Reviewed by Sarah Evans
Lately, everyone I talk to seems to have jettisoned the traditional measurement of years, months, weeks, and days in favor of a simpler way of tracking time: before the pandemic, and after.
It makes sense, given our natural penchant for measuring our lives by the before and after. BC, and AD. Before September 11, and after. Before our loved one passed away, before we had cancer, before we became a parent, before someone hurt us or loved us, and then after, the life so radically altered that we struggle to recognize or remember what came previously.
Many Cuban exiliados — exiles — living in the United States joke that their “BC” is “Before Castro,” their homeland in the years before Fidel Castro took power. But “BC” takes on a more personal and pointed meaning for Magda Montiel Davis, one she details in her book Kissing Fidel: A Memoir of Cuban American Terrorism in the United States (University of Iowa Press, 2020).
Before her first meeting with Castro, Davis was a prominent member of Florida’s Cuban American community, a recent Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, a rising immigration lawyer with a large staff who were devoted to her and their work. Her home was a full but thriving one, she and her husband raising five children, with Davis’s Cuban mother living under the same roof.
But then Davis met Castro in 1994, at a reception in Havana after an immigration conference the Cuban government had invited her to attend. Castro and Davis kissed each other’s cheeks as a friendly greeting. Then, she told him, “Thank you for what you have done for my people. You have been a great teacher to me.”
Video cameras captured their meeting, although she’d been told the video was only for historical archives. Within hours, the tape somehow made its way into the hands of the news media, and Davis’s life after Castro began – as one of the most hated Cubans living in America.
For the uninitiated, Cuban exiliados came to the U.S. for many reasons, depending on when they migrated. Some supported the previous government that Castro toppled, some were escaping persecution, some were unhappy with Castro’s dictatorial controls, some fled for safety after their family members became political prisoners. But, in 1994 at least, most of them agreed on their hatred of Castro. Entire terrorist organizations were dedicated to silencing — often permanently — anyone who made even the slightest sympathetic comment toward Castro’s government.
Within days of “the kiss,” Davis’s life was in a shambles. She couldn’t leave her home during daylight without armed guards or without checking her vehicle for bombs. Constant death threats and insults poured into her home phone, her office phone, her fax — any number people could find. Nearly all her law office team quit, and she had to relocate to a smaller space. Two thousand Cuban Americans marched in protest near her home.
Even though Davis’s memoir is set nearly 30 years ago, this seems like the perfect time to revisit her story. A polarizing political leader, his supporters and detractors unable to have civil discourse, lobbing threats and attempting to silence those who don’t agree. A culture where one photograph, one video clip can completely change someone’s life. Davis was doxed — her private personal information shared publicly so that people could shame, threaten, or harm her — a decade before Facebook and Twitter even existed.
Davis’s inside view of Cuban American politics, and the culture at the time in Florida, make for compelling reading. However, this is also where the book suffers, as Davis is often too close to the subject matter, too knowledgeable about the ins and outs of Cuba’s history. If you’re not as well-versed on these subjects, you’ll find yourself looking to other sources to read more about things like the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Revolution, and the motivations and history of the exiliados.
That said, the book is captivating for its inside viewpoint from the target of such public and vitriolic harassment, especially as Davis delves into the ways it impacted each of her family members. She and her husband, both seeing themselves turning into something unlikable, wondering if their marriage would make it. Her younger children being forced to grow up sooner than they should have. Her aging mother retreating into the cocoon of their home.
Davis’s before and after pivot on a simple action, lasting just a few moments. But the after roots pushed their way outward, outward, outward, until they displaced her previous life forever.