From the archives: This feature, which was printed in the Miami Herald on February 5, 1995, was written by Herald staff writer Meg Laughlin. Laughlin passed away Wednesday.
Magda Montiel Davis is walking through the lobby of the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts in late December with her aunt and uncle. She is holding the hand of Sadie, her 5-year-old daughter, who is wearing a pink leotard, a pink tutu and ballet slippers. The Nutcracker has just finished and Magda is humming the Waltz of the Flowers, while Sadie twirls in front of her, as if she herself were one of the performers.
Magda is feeling unusually light-hearted and comfortable. Maybe she can go out in public without fear now, as she used to do. As they walk to the car, she tells her aunt gleefully: "No one has said a word. No one."
It is a beautiful, sunny day. She looks up at the blue-blue sky and takes a deep breath. At last, she thinks, she has had a day out as if she's a normal person. There are places she can go with her family, she tells herself. Places like the ballet, where people will not bother her. But just as she gets to her car, she hears her name said in an all-too-familiar way: "Mag- da," a female voice yells, as if just saying the syllables causes distress. Magda fumbles with the car key and does not turn around. Maybe they can get in the car and drive off before the woman gets within talking range.
Never miss a local story.
But it is too late. The blocks Magda from pulling out. Sadie grabs her mother's legs and stands frozen. Magda's uncle walks to the passenger side as if nothing is happening. Her aunt closes her eyes, as if by refusing to see the woman she can make her go away.
But she cannot: "Mag-da," the woman repeats, "have you been to Cuba lately to see Castro? Don't you think it's time you moved there?"
Magda says nothing. She gets in the car, as do Sadie and her aunt and uncle. They drive out of the parking lot in silence. Then her uncle speaks. Why does it always have to happen, he says. It has been eight months, and still it goes on. Why can't they go anywhere or do anything without the ambush?
"How can you go on like this?" he asks Magda.
Magda finds herself trying to soothe her uncle. She is used to the hassles, she says. They don't bother her. He must not let them bother him. They have had a wonderful day. Sadie went into a dream world of sugarplums and fairies. They went hours without being harassed.
"We're fine, aren't we, Sadie?" she says, smiling. But she is churning inside. She'd let her guard down. For a little while she'd allowed herself to forget that she was still paying the price for what she did.
What Magda Montiel Davis did was kiss Fidel Castro on the cheek, thank him for what he had done for her people, and tell him he was a "great teacher." What she did in a reception line at a Havana conference last April transformed her from prominent citizen to pariah in her own community.
Last April, Montiel Davis was one of 250 delegates from 29 countries invited by the Cuban government to take part in a conference in Cuba on immigration issues. Practically everyone who was invited, including Magda, was born in Cuba. And practically everyone supported dialogue with Cuba and opposed the U.S. economic embargo against the communist regime. About 100 of the delegates were from South Florida.
At the end of the three-day conference the Cuban government hosted a reception so the delegates could meet Castro. Some of the guests in the reception line were videotaped greeting Castro, and the Cuban government made the tape available to the world press.
Miami Channels 7 and 4 aired the video, obtained from their national affiliates through a satellite feed from Reuters, a British news service. Michael Putney, the Channel 10 news commentator covering the Cuba conference, was stunned by what he saw on his competitors' newscast and jumped to get it on the air.
"Magda Montiel Davis, a visible, well-known member of Miami's exile community kissing Castro. Her father was in the CIA against him. You don't have to be Armando Perez Roura (head of Radio Mambi) to know that's news in Miami," says Putney.
The part of the tape segment with Castro and Montiel Davis takes about a minute: Their eyes meet. Castro bends forward, smiling. He takes her hand and pulls her to him. Montiel Davis extends her cheek to him, smiling. They exchange kisses on the cheek. He tells her that he wants to respond to the question she'd asked at an earlier meeting about the firing squads in Cuba. She tells him they will talk about it later.
Then she says to Castro: "I want to thank you for what you have done for my people. You have been a great teacher to me."
End of video clip. End of a free life in Miami for Magda Montiel Davis, lawyer, wife, mother and former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Congress.
