The Miami Herald
May 1, 1994, 1

Prelude to a Kiss: The Odyssey of Magda Montiel Davies

FABIOLA SANTIAGO Herald Staff Writer

Magda Montiel was voted Miss Miami Central High, the most popular girl in the Class of 1971 -- a year the school motto declared "Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin With Us."

In her home town today, Magda Montiel Davis -- the 41-year- old immigration lawyer captured on videotape planting a kiss on Fidel Castro's cheek and praising him as her "great teacher" -- is the most criticized Miami Cuban to emerge from a controversial conference in Havana between exiles and the government.

The images of Montiel Davis adoringly looking up at Castro, their hands clasped, have enraged Cuban exiles and inspired virulent words and insults. "Insensitive. Stupid. Naive," even her friends say.

"My family is destroyed," said her father, Jose R. "Bebo" Montiel, a banker who describes himself as fervently anti- Communist and anti-Fidelista. "I have never agreed with her ideas, but I love her very much. I respect her, and she respects me.

"My family is suffering tremendously," he allowed, his voice breaking. "This is the worst punishment God could have given me."

Death and bomb threats have been called to her home and office. Her entire staff quit in protest. Her car was attacked by protesters as she left her Southwest Miami office a few days ago. Her children have been harangued in school. Protesters marched on her Key Biscayne neighborhood Friday. She lives surrounded by police and security guards.

Montiel Davis declined to be interviewed for this story.

Her father and others point out that Montiel Davis was probably the only conference participant who asked top-ranking Cubans for an explanation about the fusilados, those killed by firing squads. But she is also shown on the video later letting Castro off the hook. After Castro noted that her questions on the fusilados went unanswered, Montiel Davis reassured him, "Someday you will explain it to me."

Jose Montiel cannot understand it, he says. "No me lo explico."

Perhaps one explanation is that in many ways, the story of Magda Montiel Davis -- "excellent mother" of five children, ages 3 to 18, and brilliant lawyer to refugees -- is as complex as that of some exiles in her generation of Cuban Americans.

Caught between two worlds, loving and rejecting them at the same time, they are familiar with both, expert in neither.

She was born in the Cuban capital Feb. 28, 1953, and was baptized Magda de la Caridad Montiel, a middle name inspired by Cuba's patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad, Our Lady of Charity.

Her father, the business manager of the Cuban professional baseball team, the Sugar Kings, was a CIA operative -- "and proud of it." Montiel hid Bay of Pigs invasion conspirators in his Havana home.

After the invasion, he and his family fled the island with the help of a friend who put them on a plane using fake names. His best friend, Mingo Trueba, was among the fusilados.

Magda was 8 then, the younger of two sisters. "She saw all that," her father said.

In exile, the Montiel family lived the first three years in Jacksonville, where Bebo Montiel was again business manager of another minor league baseball team. When they came to Miami, they moved into the neighborhood near the north campus of Miami- Dade Community College, where Magda grew up away from Calle Ocho's saturation of cubania as her father prospered in banking.

In 1971, Central High's Vanguard yearbook noted a Hubert Humphrey press conference, and fashionable teens wore bell bottoms or knee-high boots. The senior class song was the Carpenters' We've Only Just Begun, and the colors scarlet and pink.

If it weren't for a sprinkling of Hispanic surnames and a blank page in the yearbook that blares in bold, Vivan los cubanos de Central, "Long live the Cubans of Central," the setting could have been middle America.

Magda's friends called her "Beba" -- the nickname her family had given her. Her friends were named Robin, Joyce and Lynn.

Magda also was voted "Best All Around" at Central and was an honor student, captain of the cheerleading squad, a Key Club sweetheart and an active member of the service club Sorrota.

By the time she graduated from high school, she had become a fully integrated, all-American success story -- with the liberal political conscience of a child from the '60s and '70s.

On the subject of Cuba and Castro, her friends say, Montiel Davis is as "naive" as a lot of middle America.

