Jerusalem and Havana won't rumba yet

In 1961, about 500 Jewish Cubans secretly left their island and flew to Israel.

castro 88 (photo credit: )
castro 88
(photo credit: )
In 1961, about 500 Jewish Cubans secretly left their island and flew to Israel on three planes to start new lives in the Jewish homeland. Once the Jews disembarked, the planes were serviced, cleaned and loaded with dozens of sheep - a gift from the Kibbutz Movement to the government of Cuba - then turned around and headed back to Havana. The operation, kept secret for years, was a deal cooked up between Cuba's new revolutionary ruler Fidel Castro and the Jewish Agency, and reflects an underlying theme in Cuban-Israeli relations since Castro's rise to power: no real reason for the direct enmity which exists nonetheless, and which is expressed openly, because of each country's relations with the US. The two nations have no territorial disputes and no "usual" reason two countries choose to be enemies. But due to geopolitical considerations, Havana and Jerusalem have no official diplomatic ties and are outwardly hostile to each other - a situation not likely to change in the immediate wake of Castro's resignation as Cuban president on Tuesday. Well, at least Cuba is outwardly hostile to Israel. Castro let Arab terrorists train on his soil, deployed military advisers against Israel and embraced Yasser Arafat as a man he "deeply loved and admired." Israel has backed America in every single UN General Assembly vote to maintain the economic embargo on Cuba, now in its 45th year. But despite the acrimonious tone of their relations in public diplomatic forums, Israelis and Cubans have been quietly doing business for years, with at least one current Israeli minister, Rafi Eitan, having extensive business dealings in Cuba. There have been in the past, and are in the present, a large number of Israeli companies doing business in Cuba, mostly in the agriculture and construction sectors. There is no reported anti-Semitism in Cuba, nor is there any personal hostility toward Israelis by the general population. For years, Israeli tourists have visited Cuba openly, and some Cuban tourists have come here. Jewish aliya, facilitated by Castro's regime and the Jewish Agency, continues to this day, although the island's Jewish population of 1,500 is growing, and the Cuban authorities allow the Jews to import kosher food from Mexico and Canada. Until the Cuban revolution of January 1959 and Castro's rise to power, Israel and Cuba had more formal relations, with Havana playing host to an Israeli honorary consul. When Castro took power, he appointed one of his backers, the wealthy Dr. Ricardo Wolf (who later established the Wolf Foundation, which promotes science and art), as Cuba's ambassador to Israel in 1960. The two nations held cordial diplomatic relations until 1973's Yom Kippur War, when much of the communist world, as well as those belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement, cut their ties with Israel. Cuba, along with Romania, was the only other communist country not to sever relations with Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967. But as America's long-standing enmity with Castro's Cuba intensified and Israel's reliance on American diplomatic, economic and military assistance grew, Jerusalem found that it was not able to pursue its own independent policy regarding Cuba. Every year, Israel voted with the US at the UN General Assembly to maintain the economic embargo on Cuba. By 1975, Cuba returned the favor and cosponsored United Nations Resolution 3379, declaring that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination," and by 1978, Zionism was officially outlawed in Cuba - even though, once again under the radar, economic relations continued quietly. During the Cold War years, Castro made several attempts to reestablish ties with Israel. The attempts intensified during the more cordial "Oslo Years" of Israeli-Palestinian talks, but were always rebuffed by Jerusalem. Following the collapse of the Oslo process, Castro became an even more virulent critic of Israel and vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, telling delegates at the UN's 2001 Durban conference against racism to "put an end to the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people," a "dreadful genocide perpetrated... against our Palestinian brothers by extreme Right [Israeli] alliance with the hegemonic superpower [the United States]." However vocal Castro was in his preference for the Palestinian narrative, though, there has always been a measure of sympathy for Israel among Cuba's ruling communist party - sympathy constantly wasted by Jerusalem. Whether Cuba was trying to pry away Washington's staunchest ally in the Middle East for its own political needs, or whether the sympathy was genuine, is a matter for debate. So close are Israel and America that the two are seen as inseparable, especially by those who make it their business to attack the US and weaken its hegemony. Castro played into this special relationship - and with him, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. That Chavez has made friends with Iran and the Arab world while steadily becoming a virulent opponent of Israel has more to do with his inability to directly confront Washington than his genuine dislike for Israelis. Chavez does not carry the same weight as Castro, though, and is unlikely to garner the same respect and wield the same influence on Latin American policy as Castro did. Venezuela's leader has succeeded somewhat in creating the perception that he has wrested Castro's anti-American mantle, but the perception is not as widely shared as he would like to believe. To many, Fidel Castro was a symbol of the underdog successfully shaking off colonial powers and standing up to the might of America. Raul Castro is cut from the same cloth, and is not expected to return Cuba to its pre-revolutionary days of wanton excess, where much of the island's economy was in the control of American companies. "There is no comparing Chavez and Castro," says Prof. Zvi Medin, former head of the Institute of Latin American History at Tel-Aviv University. "Chavez is an exotic populist, whereas Castro led a real revolution, both political and economic." However, the shift away from the constant Castro-American rhetoric toward the increasingly acrimonious Chavez-Bush showdown may, in the future, lead to a thaw between Washington and Havana, at which point Jerusalem may enter the picture in a more formal way. Analysts, however, predict that not much will change in Cuba now that Fidel has officially stepped aside, pointing out that even though his brother Raul has been Cuba's de facto ruler for the past two years, he has not shown any significant signs that he will take the country in a new direction. This may be because Fidel is still alive, and his medical condition still leaves him capable of pulling the strings of power behind the scenes. Hayim Hayat, a Cuban Jewish immigrant from the early '60s and a man who has kept in constant contact with Cuba's Jewish community since he left as head of the Jewish Agency's Hagshama department and through the World Zionist Organization, says Raul Castro, 76, may be considered less charismatic than his slightly older and more famous brother, but that doesn't mean Raul does not have full control of Cuba. "People forget that Raul was there alongside his brother from the very start of the revolution and the fighting in the hills. Raul was a true Marxist and revolutionary from the beginning, whereas Fidel only became a Marxist during the struggle. Raul is a real revolutionary idealist and was so in his youth, and it is a mistake to call him 'just the brother of' and keep it at that," Hayat told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. Raul Castro is known to be more introverted than his older brother, but analysts point out that since he has been the commander in chief of Cuba's armed forces from the start of Castro's reign, his hold on power in the country is entrenched and was consolidated years ago. And since Cuba only has one political party - the communist party - Raul's election to the presidency by the National Assembly in its meeting on Sunday is considered a done deal. Other analysts predict slow, pragmatic reforms once Raul Castro formally takes over power, mostly in the economic sphere, with perhaps a slight relaxation on civil liberties issues. Cuba is billions of dollars in debt, is on the receiving end of a US economic embargo and is suffering harsh shortages of basic goods. Raul's advisers are mostly younger officials who grew up and developed from within the revolution, and are a more pragmatic bunch than Fidel's inner circle. Cuba also has no global credit and thus relies heavily on middlemen. Analysts are watching what the US presidential candidates say regarding the future of US-Cuban relations, as many voters in Miami, filled to the brim with Cuban exiles, will likely oppose normalization and a lifting of the economic embargo. Florida is a key state on the US presidential campaign trail. Channel 10 Foreign News Editor Nitzan Horovitz says Raul Castro will not be able to hold Cuba together as a socialist nation and keep the revolutionary spirit alive, because that spirit was intimately connected to Fidel. What is certain is that unless and until America changes its position and opens up to Cuba, Jerusalem will most likely not invite Havana to rumba.