After meeting Castro, Montiel Davis meandered to the food table and nibbled on a cube of cheese. She thought about how bloated she felt after three days of eating rice and beans and yucca. She thought about how much she wanted to get back to her gym in Miami and work out.
She also thought about meeting Castro for the first time. His appearance had taken her aback. He wasn't scruffy and solemn, as he always seemed on TV in the States. He was tall and well-groomed, with clear, smooth skin. He was also surprisingly relaxed and friendly.
She was startled by his comment to her about the firing squads. How had he known she had asked about that at a meeting a few hours before? She figured he must have been watching on closed-circuit TV when she posed the question to Roberto Robaina, the Cuban minister of foreign relations. She'd leaned into the microphone by her chair and blurted out: "What am I supposed to tell people who are against dialogue with Cuba because of the people killed by the firing squads after the revolution? How do I explain that to them?"
Robaina said nothing. None of the other Cuban government officials jumped in to answer, either. There was an awkward silence in the large conference room. She waited. And then a moderator called on someone else, as if Montiel Davis had never spoken. Some of the conferees later said they wanted to cheer her for such a bold question.
"That was the kind of question we needed more of," says Nena Torres, a De Paul University professor born in Cuba, who sat behind Magda at most of the meetings. "I went to the conference hoping hard questions would be asked and answered. A few people besides Magda did ask them -- Emilio Cueto asked why all Cubans weren't allowed to vote -- but all substantive critiques were shot down."
Other conferees said they were embarrassed by the question. It was not the place to bring up the fusilados, they said. It was a conference for building bridges, not confronting.
"I have great respect for Magda's courage," says Miamian Eddie Levy, who also attended the conference. "But when she asked about the firing squads at the meeting it was out of place. It brought everything to an awkward halt. The room got very tense."
Levy goes on to say: "But the great tragedy of the conference was that Castro was willing to answer her -- to talk about the fusilados on video -- and the opportunity was missed."
Castro left the reception before Magda could bring it up again. But, she says, even if she had had the chance to talk to him again, she wouldn't have broached the subject. Not at a party for him.
"One of my concerns about Cuba is obviously the firing squads," she says. "But a reception wasn't the place to get into it, and I didn't really think he would, anyway. Look at it this way: If you went to a party for Orlando Bosch in Miami, would you press the issue of why he blew up an airplane in Cuba and killed a lot of innocent people? No, you probably wouldn't because you wouldn't expect much of an answer."
A Lot of Explaining to Do
Magda had seen the video camera and mike at the reception. She knew she was being taped. But she didn't know the tape would appear on every Miami station the next night, much less that it would cause a furor that would drastically change her life.
Two days later, she left Cuba. At the Havana airport she was approached by Kerry Sanders of Channel 4 and Barbara Sloan of Channel 6. They asked her what she had to say about the video? Why had she kissed Castro? Why had she thanked him and called him a great teacher?
For the first time, Magda realized that what she had said to Fidel in a reception line was big news in Miami.
She tried to explain to the reporters at the airport that the context of her meeting Castro for the first time had dictated civility. It was a reception in his honor. She tried to explain that she did like some things about Cuba under Castro -- the lack of racial discrimination, the access to education, the free health care. She said she also liked some things about Castro himself and it was these things she was referring to when she called him a great teacher. She admired his independence, his ability to stand up to the hostility of a superpower for 30 years. She believed he had tried to do some good things after the revolution for the masses of Cubans.
She said that she didn't think her entire opinion was represented by a friendly comment in a reception line. "I have been friendly to state officials in Florida who have signed death warrants," she said, "and I am against the death penalty."
After the airport interviews, she called her house in Miami. Her then-15-year-old, Paula, answered the phone. She confirmed that the video had been on TV but, after that, would only say: "It's OK Mommy. Don't worry. It's OK."
Magda tried to reassure herself that it really was OK. She remembered that before the April conference, she had gone on Spanish television and radio to explain why she was going to the first conference for Cuban exiles sanctioned by the Cuban government since 1978, when two of the participants were murdered upon returning to Miami and three others were bombed. "Too many Cubans are suffering from the embargo and we need to talk about how to end it," she said.
