship with the Cuban president is founded on the past, Lesnik insists, its significance is tied to Cuba's future. "Look, I can go there and speak to the chairman of the revolution. And I can tell him that I would prefer that Cuba be more open than it is now. Which I do," says Lesnik, a short, stocky man with swept-back thinning hair.
"I am not the link between the governments of the U.S. and Cuba. As a Cuban, I cannot be a mediator, because a Cuban is always suspect as either an agent of the CIA or an agent of Castro. And if you try to mediate, you get crucified by the Cuban community.
"Castro is a communist and I am a socialist, and that is a fundamental disagreement," Lesnik says. "But I have a good relationship with Fidel Castro as a man, an old friend. Right now we don't discuss ideology. But in the future, maybe having an open channel to him can help improve relations."
Over the years in Miami, people have been beaten up, had their businesses bombed, and even been killed for much less than claiming Fidel Castro as a friend. In fact, Max Lesnik has been threatened many times, and his place of business -- the offices of Replica -- has been bombed at least seven times. During the Seventies and early Eighties, when the magazine was vital and opinionated, Replica was a flashpoint for controversy. The owners of many Miami stores and newsstands were afraid to to carry it on their shelves.
The Replica of today is a different magazine. As a 50-page monthly, it still carries a few national advertisements -- Honda, Kodak, and Goya, for example -- but there are very few local ads, and no coverage of local exile affairs of the kind that once caused Lesnik to use a bodyguard just to get from his home to the office. The magazine now has a mail-only circulation of 80,000. A recent cover story was a belated tribute to Elvis Presley after the twentieth anniversary of his death. Replica has nothing to say about Cuba or the Cuban diaspora.
But Lesnik does.
Although Lesnik is modest, if not coy, about his contacts and influence within the Cuban regime, his network of close friends in the government there includes university mate Alfredo Guevara, a Castro confidant who now heads the nation's institute of art and film, and top Communist Party official Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is Lesnik's second cousin.
"Max is probably one of most intelligent, most knowledgeable players on the whole Cuba problem," says Miami attorney Alfredo Duran, former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "He can take the temperature of Cuba policy here and there better than anyone I know. I don't know if he wields influence behind the scenes, but I often use him as a touchstone for getting my bearings on Cuba." Although he is often invited to speak out on Cuba now, Lesnik, like so many exiles preoccupied with their homeland, has hours of opinions and only a few minutes of airtime. Thus the wealth of thoughts about the past and future of Cuba is liberally spent in the daily forum he conducts inside the dingy warren of the offices he owns on NW Seventh Street. Here, in what Lesnik calls a "tertulia cubana" (Cuban salon), Lesnik presides over what has become one of the most open, free-ranging, and at times raucous drop-in meeting houses in Miami. The topic of the day is always Cuba.
Max arrives about 9:00 a.m. and briefly goes over the day's publishing business with his wife Miriam, who runs the magazine and writes much of its copy, under the pen name Miriam del Bosque. Although Lesnik occasionally writes an article himself -- under his own name, or using the nom de plume Edgardo Menendez -- his real work is keeping current about Cuban affairs here and on the island, and furthering his intention to again serve as a lightning rod for controversy.
When Lesnik fires up a Monte Cristo No. 1 or a Cohiba Lancero -- which he buys by the box in Havana -- the lamp of conversation is lit, and almost anyone might show up. Frequent participants -- all as opinionated as Lesnik himself, and hardly sycophantic Maxistas -- include Benes, a lawyer who now works as an international consultant, after years in which he was all but unemployable in Miami because of his outspoken promotion of dialogue with the Castro government as far back as the early Seventies; Dr. Jose Alfonso, a former Cuban political prisoner who now publishes a monthly newspaper called Que Pasa ... Miami; George Volsky, a retired New York Times correspondent who spent many years living in and writing about Cuba; Dueny Perez-Alamo, a former member of Castro's 26 of July Movement who defected in 1961 but who now visits Cuba; conservative Miami lawyer Leonardo Viota, author of the ubiquitous bumper sticker "No Castro, No Problem"; and Cuban American National Foundation member Luis Tijera, a frequent visitor from Chicago.
The day's news may trigger the exchanges, but the direction of the conversation is as quirky and spontaneous as the cast of characters. On the day after the Clinton administration announced changes in the policy affecting travel and remittances to Cuba, Benes begins by commenting on the large number of older, conservative exiles who now are talking about traveling to the island. "Where were these people twenty years ago? They were attacking me for saying the same thing!" he says.
From here, the conversation zigzags like a lightning bolt, from Castro agents in Miami to the Mariel boatlift to a meeting with Castro in the mountains in 1956 to the socialist doctrine of the "new man." As the talk goes on, Mario Cabrera, who works for the Lesniks, darts in and out of the room like a comic Greek chorister, bringing in a colada of Cuban coffee or a telephone message. Each time he passes by, he shouts out his all-purpose solution to Cuba's woes: "Kill Castro, the tyrant!"
"Imaginate," says Benes, laughing. "This is Max Lesnik's only employee, and he has the same opinions as [extreme right] Radio Mambi."
