Jewish, Cuban-born academic who taught at Mills analyzes U.S. thaw

President Obama’s announcement last month normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba won’t benefit just the two countries — it also will improve Cuba’s relationship with Israel and make life better for the island’s small Jewish community.

Arturo Lopez-Levy

That’s the view of Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Jewish and Cuban-born academic who recently wrapped up two semesters as a guest lecturer and scholar-in-residence at Mills College in Oakland.

“I have talked with [Cuban Jewish] community leaders and they are very happy with the agreement,” Lopez-Levy, 46, said in an interview. “Travel and trade will be better for the whole country in general, and the Jewish community, too.”

Though Cuba under Fidel Castro initially had warm relations with Israel, that changed after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Cuba shifted its alliances toward the Arab bloc. But according to Lopez-Levy, anti-Semitism has never been a problem in post-revolution Cuba.

At its peak, the Cuban Jewish population topped 15,000, though today the number has dwindled to 1,300. Still, the community boasts two synagogues and a Jewish center. Over the years, Jewish leaders have maintained good relations with the government, which may in part explain why Castro denounced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a few years ago when the then–Iranian president dismissed the Holocaust as a hoax.

Fidel Castro (left) visiting El Patronato synagogue and Jewish center in Havana, Hanukkah 1998

Meanwhile, Israeli tourists have flocked to Cuba, as have Israeli entrepreneurs seeking business opportunities. That could accelerate once normalized U.S.-Cuba relations find their footing.

Though happy with the thaw in relations, Lopez-Levy has one main concern. With America’s decades-old trade embargo still in place — subject to reversal only through an act of Congress — he fears hardliners in the United States and Cuba will try to derail reforms. Those reforms came about after months of secret negotiations, culminating in the president’s announcement, which included freedom for jailed Jewish American aid worker Alan Gross and three Cubans in a prisoner exchange. Gross had entered Cuba more than five years ago, reportedly to help firm up Internet access for the Jewish community; however, according to, he was working for a pro-democracy program funded by the U.S. government and he had smuggled into Cuba illegal equipment, such as “a chip that allows Internet use without detection.”

Lopez-Levy’s analysis of the Gross affair is that it evolved from a foreign policy obstacle into a catalyst for improved relations. He said the U.S. and Cuban governments, as well as the Cuban Jewish community, ultimately handled the crisis with “maturity.”

Tzedakah box at El Patronato

Now Lopez-Levy wants to see ties strengthen at full speed, including the opening up of travel, trade, credit and diplomatic relations.

“Everything depends on the capacity of President Obama and [Cuban President] Raul Castro,” he added. “They are partners against people who want to spoil the party. They need to speed up the process. The faster they can create constituencies, the harder it will be for the spoilers to ruin progress.”

Though an American citizen now, Lopez-Levy retains an affection for and connection to his homeland.

Descended from Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Turkey, Lopez-Levy grew up in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara. Though his parents supported the Castro revolution, he also remembers celebrating Passover and other Jewish holidays, and spending time reading about Judaism and Jewish history in the town’s Jewish community library.

As a teen he moved with his family to Havana, the capital city where most of Cuba’s Jews live. A love of history led him to enroll in the country’s diplomatic training academy. In 1991, Lopez-Levy faced a temporary suspension when he floated the idea that Cuba send a force to fight alongside U.S. troops against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.

Collage in the lobby of El Patronato

While serving as a functionary in Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, he concluded he could not abide some aspects of communist rule. He resigned from the Young Communist League, and as punishment, the regime sent Lopez-Levy to work in the agricultural fields for 18 months. But he would not relent. After years of waiting, he finally received permission to travel abroad. He went first to Israel, where he spoke at the Hebrew University about improving Cuban-Israeli ties.

He later made it to Columbia University in New York to continue his education. Eventually he became an American citizen though he does not consider himself a defector.

After finishing up at Mills last month, where he taught a class on Latin American politics, Lopez-Levy is now at New York University for another term as a scholar-in-residence.

His permanent gig is in international studies at the University of Denver, where he is also a research associate at the school’s Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East. He co-wrote the 2011 book “Raul Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-Up View of Change.”

With the December breakthrough, Lopez-Levy sees no way the tide of change can be stemmed, especially if the United States removes Cuba from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism, which he sees as likely. That will only speed up the demise of the U.S. embargo.

“If it comes off the list,” he said, “then [Obama] can say Cuba is not an enemy.”

In the spring, he will lead a field study trip to the land of his birth. He believes that trip, like others he has led, will convince participants that the new normal between the United States and Cuba is long overdue.

“I know many people who came back from Cuba not supporting the Castro regime,” he said. “But I don’t know any who have come back from Cuba supporting the embargo.”


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.