Some people had called in to tell her not to cozy up to Castro while she was there, but there had been no threats. She took this to mean that most exiles had become far more tolerant of a range of views on Cuba. She told herself, as her plane from Cuba touched down in Miami, that there would be some criticism, but it would not be like in the old days when exiles wanted blood.
She was too naive. Hating Magda Montiel Davis became common cause in Miami. It united an often fractured community, attracting the right-wing of Cuban exiles as well as moderate exiles, and even some who shared her liberal views.
Magda's political leanings had never been a secret. Just a year earlier, in her losing campaign for Congress against Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, she had run on a decidedly liberal platform: She was for abortion rights, for ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba and for dialogue with the Castro government. Though she was attacked on most Cuban-American radio stations, her views represented those of thousands of moderates and liberals, many of whom were Cuban. She garnered 50,000 votes, one-third of what Ros-Lehtinen received.
But now that she had kissed Castro, she had crossed a line. Many of those who had voted for her -- Cuban and non-Cuban -- were shocked. And the English-speaking media, which previously had left most Castro-lover bashing to the Spanish stations, joined in.
"I covered her congressional campaign," says Putney of Channel 10. "I found her to be genuine and big-hearted. But her demeanor in Cuba went beyond what was acceptable. I defend her right not to be attacked, but I believe the First Amendment should not take precedence over what she did or said."
When Putney interviewed Magda about the incident, he asked her why she thought Castro was a great teacher. She responded that "despite pressure he has stuck to his guns." When the interview was broadcast, Putney matched this comment of Magda's with footage of a man being executed by firing squad in Cuba 35 years ago.
When the chartered plane from Havana full of conference delegates landed in Miami, the flight attendant got on the PA and asked Magda to come to the front of the plane. A police officer boarded and said to her: "Have you thought of police protection?"
"Will I need it?" she asked.
"Yes, definitely," said the policeman.
When she climbed down the gangway, she got the first glimpse of her future: Six runway workers stopped working and stood in a line looking up at her. They were holding their noses.
When her husband, Ira Kurzban -- an immigration attorney like Magda -- picked her up at the airport, he told her he thought they were facing a "big mess."
"You're going to get it from the left and the right," he said. "Just about everybody is mad at you. But you can't become a victim. You have to keep going."
Back at Magda's office a few miles north of downtown Miami, her eight staff members were getting more and more upset as they took the phone calls and faxes that were coming in by the hundreds: "Is this the office of Castro's whore?" "How can you work for a communist traitor?" "Tell that lesbian bitch we know where she lives."
There were calls with gunshot sounds and machine-gun sounds. There were calls asking if Magda knew where her kids were. There were faxes describing her death -- bloody and agonizing -- and her funeral, which "no one would attend."
The most frequently received fax was a cartoon of a naked woman on her hands and knees, with Magda's photograph glued over the face. Castro stands naked behind her, pushing up against her buttocks. The bubble over her head says in Spanish: "Oh my teacher how you do show me a good time."
That night, Tuesday, April 26, Magda got insulting and threatening calls at home until 3 a.m. and continued to answer them rather than take the phone off the hook.
"I had made up my mind to face everything and keep going. It sounds crazy to me now, but I think I thought if I withdrew from anything, I might withdraw from everything. So, I stayed up answering the phone and listening to insults."
That night a Pinkerton guard slept in a van in front of the house. Magda got three hours of sleep, waking up at dawn with what she describes as the feeling one has when waking in the middle of the night after the death of a loved one. The horror had not been a dream. She had to face it anew.
'How Could You?'
The next morning she called her office and asked in a robotic voice how everyone was. Later, most of her staff cited her flat tone as evidence of her lack of concern for them. The case against her was getting closer to home.
"How could you?" her best friend, Lazara Balseiro, an attorney in the office, asked when Montiel Davis walked into her office. "Magda . . . that man, a 'great teacher'? How could you?"
Magda told Lazaro (who rented office space from her) and the rest of her staff that the video was misleading. She said that she had gotten word before she met Castro (and before the video was made) that the families of her Miami clients -- which she referred to as "my people" -- would be granted visas to get out of Cuba. When she thanked Castro for what he had done for "my people," she explained, she wasn't speaking of Cubans in general, but of her clients.
