Surprising Tolerance in Castro’s Cuba

This is the fourth in a five-part series about the Cuban trade embargo. In deciding whether or not to trade with a country, we must consider that country’s human rights record. To that effect, we will look at an average minority’s presence in Cuba, the Jews. What is a Jew? “I am a Jew, un Judeo. My visa is for a Jewish humanitarian mission.” “Ah, yes, and what is a Jew?” asked the customs agent detaining me. “A Jew is a person who is part of Judaism, and Judaism is a religion, like Christianity or Islam.” “But, how can you care about others if you’re not Catholic, if you’re not Christian?” “Jesus was Jewish.” “No, that’s impossible!” He left me alone to discuss this fact with one of his security cohorts. I thought José Miller, a Jewish intellectual, would be able to shed some light on the matter. Dr. Miller, a retired surgeon, serves as president of Temple Beth Shalom, and serves as a beneficiary of Jewish Solidarity, a group licensed to give Americans humanitarian Visas to Cuba. Dr. Miller explained about the Jewish presence, “Before the revolution, a community of about 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba. Most of them were members of the working middle class. But, the revolution created only two classes: the lower Cuban class and the upper tourist class, a phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘tourism apartheid.’ In fact, immediately after the revolution, Castro tried to dissolve the professions of both law and accounting, occupations held by many Jews. Thus, these Jews emigrated, because they were losing jobs and not desirous of becoming part of the lower class. So, the Hebrew population dwindled to about 1,500, and I was appointed president of the temple.” Temple Beth Shalom Temple Beth Shalom breathes life into this tightly-knit Jewish community in Havana, providing a phrontistery for those wishing to study Torah, a center for social gatherings and, of course, a synagogue for Friday night services. The recently renovated temple is a wonder to behold, exceeding in sheer beauty some temples in Israel that I visited two years ago. Adorned in mahogany wood, the temple showcases an ark of sheer marble, a monolith reflective of the endurance of the Jewish community. Castro and the Jews Señor Miller recanted another story to me about Castro’s involvement in the Jewish community, “Several years ago, the Pope visited Cuba, and he asked that Christmas be a national holiday during his stay. The next year, a Christian group asked Castro to make it a holiday again.” “Castro then responded, ‘Last year, it was a holiday because of the Pope. If you want it to be one this year, you’ll want it next year, so let’s talk about making it a holiday forever, not just one year at a time.’ “He proceeded to form a committee of religious groups in the city. And I attended on behalf of the Jews.” “After about five hours of discussion, through which I remained silent, though everyone else spoke dynamically, Castro announced, ‘I want to hear from José Miller. How do the Jews feel about this?’ “I replied, ‘It’s not our purpose to say. It is a Christian holiday.’ ‘Well, you must have some opinion and everyone should hear it.’ “Well, if you Gentiles want to celebrate the birth of a Jew, by all means, go ahead!’” Religious Equality? The state-sponsored cemetery is a Catholic home to over 17,000 graves. Giant mausoleums arise from the ground, composed of Italian marble or German granite or other materials of ravishing opulence. The largest ones compare in size to some small Cuban houses. Each grave has a story about its inhabitants, eagerly recalled by a large staff of official guides of the cemetery, who, in exchange for a fee, prevent the memory of the departed from ever dying. Most of the stories surrounding the graves are romantic, such as lovely aristocratic ladies who pined for lower class men and committed suicide after facing the pain of unrequited love. On the other side of town, in a remote, desolate place, the Jewish cemetery compares quite modestly, if at all. All tombstones, each grave is mostly undistinguishable from any other, by either decoration or by story—most have none. Except for two gravediggers, the mass of attendants must be on permanent hiatus. But, most likely, the stark contrast between cemeteries is due to an income disparity before the revolution, a fact quite contrary to the current ideology of socioeconomic equality. Believing that Jews in Cuba, although peaceably allowed, faced some inequitable treatment, I remarked for a moment on the zeitgeist of America’s attitude toward Judaism. We pride ourselves on more tolerance and more equitable treatment, a fact primarily of verisimilitude. But, Castro, perhaps through censorship, minimizes defamation of minorities. In Cuba, I doubt that anyone overtly blames the Jews for Christ’s death or promulgates conspiracy theories about their malignant manipulation of world affairs. In fact, before the Communist revolution, white Christian-only country clubs abounded throughout Havana. Afterwards, they became social clubs, unrestricted by race, gender, or religion. Racist country clubs are sadly still common in South Florida. Overall, from my experiences, the Jewish presence in Cuba, although small, was still tolerated, and even spared of some American anti-Semitic tendencies. Castro, quite outside the stereotype of mad dictator, seems to actively encourage equal treatment of minorities.