In a recent series of conversations with the Atlantic magazine, Fidel Castro made several
eyebrow-raising comments. The one that received the most attention was Castro’s assertion that the Cuban economic model no longer works. (He later tried, disingenuously, to backtrack on that statement.)
Surprisingly, his remarks on Iran and anti-Semitism caused less of a splash. But these remarks were equally, if not more, significant because they were part of a broader, ongoing charm offensive conducted by the Cuban dictatorship at a time of internal distress.
According to the Atlantic, Castro slammed Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust denial and suggested that Tehran try to understand the long history of Jewish persecution. “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews,” Castro said. “I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the
Muslims for anything.”
These comments were no accident. Castro was deliberately attempting to curry favor with America’s Jewish community, and with American policymakers more broadly. The question is, why now? Why pick this moment to attack the Iranian theocracy, condemn anti-Semitism and strongly endorse Israel’s right to exist? After all, as recently as 2001, Castro traveled to Tehran and said, “Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.”
For decades, his government aided the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups seeking to kill Israelis and Americans. In 1966, Havana hosted the infamous Tricontinental Conference, a
gathering of bloodstained radicals that arguably launched the modern era of international terrorism. So it’s a bit rich for Castro to now posture as a scourge of anti-Semitism and a selfless defender of the Jews.
But here’s the thing: Fidel is desperate to bolster his historical legacy and desperate to secure much-needed financial aid for his cash-strapped government. Now
84 years old and in poor health, Castro knows the Cuban economy is in dire condition, and he knows that Washington, D.C., could throw his communist regime a lifeline if it were to eliminate the U.S. travel ban.
Those American lawmakers who oppose the ban are always eager to highlight evidence that Cuba is “reforming” and should thus be rewarded with a flood of
free-spending U.S. tourists. Congress is currently debating legislation that would scrap travel restrictions and provide Havana with a massive
infusion of hard currency.
Castro’s denunciation of anti-Semitism must be seen in this context.
Indeed, Havana has recently made several calculated gestures in hopes of improving its global image. In July, Cuba agreed to release
52 political prisoners on the condition that they accept forced exile in Spain. Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who helped broker the agreement,
triumphantly declared that it “opens a new era in Cuba.”
A final point about Castro and the Jews: While his remarks to Jeffrey Goldberg appeared to be a harsh critique of anti-Semitism, they were actually an example of anti-Semitism in disguise. Fidel was motivated to make those remarks by a conspiratorial belief that Jews are an all-powerful lobby in the
The whole episode reminded me of Erich Honecker’s attempts to boost his image with American Jews in the late 1980s, at a time when his East Germany regime was hoping to establish warmer relations with the U.S. In 1988, Honecker restored a synagogue in East Berlin and visited with World Jewish Congress leader Edgar Bronfman, assuming that Bronfman could arrange a meeting with President Ronald Reagan.
Needless to say, the Honecker-Reagan meeting never happened, and the Berlin Wall soon collapsed. But Honecker’s outreach to
Bronfman reflected his belief that Jews control the American government.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.