Lazara suggested she hold a press conference and say that she was just flattering Castro to get her way for her clients -- that she did not really mean what she'd said. "I actually considered doing it for about a New York minute," she says, "then totally ruled it out. In Miami, everybody who has ever said anything less than horrible about Castro is forced to take it back whether they believe it or not, and I made up my mind that I would not do that."
Besides, she told Lazara, her clients weren't out of Cuba yet, and she didn't want to jeopardize their chances. And furthermore, she said, it wouldn't be totally honest to say she was only referring to her clients when she thanked Castro for what he had done for her people. In truth, she believed Castro's regime had helped Cuba's poor. She knew Cubans in Cuba, country people, black people, who had told her their lives had improved because of the revolution. They had become engineers and scientists instead of someone's servants, they said.
The staff gathered with Magda in the office kitchen, where they had celebrated birthdays over the years, nursed their babies, talked about everything from their love lives to the trips they and their kids would take with Magda and her kids. But this time, there was not the usual friendliness. They stood with arms folded. No one drank coffee. Everyone had something to say.
Barbara de la Gandara, who had been Magda's secretary for six years, announced she was quitting. Her husband and her family were too upset, she said. They had helped her to see she couldn't work there anymore. Not for Magda, who called Castro "a great teacher." She started to cry.
Isabel Perez, who had been the office manager for eight years, asked Magda to make a public statement saying that her staff did not support her praise of Castro. She said they wanted to stick by her. After all, they knew she was not a communist and they, like her, wanted dialogue with Cuba. But people needed to know they and Magda had political differences.
Magda said she didn't think she could make a public statement like that -- at least not right away. She said she needed her practice to appear business-as-usual for these first days. Besides, she had other things on her mind: protecting her children's lives, as well as her husband's and her own, and keeping her law practice going. It had just occurred to her that she had sent her 3-year-old and 5-year-old off to nursery school without police protection and their lives might be in danger. She ran out of the meeting to call their principal and tell her that no one but their grandmother was allowed to pick them up. No one, she said, repeating the phrase a couple of times.
While Magda and the staff were going back and forth, secretary Miriam de la Torre, who had taken over phone duty, interrupted them to repeat what the last caller had said: "I have nothing against you, just her. If you don't want to die, leave the building right now."
The staff of eight women left Magda to run down the stairs and stand outside the building on the sidewalk. Magda followed shortly after but figured that with people driving past yelling that they hoped she died, her chances might be better inside.
The bomb squad arrived. A crowd gathered. People showed up with placards: "Magda, go back to Cuba and stay there." Cars stopped and people got out yelling: "Get the traitor. Get the whore." The crowd swelled to about 200 people, yelling for Magda to come out. Television and radio crews were there. The newspapers.
Two police officers told her she had to leave the area before the crowd got out of control.
Ira left his office on the floor below his wife's and pulled Magda's car up to the bottom of an outdoor stairway in the back. Magda ran down the three flights of stairs. About two dozen people in the crowd saw her and ran for the stairs, screaming, "Get the whore!" Magda jumped in the car and locked the door just in time. Her tormentors hit the windows and pounded on the hood with their hands and umbrellas. Magda stared straight ahead and said nothing for miles.
"I was numb," she says. "I was in shock."
When they got to their house on Key Biscayne, there was a phone message to call the security firm they had hired the night before: It could offer no more protection, the Pinkerton's Security Services manager said. Important clients had heard that Pinkerton was working for Magda Montiel Davis, the woman who kissed Castro, and had threatened to leave if the firm didn't drop the account. Nothing personal, he said, but his company had to think of business first.
Ira called The Wackenhut Corporation, and a manager said they don't have the personnel available. Finally, Wells Fargo agreed to take their money. Ira won't describe the security measures except to say they involve their house, the cars, the phones, the yard, the office building and Magda and the kids.
City of Miami police were also put on alert to assist Key Biscayne police if a mob showed up at the house. But this didn't happen for a couple of days. For the time being, Magda tried to relax and reassure the toddlers by pulling them into her bed to read to them. But just as she started a story, Paula yelled to her from another part of the house: "Mommy come see! Your staff is on the news!"
