Miami's Cuban exiles voice outrage at lawyer's kiss, praise for Castro

May 08, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

MIAMI -- To many in the Cuban exile community here, it was a kiss of betrayal.

Magda Montiel Davis, the immigration lawyer who bussed Fidel Castro on the cheek during a recent conference with Cuban exiles in Havana and called him "a great teacher," is a woman scorned. And the anti-Castro voices in this steamy, Latin city have let her know what they think of her: Since Miami television stations aired a videotape of a conference reception at which Ms. Montiel Davis delivered the kiss, she has received hate mail and bomb threats.

Critics refer to her as "that woman" and other names not suited to a family newspaper.

On a recent morning, she gathered up her children -- the little ones still in their pajamas -- and fled her Key Biscayne home before a crowd of protesters arrived. Six members of her legal staff quit -- and when Ms. Montiel Davis saw the television footage of their resignations "physically I doubled over. . . . I think this roar came out of me. I was shocked."

"In one day my life has been totally changed. It's just anything beyond your wildest dreams," says Ms. Montiel Davis, the daughter of a Miami banker who came to this country from Cuba as an 8-year-old girl. "The things I have heard said to me over the phone. . . . I cannot understand it and I will never understand [it] because I respect other people's right to differ. And that's something the Cubans have yet to do."

200 at conference

About 200 Cuban exiles attended the conference late last month at the invitation of the Cuban government, which controlled the guest list and discussion topics. Although the news media were barred from the conference, participants were told that a video crew was filming the event for the government's archives.

To understand the uproar and emotional outpouring generated by that 11 1/2 -minute videotape, Antonio Jorge points to the polls of the Cuban exile community here. A majority -- as much as 85 percent -- "irrefutably, unquestionably" opposes the Castro regime, said Mr. Jorge, a professor of international relations and economics at Florida International University.

That same majority also backs the trade embargo against Cuba, he added. Earlier this year, Cuban exiles -- as many as 2,000 from Miami -- rallied in Washington in support of the embargo.

The reaction to Ms. Montiel Davis' comments to Mr. Castro "is to be expected from a community that is highly frustrated, that has been here 35 years and anxiously awaiting the downfall of Fidel Castro, a downfall that never takes place. . . . There is a need to express the rejection to Castro on the part of many people and Magda's actions, by being the antithesis or the opposite of those feelings, then become the focus of those feelings of criticism and contempt. She kind of becomes a symbol and anti-hero."

As one of Ms. Montiel Davis' defenders put it: "In the eyes of people in this community Magda made a unforgettable mistake. For that she has been vilified, defamed and attacked."

In central Miami (which includes Miami city, Hialeah and Miami Beach), Hispanics account for 430,956 of the 639,191 population, according to the latest census figures. Of the Hispanics, 280,697 are of Cuban descent.

In Little Havana, there are organizations that cater to the thousands of Cuban refugees who arrive yearly in Miami and groups dedicated to the overthrow of the Castro regime. Thousands of exiles have themselves or their families been victims of the Castro regime, whether through political repression, torture or firing squads.

In this cultural context, criticism of Cuban exiles such as Ms. Montiel Davis who attended the conference at the government's invitation -- those who did not support the revolution were left off the guest list -- is spoken freely.

Some relaxation seen

And yet, in the past five years, Maria de los Angeles Torres, a Latino expert and political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has seen changes in the Miami exile community that suggest a softening of attitudes. She points to two Cuban film festivals held recently in Miami that drew 800 or more people.

"Seven years ago that wouldn't happen in Miami," said Ms. Torres, who attended the Havana conference and was "disgusted" by the government's manipulation of the event.

Ms. Torres also attributes the change in Cuban attitudes in Miami to the 50,000 or so tourists from Cuba who have been permitted to travel to United States. The face of the enemy is no longer just the bearded, cigar-smoking Fidel.

The political and cultural dynamic in Miami is unlike any in the country, Ms. Torres said. She condemned as "extreme" the reaction to the Montiel Davis kiss and noted that in the past Cuban exiles who have reached out to the Castro regime have been bombed or killed.

"One of the things that has happened to Cubans both inside and outside of a Cuba [is] we have been forced to choose sides. And our loyalties are more complicated than that," she said.

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