Castro rebukes Ahmadinejad: sincere or cynical?

Robert A. Cohn


Fidel Castro, who led his small band of supporters in a successful revolution to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, and who had “retired” as President of Cuba four years ago to let his brother Raul take over the helm, was recently interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg, a reporter for The Atlantic magazine. Castro, now 84 and physically frail but reportedly mentally alert, practically summoned Goldberg to Havana for the wide-ranging interview, which made headlines when Castro strongly rebuked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his anti-Semitism, threats against the Jewish State of Israel and for his denial of the Holocaust.

Asking Goldberg to include in his story Castro’s message of Ahmadinejad to “stop picking on the Jews,” the former Cuban dictator said, “I don’t think that anyone has been slandered more than the Jews.” In the same interview, Castro affirmed that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish State and that no people has suffered more than the Jews for the past 2,000 years. In the same interview Castro acknowledged that the Cuban “model” of total Stalinist control of all sectors of the economy “no longer works” for Cuba, and that during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 he was “wrong” to have urged his Soviet sponsors to launch a missile attack against the United States.


What are we to make of Castro’s late-life interview?

According to columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady of The Wall Street Journal, “We are supposed to conclude that Cuba is no longer a threat to global stability and that Fidel is a reformed tyrant. But how believable is a guy whose revolution wiped out Cuba’s tiny Jewish community of 15,000 and who spent the past 50 years supporting the terrorism of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya and Iran? And how does Castro explain Venezuela, where Cuban intelligence agents run things, Iran is an ally and anti-Semitism has been a state policy in recent years? Mr. Goldberg doesn’t go there with Fidel,” O’Grady writes.

Supporting this take by O’Grady are many letters and articles I have received over the years from a loyal if sometimes critical reader of the St. Louis Jewish Light, Kenneth E. Levin who recently told me that Fidel is a “thug,” and has been at every stage of his career. Indeed, over the years Castro uttered extremely anti-Israel statements that received wide circulation in global media. Castro has also had his Jewish defenders over the years. In an extensive article in Moment magazine back in 2004, Dana Evan Kaplan described Castro as “never anti-Semitic though often anti-Israel, the controversial dictator gives Cuba’s tiny Jewish community room to grow.” In Kaplan’s interview, conducted while Castro was still in power, Castro, who was raised Catholic, but who often told visitors that he believed he was of Jewish and Converso ancestry, said, “I know a little bit about Jewish history. What could move me more than a struggle of a people to preserve its traditions, its religion and its culture? In 2,000 some years, you have preserved your culture, identity, religion, tradition. I’m trying to remember if any other culture has accomplished this.”

It is also part of Castro’s record that Cuba’s Jewish community of 15,000 did not leave the island because of anti-Semitism, but because the Jews were mostly a merchant class who could not thrive in a Communist economy. Through the years Castro allowed the Canadian Jewish Congress to deliver Passover and other Jewish supplies to the Jewish community that remains there, estimated to number about 1,500 to 2,000. The regime has also allowed the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel to support the needs of the Jewish community in Cuba, and has provided funding for the refurbishing of Jewish Community Centers in Havana and Santiago.

Castro’s rebuke of Ahmadinejad is not the first time he took another dictator to task. On the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, Castro sent an open letter to Egyptian President Gamal Abel Nasser rebuking him for threatening to “push the Jews into the sea,” telling him that “true revolutionaries do not use such language.”

Castro refused to break diplomatic relations with Israel during and after the Six-Day War, despite the fact that the Soviet Union and every East European Communist nation except Romania did so. He later broke relations with Israel under pressure from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. He told Goldberg that “it was not yet timely” for those ties to be resumed.

And so we still can ponder: was Castro doing some late-life teshuvah, repentance in his senior years and declining health, similar to the deathbed recantation of his conversion by the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine? Is Castro indeed an irredeemable thug who cannot be believed on any level? Are we to ignore the fact that during his rule Castro persecuted his political opponents, put them in dank prisons and harshly persecuted gays? Are we to ignore his many vehement anti-Israel statements over the years?

The part of me that hopes there is some good even among retired dictators likes to believe that Castro is sincere in his denunciation of Ahmadinejad and his urging the Iranian crackpot to “stop picking on the Jews” and denying the Holocaust. Even if Castro is being “right” for the “wrong reasons” in the views of some, I am prepared to accept his statements in his interview with the respected Jeffrey Goldberg as positive and welcome.

I hope that Ahmadinejad gets the message, but I am not holding my breath.

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.