There on the evening news were six of the eight women on her staff, standing in front of her office building talking into microphones. They announced they would no longer work for Magda because of what she'd said to Castro. They were applauded by the crowd and congratulated and hugged. They were offered jobs on the spot. The more they renounced what Magda had done, the louder the praise for them got.
"I just couldn't work for someone who thinks Castro is a great teacher," said secretary Janet Thessen.
"It is too painful for me, what Magda did," said Millie Delgado. "My father was a political prisoner in Cuba."
Magda was a great boss, they said, a very caring person, but they could not work for someone who saw good things in Castro, the staff told the applauding crowd. Later they would say that their leaving had as much to do with pressure from their families, the rain of threats and anger at Magda for putting her family before them as it did with what she had done in Havana. "It was a bunch of complicated things that added up," says Isabel Perez. "Most of us had planned to stay, but we changed our minds when everything got out of control after the bomb threat."
Besides, says Cary Tremble, "it felt good after all of the pressure and insults to be welcomed by the crowd."
"Do you know what it's like," Magda asks, "to turn on the evening news and see your staff -- women you have been close to for years, women you love -- trashing you? Do you know what that kind of betrayal feels like?"
Probably no worse than she felt, says Barbara de la Gandara, when she saw Magda on the evening news kissing Castro. Barbara starts to cry when she talks about what Magda did: "I'm Cuban," she says. "Being Cuban in Miami, you are born hating Castro. It's practically genetic. There is a lot of pain over the people killed in the revolution and what has happened to our families in Cuba."
The day after the evening news appearances, five staff members -- Isabel, Barbara, Cary and Janet among them -- went on Radio Mambi and La Cubanisima. Listeners called in to commend them for leaving the "communist traitor." The callers offered them jobs and established a trust fund for them.
That night, the women went on Spanish television to talk some more. They say they tried to avoid saying anything bad about Magda but in the context of the open mike programs with people calling in to make fun of her and curse her while they listened, it seemed as if they were joining in.
"We never meant anything against Magda," says Cary. "It just seemed that way when you saw it on TV. You can mean something small and harmless in person, but on TV it seems exaggerated, especially with commentary and repetition, and it becomes something else -- something much larger and more harmful."
"Tell me about it," says Magda.
A Patriotic Duty
Magda didn't go into the office for a couple of days after the mob scene. Instead she forwarded all the calls to her sister's house in Broward and went there with her mother and five children. Her mother drove and she lay on the floor of the back seat.
"Mommy," 5-year-old Sadie said, "this is so sad."
On her third night back from Havana, she answered 187 calls -- 160 of which were insults or threats. On Friday she answered 100. She says she made herself take the calls because she wanted her clients to get an answer when they called her. She wanted them to know she had not been forced into hiding, and that their cases were not being neglected.
The FBI got involved in Magda's case because a threatening call came in from out of state. An agent then investigated all of the threatening calls, most of which were local. What he found, says assistant U.S. Attorney Willy Fernandez, was that they were mostly being made by Cuban exiles in their 70s and 80s who couldn't leave their houses, because they were invalids or without transportation.
They were mostly people who listened to Radio Mambi and La Cubanisima and read the paroquitos, the Cuban neighborhood newspapers that advocated making Magda pay for what she had done. There was some talk of prosecuting the callers, says Fernandez, but FBI agents and the assistant U.S. attorneys talked it over and decided that stern warnings would be enough.
"They were told," says Fernandez, "that if they ever threatened anyone's life again that they would go to prison for a very long time."
One of the callers, Juan Saiz, 85, who lives in Coconut Grove, didn't threaten Magda, but called her home and office a couple of times to tell her she was a "communist traitor." Saiz, who grew up in Cuba, says he has never forgiven Castro for imprisoning his friends and taking his accounting business from him. He called Magda, he says, because he read an article in one of the little papers about her, though he can't remember which one. The story, he says, gave her phone number and said to call her and give an opinion.
"It said it was my patriotic duty," he says.
