Gross Libre

Jewish Light Editorial

There’s one easy reflection regarding Cuba, and one tougher one.

The easy one first: Amid all of the competing narratives on re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, there is nearly unanimous applause for the well-timed Hanukkah gift of Alan P. Gross’ release.

Gross, a Jewish-American aid worker who spent the past five years in a dank Cuban prison, was freed as part of a package of understandings between President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba. Gross had been arrested when he was caught harmlessly assisting the small Cuban Jewish community, generally estimated at fewer than 1,500, in setting up Internet connections across the island nation.

After his five-year ordeal, Gross was home in time to celebrate Hanukkah with his family in his home state of Florida. At an airport news conference after his release, Gross thanked not only Obama, but Jewish organizations for their unflagging support for his release.

As to the dramatic decision by Obama to re-engage in diplomatic relations with Castro Cuba, we are supportive despite fully acknowledging the reservations articulated by many.

Only time will tell whether the president’s action will truly lead to improved conditions for the Cuban people, who have lived under the Communist regime since Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Supporters point out that the previous half-century approach didn’t work to undermine the Cuban government. Moreover, the United States has diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, a dictatorship that itself has trampled upon Tibet and others; with Vietnam, against which the U.S. fought a bloody war that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans; and with Myanmar, despite that nation’s dismal record on human rights.

Opponents of the U.S.-Cuban thaw point out that despite the fact that America established diplomatic relations and expanded trade with the regimes in China, Vietnam and Myanmar, those nations have not undergone significant human-rights reforms, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) has actually regressed toward harsher human rights violations despite the normalization of ties with the U.S.

Then there’s the Cuban-American community, which itself has strong splits, particularly those along generational lines. Older members of this population cannot imagine anything resembling normalization with a dictatorship that repressed democracy and forced many to flee the island. Cold War markers such as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis still loom large in their minds.

Many younger Cuban-Americans, however, see the potential in trade, travel and other economic factors that could ultimately lead to political and cultural reform. This viewpoint reflects far more of a looking forward than a looking back.

The Castros’ record on Jews and Judaism is complicated, and the Gross imprisonment is not reflective of the overall history. Despite the harshness of the Castro regime’s policies, the Castro brothers have rarely been accused of outright anti-Semitism. Many of the Jews from pre-Revolution Cuba left that nation because most of them were middle-class merchants who could not thrive in a top-down communist command economy.

During their more than half-century reign, the Castros have allowed Canadian Jews to provide Passover supplies, prayer books and other religious supplies to the Jews of Cuba. And after an interruption of several years, the Castro regime has again allowed the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency to provide similar services and support to the Jews of Cuba.

None of these positive gestures excuse Gross’ unfair imprisonment, but they are nevertheless facts about the Cuban government’s treatment of its Jews that should be taken into account.

On balance, we believe that Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba is in the best interests of both the United States and Cuba, and especially of the Cuban people, including the Jews who remain in the island nation.

In the immediate aftermath of the Obama-Castro announcement, hundreds of Cubans of all ages took to the streets of Havana to publicly celebrate the possibility of renewed contact between ordinary Cubans and U.S. citizens.

The reaction here was of course much more mixed, and many steps remain before the half-century embargo against Cuba can be fully lifted. The matter will serve as political fodder in the halls of Congress, the streets of Florida and elsewhere. But given the failures of the past, a new approach, one that at least hints at the possibility of change, is worth the gamble.

For more on the subject:

•  Times of Israel:  “After years of enmity, Jerusalem to follow US on Cuba détente”: