The 49-year rule of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who died Nov. 25 at 90, was marked by an anti-Israel stance that matched his deep antagonism toward the United States and the West.
Yet under Castro, who seized power in 1959, and his brother, Raul, who took over as president in 2008, Jews in Cuba have been extended religious freedoms and have received special rations from the government for kosher meat.
Fewer than 1,000 Jews now live in Cuba, down from about 30,000 in the 1950s, when they began joining the exodus of Cubans who fled the repressive regime of the communist revolutionary. The Jewish community, like much of the island nation, remains fairly impoverished.
Alan Gross, a Jewish subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, reportedly charged with setting up internet access for Cuban Jews, was arrested in 2009 on espionage charges and spent five years imprisoned in Cuba. The resident of Potomac, Maryland, issued a tweet shortly after Castro’s death was announced.
“History will never absolve him,” Gross wrote. “But perhaps now the voices of Cuba will be heard. Speak up, Cuba.” In later tweets, he called for the United States to lift its embargo on Cuba.
Castro had a handful of defining moments with Israel and Jews.
For example, in 1966, he opened guerrilla training camps for Palestinians, beginning a lifelong relationship with the Palestinians and their late leader, Yasser Arafat.
In 1975, speaking to the First Party Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, Castro declared that “Yasser Arafat is a man we deeply love and admire and to whom we have always shown our solidarity.” This came two years after Cuba broke off diplomatic relations with Israel and assisted the Syrians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel.
Also in 1975, Cuba co-sponsored a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.
In 1979, Castro attacked Israel in front of the U.N.’s General Assembly, accusing the nation of committing “the most terrible crime of our era” against the Palestinians. Israel’s envoy rebuked Castro, saying the Cuban leader had “joined the shrill hue and cry already raised in the [Assembly’s] general debate by the enemies of peace in the Middle East.”
In 1991, Cuba voted against a U.N. resolution revoking the Zionism-equals-racism resolution.
From 1995 to 1999, about 400 Cuban Jews “secretly” left their country for the Jewish state — and though ties between Cuba and Israel were nonexistent, apparently Castro didn’t mind. The Jewish Agency for Israel was said to have gotten Castro to agree to not make a fuss about “Operation Cigar” by agreeing to keep it on the down-low.
In 2001, at the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, Castro called on delegates to “put an end to the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people” by Israel.
In 2010, Castro slammed anti-Semitism and the Holocaust denial of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust,” Castro said in an interview with Jewish American reporter Jeffrey Goldberg. He also said Jewish culture and religion had kept the Jewish people “together as a nation.”
In 2014, Castro called Israel’s operation in Gaza a “new, repugnant form of fascism” in a column titled “Palestinian Holocaust in Gaza.” It appeared in Granma, the Cuban government’s official newspaper, which has consistently maintained an anti-Israel editorial stance.
Since Castro stepped down from power in 2008, his brother, Raul, has maintained the status quo of granting relative religious freedom to Jews while being harsh on Israel. — jta