Five days after Magda got back from Cuba, 2,000 people marched within two blocks of her house -- as close as police would let them get -- to protest the kiss. They waved signs: "Magda, go live with your teacher in Cuba." They chanted slogans: "Down with the communist whore."
But Magda and her five children were still at her sister's house. There she got a call from a kindred soul: Maria Cristina Herrera, a community-college social science professor. Herrera's home was bombed in 1988, after she publicly proposed dialogue and debate with Cuba, and she was harassed for years after.
With Magda and others, Maria Cristina had founded a Miami group called the CCD (Cuban Committee for Democracy) in 1993. Its purpose was to promote dialogue and negotiations with Cuba in hopes of bringing democracy to Cuba through peaceful means. Magda was relieved to hear a friendly voice.
But Herrera made it clear she was not calling to be friendly. She told Magda that she knew she hadn't meant to say what she had said to Castro. Surely Magda did not know Spanish well enough to understand the connotation of her words. Herrera suggested that Magda make a public statement pleading "sociolinguistic ignorance." Otherwise, said Herrera, they must part ways.
"Our movement toward dialogue is too fragile to withstand the criticism you're getting," she told Magda.
To which Magda replied: "Maria Cristina, you of all people. You, who had your house bombed for exercising your First Amendment rights. You would reject me? You know how this feels."
But Maria Cristina would have none of it. She told Magda that what was happening to her as an individual was not her primary concern; the negotiation of a peaceful transfer of power in Cuba was. When Magda offered to resign from the CCD, Maria Cristina accepted the resignation on the spot. FIU Cuban studies professor Miguel Gonzalez-Pando: "Maria Cristina represents the far left among Cuban exiles in Miami. Magda not only made enemies of the right and the moderates. She also lost the left."
He felt "collective shame" for her, he says, because of her insensitivity to the pain of Cuban exiles. "In the first three years of the revolution over 5,000 people were killed. Doesn't she understand this hurt?"
While Cuban right-wing radio and the little Cuban presses continued to blast Magda as a traitor, the more moderate press approached the Magda story differently. Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen called her naive and stupid for what she did. Herald columnist Liz Balmaseda said kissing Castro was as nauseating as the right-wing harassment of her. Another Herald reporter, Fabiola Santiago, wrote about Magda's childhood and teenage years, saying Magda was not truly Cuban because she grew up in a black/Anglo neighborhood in North Miami, after leaving Cuba at age 8, and had missed what it was to be a Cuban exile.
"The best things said about me was that I was naive, stupid, nauseating and un-Cuban," she says. "Nobody said publicly that I had broken no laws and should not be treated like a serial murderer."
Armando Perez Roura, commentator and general manager of Radio Mambi, said on the radio and on television that if "the traitor" had a right to do and say what she wanted with Castro, then the people who hated her had a right to do and say what they wanted, too. The right to free speech, he said, cuts both ways.
By June, Magda had adjusted fairly well to her new life of limitations. She learned from experience what she couldn't do if she didn't want to be refused service or cornered, chewed out and threatened. She knew if she got a run in her hose at work she couldn't run to Eckerd's for a new pair. She knew she couldn't stop by the Publix and pick up juice for the kids on the way home. Nor could she buy a cafe con leche from the corner cafeteria.
It was almost as if she were under house arrest for committing a felony. She could be at home or work and have a few hours at church and the gym. She could also spend a little time with friends and family away from her house, though the list of her friends had shortened dramatically.
In May, a beautiful, exotic floral arrangement arrived at her office. She immediately called the bomb squad. They tore it apart before fishing the card out of the container. "We stick by you," it read, and was signed by some local lawyers.
The phone calls, faxes and letters continued through the summer. A lot of the writers mentioned the fusilados Magda had asked about at the Cuban conference, the thousands of Cuban people who died before the firing squads in the early '60s. These letters usually talked about Magda's hands, saying they were "covered with the blood of thousands" and would "never get clean." A lot of the calls and letters contained pornographic pictures and sexually explicit language, showing and describing what Magda did with Fidel. "Why is it," Magda asks, "that because I'm a woman all the insults are sexual?"
