My love affair with Cuba began early. Even as a student at Allderdice in the 1950s, I relished every bit of detail about that little island so close to America. It has a wonderful and remarkable history dating to the Mesoamerican Indian tribes and a unique culture created by blending that of the tribes with Spanish colonists and former African slaves.
While attending the University of Miami, I was fortunate to meet many Cuban-Americans (this was, of course, before the revolution) who spoke passionately and affectionately of their Caribbean home.
But as a young man on his first visit to Cuba I was struck by the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. Looking back now with the wisdom of time and experience, it probably should have been no surprise to me that a communist revolution was coming.
Three decades later, I found myself in a position to help Cuba’s small and struggling Jewish community. During the years since the revolution, about 94 percent of Jews left the island. By the time I founded the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project, the population had dwindled to a mere 1,500 people. The six synagogues, especially the magnificent Beth Shalom, were in total disrepair. It barely had any windows, and the pews were damaged. The BBCJRP helped repair all the buildings and helped bring religious books (including three Torahs), food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies. We even built a kosher kitchen.
My association with the Brother’s Brother Foundation also made it possible to bring medical supplies and equipment to the island.
I was thrilled when President Barack Obama announced that the United States is extending diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba. The controversial embargo continues, but the formal recognition will certainly bring changes to the communist nation.
Obama’s new policy means that the U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana will be upgraded to a full embassy (interestingly, its offices are in the former U.S. Embassy). This will allow direct contact between the governments to address various issues that before could only be handled through a third party.
The policy also opens the door (slightly) to more cultural and economic ties between the two countries. Cuba’s Jews are well positioned to take advantage of this profound change. They are well educated, inventive and industrious. Already there are several members of the community who operate successful small businesses. The access to American credit and debit accounts will certainly help them as will, hopefully, increased tourism.
The change in relationships may open Cuba up to America and the rest of the world —- something that would certainly facilitate political change. This is not as far-fetched as some think. Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, have always been unusual dictators. Most such rulers are only interested in power for its sake. But the Castros were genuine believers in communism and thought that they were doing the right thing for their country. Consider the country’s recognition of Christmas and how helpful the Cuban government has been in the BBCJRP’s humanitarian efforts. Fidel Castro has even attended events at Beth Shalom.
The BBCJRP will also be able to expand its efforts beyond Havana to Jews elsewhere in Cuba.
My love affair with Cuba and her people remains as strong as ever. Now, with Obama’s wise and timely decision, hopefully more people will experience the wonders of such a wonderful place.
Stanley Cohen is the founder and former international chairman of the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewry Relief Project and has visited Cuba 28 times.