This article was written in Havana a couple of weeks ago shortly after the announcement of Fidel Castro’s death and published in the Jewish Chronicle.
Last Shabbat, the prayer for the state of Israel was recited in the main Havana synagogue.
It was also the day when the announcement was made of the passing of Fidel Castro, who had broken off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973.
This symbolised Fidel’s individualistic approach towards Jews and Israel while remaining a severe critic of the Netanyahu government.
He supported Israel’s right to exist, yet sent 1,500 Cuban troops to the Golan Heights to support Syrian forces during the Yom Kippur war.
A strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, he did not favour Hamas and condemned the remarks of the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in seemingly denying the Shoah.
In 2010, he commented: “The Jews have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything.”
At that time he also recalled his Catholic upbringing and his Jesuit education. As a child, every Good Friday he was told that the Jews had killed God. In addition, his Jesuit teachers had favoured Franco during the Spanish civil war because of his fidelity to Christendom and “the threat of Judeo-Bolshevism”.
When Castro and his forces emerged from the Sierra Maestra mountains and entered Havana in January 1959, they were greeted enthusiastically by many Cuban Jews who were pleased at the ousting of the corrupt and brutal Battista regime. Golda Meir, Israel’s Foreign Minister, was delighted and issued a declaration of warm support.
Castro then began to confront the powerful American commercial interests as well as the gangster Meyer Lansky’s mafia franchise in gambling, prostitution and drugs.
President Eisenhower’s sanctions, coupled with a growing authoritarianism, pushed Castro in to the arms of the Soviet Union – as the sole means of keeping his country independent of US influence.
The draconian restrictions on free speech and assembly persuaded 90 per cent of Cuban Jews to leave. Yet one of Castro’s compatriots in the Cuban Revolution, Enrique Oltuski, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants – his father had been a Zionist activist in Santa Clara – remained and became a long serving deputy minister. Both Castro and Oltuski proclaimed their opposition to Communism at the outset.
Yet the Kremlin’s enthusiasm soon withered on the vine – Castro was no comrade in arms. He built his own version of socialism and frequently disagreed with the Kremlin while gleefully accepting their support economically.
Che Guevara was thought to exhibit Trotskyist tendencies because he pursued the revolutionary road in Latin America and refuted the Kremlin’s line of detente and peaceful co-existence.
There were several attempts to displace Castro not only by the Americans – which are well known – but also by the Soviets. Yet he supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.
Many Jewish writers strongly opposed the arrest and imprisonment of the poet, Herberto Padilla, in the early 1970s for his literary criticism of Castro’s regime.
With the fall of the USSR in 1991, Cuba’s economic and military lifeline disappeared and it was expected that Castro would swiftly fall from power. Castro proved his enemies wrong, in part because he was more influenced by Jose Marti, an early fighter for Cuban independence, than by Lenin. More fidelismo than Marxism.
He expanded tourism to offset the effect of the exit of the Soviets. Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Israeli and Jewish tourists have visited Cuba, thus undermining the American embargo.
Castro revised the Cuban constitution to allow a greater openness towards religion, resulting in the admission of religious Jews to the Communist party and the visit of Pope John II in 1998.
In 1992, the American Joint Distribution Committee was allowed to provide health care and Jewish education to the Cuban community. This catalysed the ongoing visits of many American Jews to the Cuban community.
At the same time, the Jewish Agency entered into an unpublicised agreement with the Cuban government to facilitate immigration to Israel. A special office was opened in the Canadian Embassy in Havana to deal with requests for emigration to Israel. The agreement was made public in 1999 when it was revealed that 400 Cuban Jews had left for Israel and were living in absorption centres in Ashkelon.
In 1993, the Israeli BM Corporation, headed by former Mossad chief Rafi Eitan, entered into an agreement with the Cuban National Citrus Corp. It resulted in Israeli management of a 115,000 acre citrus operation in Jaguey Grande.
The building of the Miramar Trade Centre in Havana was another Israeli venture. All this was taking place while the official face of Israel was siding with the United States in supporting the embargo against Cuba at the UN.
Fidel Castro now belongs to the history of anti-colonial struggles. The verdict on his attempt to reconfigure human society is still awaited.
He was a stiff-necked, stubborn man who led a small people and insisted on its right to an independent path.
Many Jews can identify with that sentiment.