Magda knew certain mail would not pack a wallop and opened it without thought -- stuff from the ACLU, NOW, Human Rights Watch, the Florida Women's Political Caucus and other organizations she belonged to. But even that assumption failed her.
Stuck neatly on an envelope addressed to her from the Women's Political Caucus in Tallahassee was a photo of a nude man lying on his back. A little girl held his penis near her open mouth. Over the child's head was written "Magda." Over his head was written "Fidel." Since she got the letter from a locked mailbox at work that only the postman had access to, and since the sender was a friend, she figured the photo had to have been glued on by a postal worker.
In September, she was in the shower at Street Dance, her gym on Coral Way, when a woman's voice called her name. She knew from the tone that it would be trouble. She had left her towel and clothes across the room and was stuck in the shower, naked.
"Magda, come out," the voice said again.
She looked around for something to hold in front of her -- something to dry off with. But there was nothing. Oh no, she thought, this time I'm going to get told off stark naked and soaking wet. She realized that this would be her ultimate degradation -- but at the same time, she was determined she would not let herself be degraded by it. She shoved the shower curtain to the side and threw her shoulders back. Then she put one hand on her hip and stared at the women who had gathered there: "Yes," she said, "it's me, right here in front of you. What do you want?"
"Please get dressed," said gym owner Mirtha Garcia, looking away. "We'll wait." Mirtha told Magda that she could not come back to the gym because it was not safe for her. Magda said she would take that chance. Mirtha said she still could not come back. Some of the others didn't want her there, and she was afraid for her safety.
Magda dressed and left without another word. But when she got to her car, she sat in the darkness behind the tinted windows and started to scream and sob: "Not this, too. Not this, too."
The Miami Mandate
There is no law that says a business owner can't refuse service to a customer, whether the business be a gym, restaurant, department store or grocery, as long as it does not violate civil rights laws. Before civil rights legislation, black people in Dade County knew what being refused service and access felt like, as did Jews and Cubans. But those days have long since passed. A Dade County ordinance amplifies Federal civil rights law: No one can be discriminated against because of "race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, handicap, marital status, familial status or age."
But there is nothing in the ordinance to protect people's rights to be free of persecution because of political opinion. As long as a criminal act -- a threat, bodily harm or damage to property -- is not committed, the person can legally be refused service and insulted and screamed at all day and all night. However, Magda noted with irony that she had successfully represented immigrants who were granted political asylum in this country for less than she had been through.
In November, Magda was one of the subjects of a Human Rights Watch report focusing on "attacks and intimidation against participants in the April conference in Havana (where Magda kissed Castro). . . . "
The report says the Miami participants -- Magda and others -- "found themselves the targets of repeated graphic death threats by phone, fax and mail."
After the report came out, Radio Mambi and La Cubanisima blasted Human Rights Watch -- the organization that had issued 11 reports on abuses in Cuba over the past eight years -- for being inaccurate and irresponsible.
In response to the report Magda held a press conference and went on Channel 23 for an interview with Mercedes Soler. Soler asked her, if she had it to do all over again, would she kiss Castro, thank him for helping her people, and tell him he was a great teacher?
Magda responded vaguely: She would handle the greeting differently, but given the brevity of the encounter, it would probably appear the same way.
Now she elaborates: She would have gone ahead and followed the Cuban social custom of kissing her host's cheek, but she would have wanted to explain that while she respected some things about Castro and his revolution, she had concerns about the regime's violent past and the continuing abuses of individual freedom cited by organizations like Human Rights Watch. "When I was a child in Cuba, my father harbored a friend in our house who was an enemy of the revolution," she says. "He was later captured and executed."
But all that would have taken more time than she had standing in a reception line. So what would she have done differently, given the same circumstances?
That's an impossible question, she says. "Quite honestly, I don't think about it. I go over and over in my mind what I could've done to avoid the break with lazara, my best friend, but I don't second-guess myself about what I did with Castro."
In the end, she says, she has come to believe that the way she greeted Castro and complimented him had less to do with her opinion of him than with her reaction to the Miami mandate that you must hate, hate, hate everything about him or be declared forever a villain. She has always rebelled against taboos.
