Why did Castro let 400 Cuban Jews emigrate to Israel

JERUSALEM — The secret aliyah of 400 Cuban Jews that came to light this week may be an attempt by one of the world's few remaining communist — and fervently anti-Zionist — dictators to win favor with the United States.

The mystery surrounding their exodus to Israel over the past four years seems to stem from a combination of Castro's desire to see crippling economic sanctions lifted, and his reluctance to publicize special treatment arranged for the Cuban Jewish community.

The Israeli government confirmed the immigration for the first time Monday.

Officially, Cubans are free to emigrate provided they have the appropriate paperwork and airfare. But most are too poor to leave.

Leaders of Cuba's Jewish community, which now numbers 1,300, confirmed that the operation had been taking place but said it was not actually hidden.

"The fact that something is not known about does not mean it was secret," said Raquel Marichal, one such leader.

Who first approached Castro regarding the emigration is unclear — with many taking credit.

Israel Radio reported Margarita Zapata, the Jewish granddaughter of the famous Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, used her friendship with Castro to raise the matter with the Cuban leader six years ago.

Others involved with Cuban Jewry said they had never heard of her involvement.

But what's emerged since Israeli military censors opened the subject to the media Monday is that in the early 1990s the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental agency involved in immigration, entered into an agreement with Castro to keep their activities quiet in return for an obstacle-free operation.

Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman, declined to comment on Cuban aliyah.

This week, major newspapers in Europe and Canada revealed that the Canadian government had also been quietly helping the Jews of Cuba for the past 25 years by facilitating their exodus to Israel.

Cuba and Canada maintain political relations while Cuba and Israel do not. Cuba dropped diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Officials in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs have confirmed the existence of a special office in Canada's Embassy in Havana through which Cuban Jews may apply to emigrate to Israel.

Embassy workers in Havana normally forward emigration requests to the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa, which in turn sends them to Tel Aviv.

The emigrants leave Cuba using Cuban exit visas and passports, and use Canadian travel documents to enter Israel.

The arrangement was kept secret for diplomatic reasons, said a spokesperson for Canadian foreign affairs.

"Given the relationship between the countries involved, keeping it quiet was the best idea."

The arrangement operated with "full transparency," the official said. "So the Israelis know, the Cubans know, obviously we know. And everyone is happy with it."

Most members of the Cuban Jewish community are descended from Polish and Russian Jews who fled czarist pogroms at the turn of the century.

When Castro came to power in 1959, most of Cuba's then-15,000 Jews managed to flee, with the majority settling in the United States.

Margalit Bejarano, a Cuba specialist at Hebrew University, told the London Sunday Telegraph there is far less anti-Semitism in Cuba than in the former communist states of Eastern Europe.

"Castro never denied Jews kosher food or the right to organize cultural activities," Bejarano said, while noting that the practice of religion — Judaism or Christianity — in Cuba had been a bar to university admission, some professions and the Communist Party

Cuba became officially atheist in 1962, and, as a result, the Jewish community suffered from assimilation. In the early 1990s, Cuba revised its constitution, changing the country's status to secular and accepting members of all religions into the Communist Party.

Moises Asis, a Miami resident who was the principal and founder of the Tikkun Olam Hebrew School in Havana, said he had started to educate Cuba's Jews about Judaism as early as 1985, with the support of the Chabad movement, which regularly sent visiting rabbis. He left Cuba in 1993.

In 1991, under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, he visited the United States and Israel, where he approached Jewish organizations and Israeli political parties with the idea of Cuban aliyah.

In 1992, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee approached the Cuban government and received permission to provide physical care and Jewish education to the Jewish community, according to JDC officials.

Both Asis and the JDC cite their efforts for stimulating interest in Israel among Cuban Jews.

Castro, who is 73, has been among the most virulent critics of Israel and the most ardent supporters of the Palestinian cause, but official relations with the Jewish community of Cuba have become noticeably warmer in recent months.

At Chanukah last year, for example, Castro attended an Israel cultural evening at the Patronato synagogue in Havana, the largest of Cuba's four remaining synagogues.

Some reports have suggested that while Cuba and Israel may wish to reconcile, Israel is wary of Washington's reaction. The United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba since 1959.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which provided Cuba with some $5 billion in aid each year, Castro was forced to modify his anti-Zionist stance and seek to establish new economic ties with the non-communist world.

Cuba is billions of dollars in debt, and ration books are said to often run out halfway through the month.

In 1996, the United States further tightened its economic blockade in accordance with the Helms-Burton Law. Many Cubans now regard the lifting of sanctions as their most vital need.

Unofficially, Cuba and Israel are said to be interested in resuming diplomatic ties. Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, reportedly visited Castro in 1994.

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman James Rubin welcomed the news of the Jewish immigration.

"The fact that members of the Jewish community have been allowed to immigrate to Israel is a step forward in Cuba's overall religious freedom policy," he said.

The most recent immigrants from Cuba are now in an immigrant absorption center in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, where they were besieged by the media Monday.

While some expressed satisfaction with being in Israel, others voiced some of the same complaints heard by other immigrant populations over difficult living and work conditions.

"Living here is like living in a ghetto, worse than anything else I have ever seen. Sometimes it makes me think I want to go back," Pedro Luis told Israeli television.

Others are reluctant to speak out for fear of jeopardizing the chance of others leaving Cuba and for fear of reprisals against family members left behind.

Reports estimated that an additional 200 Cuban Jews are expected to be able to emigrate by June.

Asis, who has not visited Cuba since he left in 1993, said he did not think the media coverage of the Cuban aliyah would negatively affect prospective olim.

Twenty are scheduled to arrive next week, according to an Israeli official who said that if this group did not arrive, it would show that the heightened attention had endangered the operation.