"One of Magda's biggest problems, and one of the reasons she has gotten herself in so much trouble, is that she's a newcomer to the Cuban topic," said Maria Cristina Herrera, a colleague in the recently formed group Cuban Committee for Democracy, of which Montiel Davis was treasurer until she resigned under fire Wednesday. The group seeks a peaceful, negotiated reform in Cuba.

"She knows very little of the Cuban reality -- which is complicated and has a lot of subtleties -- and her abilities in Spanish are not very good," Herrera said.

"It isn't because she is not mentally capable, it's because she's not agile. Her language is English. She came when she was very young. She's American from head to toe."

"As a teenager," Montiel Davis wrote in a column for The Herald a year ago, "I saw a movie that left a lasting impression on me: the Streisand-Redford duo in The Way We Were, about love amid the backdrop of the horrors of McCarthyism.

"I wanted to become a political activist and marry Robert Redford," she wrote in the column about her bitter experience with exile politics during her unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1992 against Republican incumbent Ileana Ros- Lehtinen. It was Montiel Davis' first run for office.

She did marry "my own version of Redford," Paul E. Davis, now owner of a computer programming business, and named their first daughter Katie, after the Barbra Streisand character. She also went to college, the University of Miami, where she earned a bachelor's degree and went on to law school.

She later divorced Davis, and five years ago married Ira Kurzban, whom she described as "a good Jewish boy from Brooklyn." Raised a Catholic, Montiel Davis has embraced Judaism with fervor. She flew from Havana to Miami last Saturday for her daughter's bat mitzvah and returned for the meeting with Castro on Sunday.

Her relationship with Kurzban brought her close to the public limelight. Kurzban is known as a champion of Haitian refugee rights, a fight he has carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kurzban also has represented more controversial clients: the National Bank of Cuba, a Cuban government institution, and Air Panama, an agency of the Panamanian government at the time it was led by Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Ros-Lehtinen made Kurzban's clients a campaign issue that the local Spanish-language media reported widely. Montiel Davis ignored the criticism and stressed her pro-choice platform to protect abortion rights. Running against a well-known incumbent, in a newly drawn district that was 51 percent Republican and 67 percent Hispanic, completed a prescription for loss.

Despite her defeat, some saw her as a potentially good addition to the political scene. In an editorial endorsing Ros- Lehtinen, The Herald praised Montiel Davis as "smart, compassionate and deeply concerned about public policy . . . fine starting points on which to build a political resume."

Things have suddenly changed. Repudiated by members of the Cuban Committee for Democracy who think her actions will hurt the group's growing acceptance in largely militant Cuban Miami, Montiel Davis resigned Wednesday.

She has equally angered leaders of the Democratic Party, who privately lament that her actions will hurt the party's efforts to convince Cuban Americans that Democrats are not, as portrayed by Republicans, all liberal supporters of Castro.

After the first day of the videotape's showing, she began refusing to talk to the Miami media. But on Friday, Cuba's Radio Rebelde transmitted what was billed as a telephone interview with Montiel Davis -- a move that rekindled community anger.

"The irony of all this," Montiel Davis tells the journalist in Havana, "is that you turn on the TV here and watch Nixon's funeral, as if he were a tremendous hero, and then you see me as if I were a traitor.

"My God," she said, "it isn't as if they found me buying cocaine or killing someone or molesting children. What is this?"

She continues: "The most important thing . . . is that I have defended my dignity and my positions. I have not sold out."

Many people have asked her, she said, to beg forgiveness to save her family from the threats of violence endured by other exiles who have been friendly toward Castro. Others have counseled her to say that as a lawyer, she could have invented an excuse and claim she had an important case pending, "and that's why I acted that way." But she will not lie, she said.

She added in awkward, ungrammatical Spanish: "I stick to my positions no matter what. God willing, I'll emerge from this peacefully, for my safety and the safety and lives of my children."