The Channel 23 interviewer, Mercedes Soler, closed the interview with this question: "Magda, the Cuban exiles feel you betrayed thousands of ex-political prisoners and those still in prison and those who went before the firing squad. What do you have to say to those exiles?"
"It is their right," she said.
Two Dozen Red Roses
Soon after the Human Rights Watch report was issued, a group of nationally prominent writers and lawyers bought a full- page ad in The Miami Herald supporting Magda, saying in part: "The freedom to speak, to debate public issues, and to take unpopular positions without the threat of physical reprisal is essential to our democratic way of life."
The support that meant the most to Magda came from more personal sources, like the call from an old Central High School classmate, Sandye McNeal Cole. Cole said she had been worried about her old friend. She had seen her take heat in the past, but this time, she was afraid the pressure might cow even Magda.
"Magda supported me to become the first black cheerleader at Central," says Cole, who is now 41. "This was at a time when the white students wanted nothing to do with it."
Magda's propensity to take unpopular positions has deep roots. She had grown up in a home where her father's family disapproved of her mother, a country woman. She had sided with her mother even while she tried desperately to win her father's approval. "I'm the shortstop that never was," she says.
But it was more than her lack of interest in sports that separated her from her father. He was an arch-conservative, a virulent foe of Castro, a CIA agent, and an opponent of any kind of dialogue with Cuba. A successful banker in Havana, Jose Montiel lost everything in the revolution.
"Do you know what it's like," says Magda, "to watch your father go from wearing suits and running things to wearing a shirt with Jose embroidered on it and cleaning up the bank? It makes you sensitive to people who are underdogs."
Magda knew her father rarely understood where that impulse led her. After the kiss, when the world was going crazy around her, she dreaded having to face her father.
The dread grew as days passed and she still had heard nothing from him. Then one afternoon he appeared at her door. His granddaughter let him in and Magda waited for him in the kitchen. When he appeared, he said nothing. She tried to prepare herself for the worst anger of all, the anger of her own father. Then he pulled his hand from behind his back and handed her two dozen red roses. "A symbol of my love and respect for you," he said. "I don't agree with what you did, but I stand by you."
In December, Magda noted with interest that The Herald published a poll on Cuba, conducted in Cuba by CID-Gallup, a Costa Rican affiliate of the world-famous Gallup organization. For the first time, an independent polling company asked individual Cubans what they thought of their government. Fifty- eight percent said they believed the Cuban revolution had more achievements than failures. Huge majorities gave Cuba high grades for racial equality.
"That's all I was trying to say," Magda says. "The picture in Cuba isn't all black and white. Castro has done some good things. But people here aren't willing to let people say that."
The Herald poll -- which editors said was simply intended to give a more complete understanding of attitudes on the island -- prompted a flood of negative mail and radio commentary. Many exiles said respondents were too afraid to say how they really felt, and some saw The Herald's publication of such a poll as support for the communist regime. One man wrote to a reporter who wrote about the project: "It would be better for you to resign now than be forced to in the near future. The free community has had it with you. As a puppet of The Herald directors, it is you who will now pay the price." It's like old times at Magda's law office on 27th Avenue. On a recent afternoon, she and the staff -- all except two are new -- are sharing a cake with a client. There is much joking and laughing, just as there used to be. The reason for the merriment is that Magda has managed to get an exit visa for a Cuban man, married to an American, who had been denied permission to leave. His offense: He had tried to come to Miami on a raft six years ago. He spent a year in prison for it, but authorities were still punishing him.
Her practice is doing well. Word has quietly circulated that Magda has a good record of winning concessions from Cuban authorities.
"You get farther with talk than threats," she says. Magda knows it will take years before she is free of the threats, the shouted comments, the sales clerks who refuse to wait on her. But she is determined to stick it out. "I refuse to be a victim," she says. Lately, she has even begun to talk back. "Why don't you go live in Cuba?" a stranger spat at her, recently. "Because I'm afraid," she calmly responded. "Afraid of what? Your lover Castro?" the stranger retorted.
"No," Magda told her. "Afraid that right-wing exiles will take Cuba over and people like you will be in charge."