The dramatic announcement by President Barack Obama of the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba awakens the hope that Israel will follow suit. Ostensibly, Washington and Jerusalem coordinate their positions on the issue; they were the only states to vote against the United Nations resolution to lift the American embargo on Cuba. The circumstances that led Cuba to sever diplomatic relations with Israel were very different from those that distanced Havana from Washington. Cuba had a painful history with the United States, while the break with Israel stemmed from circumstances in the international arena.
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The victory of Fidel Castro’s revolution in early 1959 marked Cuba’s liberation from economic and political dependence on the United States. The severance of diplomatic relations two years later was a stage in the ongoing deterioration of the Cuban-U.S. relationship, which peaked with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. Cuba’s revolutionary government had friendly relations with Israel, and for the first time a permanent Israeli diplomatic mission was opened in Havana. Cuba’s leaders, some of whom received their first lessons in communism from their Jewish friends, admired Israel’s pioneer spirit and saw the kibbutz as a model to emulate.
A key figure in relations between Israel and Cuba was the Cuban delegate to Israel, Ricardo Subirana Y Lobo (Ricardo Wolf). The German-born Wolf made his fortune with an invention in the field of metallurgy and lived in Cuba for many years. In exchange for his generous support for the Cuban revolution, Castro appointed Wolf Cuba’s ambassador to Israel in 1961. Wolf sent a delegation of agricultural experts — members of Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim movement, most of whom specialized in orchard management — to Cuba at his own expense. To avoid damaging its ties with the United States, Israel presented this aid as the activity of a nongovernmental organization, but Israel’s Foreign Ministry was involved in all contacts with Havana.
The ties between Israel and Cuba violated the international commitments of both states, which were in opposite camps during the Cold War. Cuba’s ever-closer relations with Algeria and Egypt, and later with the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, affected Havana’s stance toward Israel. The change was expressed in the Cuban media and in anti-Israel votes on the international stage. In 1966 Havana hosted the Tricontinental Conference of African, Asian and Latin American Peoples. Cuba supported the conference’s harshly-worded condemnation of Israel and expressed its support for the PLO, but it resisted pressure from the Soviet Union and the Arabs to sever diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Criticism of Israel in the Cuban media increased between 1967 and 1973. Still, the Cuban government never challenged the State of Israel’s right to exist, but only condemned its policy of occupation. The existence of an Israeli diplomatic mission was very important to the small Jewish community remaining in Cuba, which viewed it as protection. In a communist state, where atheism was an official ideology, identification with the Jewish community could harm one’s chances of professional or political advancement. But the Cuban government did not interfere with Jews’ religious observance. To a certain extent, Havana used the Jewish community to demonstrate its own religious tolerance.
The Castro government made a clear distinction between its relationship to Jews and its stance toward Israel and Zionism. While its attacks against Israel grew stronger and more frequent, it strictly enforced the law against anti-Semitic acts. Although most of Cuba’s Jews left the country, the government did not shut Jewish institutions. The Zionist Federation of Cuba was closed by an executive order only in 1978, three years after Cuba supported the notorious 1975 UN resolution defining Zionism as racism and five years after it severed relations with Israel.
Cuba cut ties with Israel unilaterally in September 1973. When Castro, seeking the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement, spontaneously announced the decision at the organization’s conference in Algeria, he was embraced warmly by Muammar Gadhafi. It marked the end of official relations between Israel and Cuba.
The fall of communism in Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union precipitated a severe financial crisis in Cuba, forcing it to make concessions in order to integrate into the global economy. The changes since 1990 have also affected unofficial relations with Israel. Havana allowed international Jewish organizations, especially the American Joint Distribution Committee, to operate in Cuba. The country’s economic straits and the reduction of immigrant quotas by the Clinton administration led to a secret wave of immigration of Cuban Jews to Israel, known as Operation Cigar. In addition, young Cuban Jews have been coming to Israel on Birthright trips since 2003.
After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Havana signaled a possible change in relations with Israel. Political developments in the Middle East and the tightening of Castro’s policy at home nipped these nascent connections in the bud, but interpersonal connections flourished: Large numbers of Israeli tourists visit Cuba, and Cuban artists and intellectuals visit Israel.
The failure to restore U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties after the Cold War was the result of Castro’s need to maintain America’s enemy status as a tool to unite Cubans behind his regime, together with pressure on Washington by Miami’s large, anti-Castro Cuban expatriate community. Havana’s increasing dependence upon Venezuelan oil and Iranian economic aid further impeded the restoration of relations with Israel. We must hope that Raul Castro’s cautious policy will change the international balance and herald a new era in relations between Israel and Cuba.
The author teaches in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies.