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.
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.”
Last month, according to a Reuters report, Havana allowed Judy Gross to visit her husband, Alan, who has been sitting in a Cuban prison since late 2009. Alan Gross is a USAID contractor who was working with Cuban civil-society activists at the time of his arrest. The Castro regime insists, ridiculously, that he was engaged in espionage. The Grosses are both American citizens, and Alan’s incarceration has prevented greater progress in U.S.-Cuba relations. Permitting a spousal visit was a small gesture. But the fact that Gross is still being held indicates that Cuba wants to use him as diplomatic leverage.
Many U.S. lawmakers, unfortunately, seem relatively unconcerned that one of their countrymen is being unjustly detained. Indeed, calls to abolish the Cuba travel ban have grown louder since it was reported that Havana would lay off around 500,000 state workers and take small steps toward expanding private enterprise. But has the Communist government really changed? There is no evidence that it will soon implement the type of far-reaching reforms that would deliver real economic and political freedoms to the Cuban people.
“Fundamental changes of U.S. policy toward Cuba should await fundamental reforms by the regime,” the Washington Post argued in a recent editorial. “When average Cubans are allowed the right to free speech and free assembly, along with that to cut hair and trim palm trees, it will be time for American tourists and business executives to return to the island.” That sounds like the correct strategy to me.
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 United States. 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 German regime was hoping to establish warmer relations with the United States. 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 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.
Castro apparently harbors the same illusions. Don’t be misled by his comments to Goldberg. In his clumsy attempt to ingratiate himself with American Jews, Fidel revealed the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism that continues to shape his worldview.
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.