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Fidel and the Jews

What should we make of Castro’s charm offensive?

2:10 PM, Sep 27, 2010 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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In a recent series of conversations with Atlantic reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, 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 this statement.) Surprisingly, his remarks on Iran and anti-Semitism caused less of a splash. But these remarks were equally (if not more) significant, for they were part of a broader, ongoing charm offensive conducted by the Cuban dictatorship at a time of internal distress.

Fidel and the Jews

According to Goldberg, Castro slammed Iranian 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.”

Discussing the horrific consequences of anti-Semitism, Castro noted that the Jews “were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world, as the ones who killed God.... Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation.... The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.”

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 thundered, “Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.” For decades, his government aided the PLO 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—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 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 those prisoners 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.”

 In reality, it was a familiar PR stunt: The Castro regime has always used conditional prisoner releases to elicit concessions from foreign governments. It treats peaceful dissidents as strategic pawns, turning them into a form of diplomatic currency. With the prisoner release, Havana was aiming to convince European Union members to adopt fully normalized relations with Cuba. As Julio César Gálvez, one of the exiled Cuban prisoners who is now living in Spain, told the Associated Press, “Our departure [from Cuba] should not be seen as a gesture of goodwill but rather as a desperate measure by a regime urgently seeking to gain any kind of credit.”

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