In his final years, Cuban leader Fidel Castro even managed to surprise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a 2010 interview, the elderly and ailing Cuban – who had quit as leader of the Caribbean state four years earlier, and died Friday at 90 – declared that he recognized Israel’s existence. At the same time, he also criticized Holocaust denial and said the Jewish religion and culture had sustained the Jews as a nation despite 2,000 years of persecution and pogroms.
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The Israeli premier was quick to praise Castro, saying his remarks showed a deep understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. For his part, then-President Shimon Peres wrote to Castro, calling his comments unexpected and that they provided a bridge between “a difficult reality and a new horizon.” Nevertheless, diplomatic relations between the two countries – which Cuba unilaterally cut in 1973 – were not restored.
This warming in the complex relations between the countries was temporary. Four years later, Castro returned to his previous approach, accusing Israel of involvement in a U.S. conspiracy to establish the Islamic State group. Netanyahu and Peres chose not to respond this time.
Things actually started out well with Castro. A short while after he seized power in February 1959, Israel opened a diplomatic office in Havana, which was first headed by diplomat Joel Barromi.
“The atmosphere in Havana then was one of great joy among the people. People were living with a sense of liberation and high spirits,” Barromi told Adi Schwartz in a Haaretz interview a decade ago. “The initial days were crazy. ... Nothing was normal then. I had the feeling that I was party to an important historical event that reminded me of Israel’s War of Independence,” added the diplomat, who died in 2012.
In a 2014 article in Haaretz, Latin America specialist Margalit Bejarano wrote about the friendly relations the revolutionary Cuban government and Israeli government forged at the time. In the article “Cuba-Israel relations: Forged over pioneering, cut over Zionism,” she explained that, initially, the Cuban leaders showed great admiration for Israel’s pioneering spirit and saw the kibbutz as a model worth emulating. Several of these leaders had even received their first lessons in Marxism from Jews.
In 1960, a Jewish German by the name of Richard Wolf (Ricardo Subirana Y Lobo in Spanish), who had helped Castro overthrow previous Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, was appointed Cuban envoy to Israel. In the period during which Wolf served in Israel, agricultural experts from the Kibbutz Movement were sent to Cuba with the involvement of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and under the cover of an Israeli-Cuban relations association.
Wolf remained in his position until diplomatic relations were severed in 1973, and he then remained in Israel. Wolf and his wife founded the Wolf Foundation, which to this day grants the Wolf Prize in the arts and sciences.
The fact that Cuba and Israel were on opposite sides in the Cold War contributed to the deterioration in ties between the two countries. Cuba’s attitude toward Israel also declined over the years as it developed stronger ties with the likes of Egypt, Libya and Algeria, followed by the relationship it developed with the Palestinian liberation movement under Yasser Arafat.
The results were also visible in more practical ways. Between 1967 and 1973, Cuba voted against Israel in various international forums and also released statements critical of Israel. In September 1973, Castro suddenly announced he was cutting relations with Israel at a time when he was seeking to be elected president of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was hostile toward Israel. In 1975, Cuba supported the notorious United Nations Resolution 3379, which labeled Zionism a form of racism. “The government of Cuba was not challenging the State of Israel’s right to exist, but instead was focusing on condemning its occupation policy,” Bejarano wrote in 2014.
At the same time as the ties between the two countries eroded, the Cuban government retained a respectful attitude toward its own Jewish community and worked to combat manifestations of anti-Semitism. This despite the fact that most of Cuba’s 15,000 Jews left the country when Castro took power – and despite Cuba’s atheist communist ideology.
Barromi, who met with Castro on several occasions, later recounted that the Cuban leader was able to distinguish between Cuban Jews and the State of Israel, even as he took the side of Arab leaders who were fighting Israel.
There was a change of sorts in the 1990s after the fall of communism and disintegration of the Soviet Union, which in turn forced Cuba to demonstrate a greater measure of flexibility and openness in order to survive economically.
In light of this, informal links developed between Israel and Cuba – including tourism, business ties (in the fields of real estate, agriculture and industry, in part due to the involvement of Rafi Eitan, the former Mossad intelligence officer and cabinet minister). That was in addition to activity organized by the Joint Distribution Committee with the small Jewish community that remained in Cuba.
In 1994, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Ashkenazi chief rabbi at the time, visited Cuba and met with Castro to discuss the situation of the local Jewish community. Rabbi Lau asked Castro to approve the importation of kosher meat, but the Cuban leader rejected his request.
In his Haaretz article, Adi Schwartz reported that Castro had responded: “I told you that I am fighting against the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in my country. ... Do you want to make my people anti-Semitic? We have the practice of allocating 150 grams of bread a day, but the Jews in Cuba would have meat? [The Cuban people] will have a horrible hatred for them, envy them tremendously and loot their homes. If under such conditions you see to importing kosher meat for the Jews, you yourself will create the anti-Semitism that I have been stopping all the time.”