Real passion animates these conversations. As the morning ticks away, a shifting cast of voices rises and is silenced. Visitors drop onto the sagging, woebegone sofa, or jump off the corners of battered desks to wave arms in exclamation or to get in an opponent's face, literally, with a finger, a rolled newspaper, or an idea too cogent to be ignored. All the while great clouds of earthy humo roil upward to scuttle along the fiberboard ceiling, and by lunchtime a virtual fog of emotion and exhaled smoke has descended to form an atmosphere that is at once vibrant and dreamy.
Of course, Lesnik is blowing smoke when he suggests that he helped bring about Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in January by acting as an intermediary between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government.
Or is he?
Indeed, Lesnik is pals with the Vatican's ambassador to Cuba, Monsignor Benniamino Stella, and it may be true, as he says, that he was the only Cuban from outside the island to meet with the pontiff. And he did meet with the Pope -- here's the picture to prove it. Max, in a dark suit, blue shirt, and red tie, is shaking the hand of the Holy Father, hunched and unsteady-looking, as Stella makes the introduction.
"The monsignor introduced me like this: 'Max Lesnik es un buen amigo de la casa' -- a good friend of the house,'" says Lesnik. "I told the Pope that I lived in Miami, that I was Jewish, but my father was born in Poland. And the Pope said, 'God bless the Poles.' What's important is that the Pope also believes that the way for things to change in Cuba is for the U.S. to lift the embargo."
Lesnik was born in the town of Vueltas, in Santa Clara province, in the autumn of 1930. His father was a young Polish farmer who fled his home near the Russian frontier in 1923, two years after war broke out there. Samuel Lesnik, now 94 years old, paid the equivalent of $30 for passage on a steamer to Havana. There, according to family legend, so many Jews had landed as refugees that a black Cuban dockworker welcomed the elder Lesnik to the island in Yiddish. (Two of Samuel Lesnik's brothers followed him to Cuba, while a sister and two other brothers settled in the United States.)
Lesnik's mother, Maria Teresa Menendez, was the daughter of an affluent Cuban family that traces its roots to Asturias, Spain. She is now 82 years old, and both she and her husband -- who followed their son to Miami, by plane, later in 1961 -- occasionally show up in the Replica offices to help Miriam put out the magazine.
In 1933 the Lesniks and their only child, Max, moved to Havana, where Samuel started selling clothing door to door. As a schoolboy, Max says, he received no formal religious training from either his Jewish father or Catholic mother. He does remember, however, his father telling him: "You cannot escape your Jewish heritage." Indeed, like many other members of Cuba's small Jewish community, he was called Polaco, just as many Spaniards were called Gallego. Although Lesnik says he did not take offense at the nickname, and suffered no overt discrimination because of his ethnic heritage, he knew he was different. "Max Lesnik is hard for Cubans to even pronounce," he says.
He remembers that his father made a trip to the United States in the late Forties and returned to report that he found hotels on Miami Beach that he was not permitted to enter.
After graduating from Academia Valmana, a private high school, Lesnik entered the University of Havana in 1948 with plans to become a lawyer. Having grown up hearing talk of the Spanish Civil War, and with an uncle on his mother's side who took part in the 1933 overthrow of Cuban president Gerardo Machado, Lesnik arrived at the university with distinct leftist leanings. It did not take long before he and Castro -- two years ahead of him in school -- became companeros in their shared opposition to the corrupt government of Carlos Prio Socarras.
Both Castro and Lesnik became leaders in the Ortodoxo party's youth section, and they became friends. "From the beginning, Castro was a true leader, taller than the average Cuban, dynamic, impulsive, and filled with ideas about participating in the student movement," Lesnik recalls.
In November 1949 Lesnik may have saved Castro's life. After Castro delivered a fiery speech to some 500 University of Havana students and administrators in which he denounced and named a host of people profiting from corruption tolerated by the Prio government, Lesnik stashed Fidel in his apartment for fifteen days as he hid from armed political thugs. Weeks later, after Castro decided to flee Cuba for a while, it was Lesnik who drove him to the train station for a trip that took him first to his hometown in Oriente, then to New York City.
By 1951 Castro had returned to Cuba and graduated from the university with a law degree, and Lesnik, at the age of 21, had been elected president of the Ortodoxo youth movement. After the suicide of Eduardo Chibas, the leader of the center-left Ortodoxos, and the return to Cuba from exile of Fulgencio Batista, Castro announced his intention to run for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. Lesnik backed his candidacy.
The elections were never held. In March 1952 Batista took over the government with a bloodless coup d'etat that ousted Prio and installed a dictatorial regime that helped spur the revolution.
Over most of the next seven years, as Castro waged war, Lesnik -- his law schooling interrupted by the coup -- worked as a journalist and Ortodoxo activist. In 1955 he married Miriam Alvarez, a former dancer who taught ballet. For a honeymoon that December the couple traveled to Mexico City, where they were met by the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, who had fled the island and were then plotting their return as guerrilleros and hungry for news from home.
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.
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.
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.