As Castro ails, Jews in Cuba, Miami watch with bated breath


MIAMI — Cuban Jews on both sides of the Florida Straits are reacting with emotions ranging from joy to sadness to unbridled patriotism following the announcement that Fidel Castro — for the first time in 47 years — is no longer president of Cuba.

An official statement read Monday on Cuban TV said Castro, who turns 80 in two weeks, had “temporarily” ceded power to his younger brother, Raul, in the wake of surgery for severe gastrointestinal bleeding.

A statement issued in Havana late Tuesday night described his condition as stable.

It’s unclear whether Cuba’s Communist-run news outlets are telling the truth. In the streets of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, conspiracy theories run rampant, with some observers saying that for all they know Fidel could be lying in a coma, or already could be dead.

“I would like to say Kaddish for him and his henchmen as soon as possible,” quipped Moises Asis, a former leader of Havana’s Jewish community who fled the island in 1992, eventually settling in Miami.

“Most Cuban Jews here feel the same way I do, but in Cuba they’re not free to express their beliefs,” Asis said. “When Fidel dies, they’ll cry for him the same way Soviet Jews cried for Stalin when he died, and the same way Jews in Egypt cried when Nasser died.”

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, says the long-awaited succession is already under way.

“The process of building up Raul’s personality cult has been taking place for years,” said Suchlicki, a Jewish academic who left Havana in 1960. “I think what has happened is irreversible. I don’t think Fidel will ever come back. He’s already passed the baton to his brother Raul.”

But Suchlicki doesn’t expect Cuba to open up under the younger Castro, who is 75.

“I don’t think Raul can risk any policy initiatives without altering the balance of forces that exist in Cuba,” he said. “If he makes overtures to the United States or opens up the economy, some people will want more, others will want less. Anything he does can alter the balance that has been maintained for years.”

An estimated 500 to 800 Jews live in Cuba, an island of 11.2 million people that has been ruled by Fidel Castro and his Communist Party since January 1959.

The number of Jews was as high as 1,500 in the mid-1990s, but nearly half are believed to have immigrated to Israel over the past decade.

Cuba has five synagogues: three in Havana, one in the central provincial capital of Camaguey and one in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

Jews enjoy relative freedom of religion in Cuba, despite the regime’s hostile position toward Israel.

Castro broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, and just last week angrily condemned the “Israeli genocide against innocent civilians” in Lebanon, without mentioning a word about the Hezbollah attack on Israel that precipitated Israel’s response.

Isaac Russo, president of Havana’s local B’nai B’rith chapter, couldn’t be reached for comment. But Stanley Cohen, international chairman of the Pittsburgh-based B’nai B’rith Cuba Jewish Relief Project, said he spoke with Russo by phone Monday and that the Jewish leader assured him there wouldn’t be any major changes as long as Fidel is alive.

Cohen was gloomy about the immediate future, noting that Raul Castro has a reputation for being “difficult.”

“Raul is in charge of the armed forces, and in the last year he’s been given much more responsibility for security,” he warned. “Security has been much tighter, and should get even tighter now. People will have to watch themselves, though the Jewish community doesn’t feel it will be treated differently from anyone else, except for possible anti-Semitism because of what’s going on in the Middle East.”

Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs has assured Russo that there won’t be any problems, Cohen said.

Enrique Oltuski, a hard-line Communist who fought with Che Guevara in the 1950s against the Batista dictatorship, is Cuba’s vice minister of fisheries and one of the highest-ranking Jews in the Castro regime. He insists everything is normal.

“We revolutionary Cubans feel very deep in our hearts the news about Fidel’s illness,” Oltuski, 75, told JTA by phone Tuesday from Havana. “We feel sure that he’ll be back soon, and in the meantime, Raul Castro will take over the government. We have great confidence in Raul. Everything will keep on going.”

Cuban Jewish exiles in Miami come to a very different conclusion.

“In Cuba, nobody’s going to talk. They’re all afraid,” said Bernardo Benes, 71, a banker who left Cuba in 1960 at age 25.

Benes has received death threats from other Cuban exiles over the years for his outspoken support of negotiation, rather than confrontation, with the Castro regime.

“We’ll have to see how things develop. I personally believe this is going to continue for a while, but nobody knows how long,” he told JTA. “Obviously, Raul doesn’t have the same personality or charisma as Fidel, and the people of Cuba follow Fidel.”

The United Nations voted 179-4 last year to condemn Washington’s four-decade-old embargo of Cuba. Only the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voted against the resolution; Micronesia abstained.

Despite their government’s public hostility toward Havana, private Israeli companies have invested heavily in Cuban agriculture and real estate ventures, and former Mossad spy chief Rafi Eitan — now a member of the Israeli Cabinet — recently announced that Fidel Castro would light a menorah at a public Hanukkah service in Havana this year for the first time in Cuban history.

Now many people doubt Fidel will even make it to Hanukkah.

“For me, it really doesn’t change anything,” said Miriam Saul, an Atlanta Jewish community leader who has brought 20 humanitarian groups to Cuba over the past five years. “For me the government is the government, and what I do with the Jewish community is totally separate.”

Says Rick Schwag, a Jewish humanitarian and founder of Vermont-based Caribbean Medical Transport: “It’s not in Fidel Castro’s nature to give up power, even for one moment. I believe the overwhelming emotion in Cuba is fear. Whether they love or despise Fidel, people are afraid, because they don’t know what’s coming next.”