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As Castro ails, Jews in Cuba, Miami watch with baited breath
JTA / August 2, 2006

By Larry Luxner

MIAMI — Cuban Jews on both sides of the Florida Straits are reacting with emotions ranging from joy to sadness to unbridled patriotism, following Monday's announcement that Fidel Castro — for the first time in 47 years — is no longer president of Cuba.

An official statement read on Cuban TV said Castro, who turns 80 in two weeks, had "temporarily" ceded power to his younger brother, Raúl, in the wake of surgery for severe gastrointestinal bleeding. His condition is said to be "stable," according to a statement issued in Havana late Tuesday night.

It's unclear, however, whether Cuba's Communist-run news outlets are telling the truth. In the streets of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, conspiracy theories run rampant, with some observers saying that for all they know, Fidel could be lying in a coma, or even dead already.

"I would like to say kaddish for him and his henchmen as soon as possible," quipped Moisés Asís, a former leader of Havana's Jewish community who fled the island in 1992, eventually settling in Miami.

"Most Cuban Jews here feel the same way I do, but in Cuba, they're not free to express their beliefs," said Asís. "When Fidel dies, they will cry for him the same way that Soviet Jews cried for Stalin when he died, and the same way Jews in Egypt cried when Nasser died."

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, says the long-awaited succession is already underway.

"The process of building up Raúl's personality cult has been taking place for years," said Suchlicki, a Jewish academic who left Havana in 1960. "I think what has happened is irreversible. I don't think Fidel will ever come back. He's already passed the baton to his brother Raúl."

Asked if Cuba could open up under the younger Castro, Suchlicki didn't hesitate to say no.

"I don't think Raúl can risk any policy initiatives without altering the balance of forces that exist in Cuba," he said. "If he makes overtures to the United States or opens up the economy, some people will want more, others will want less. Anything he does can alter the balance that has been maintained for years."

An estimated 500 to 800 Jews live in Cuba, an island of 11.2 million that has been ruled by Fidel Castro and his Communist Party since 1959. That number had been as high as 1,500 in the mid-1990s, but about half of the island's Jews are believed to have emigrated to Israel over the past 10 years.

Cuba has five synagogues: three in Havana, one in the central provincial capital of Camagüey, and one in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

Jews enjoy relative freedom of religion in Cuba, despite the regime's hostile position towards Israel. Castro broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, and just last week angrily condemned the "Israeli genocide against innocent civilians" in Lebanon, without mentioning a word about Hezbollah aggression against Israel.

Isaac Russo, president of Havana's local B'nai B'rith chapter, couldn't be reached for comment. But Stanley Cohen, international chairman of the Pittsburgh-based B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Project, said he spoke with Russo by phone Monday, and that the Jewish leader assured him there wouldn't be any major changes as long as Fidel is alive.

Yet Cohen was gloomy about the immediate future, noting that Raúl, 75, has a reputation for being "difficult."

"Raúl is in charge of the armed forces, and in the last year he's been given much more responsibility for security," he warned. "Security has been much tighter, and should get even more tighter now. People will have to watch themselves, though the Jewish community doesn't feel it'll be treated differently from anyone else, except for possible anti-Semitism because of what's going on in the Middle East. The Office of Religious Affairs has assured [Russo] there won't be any problems."

Enrique Oltuski, a hardline Communist who fought alongside Che Guevara in the 1950s against the Batista dictatorship, is Cuba's vice-minister of fisheries and one of the highest-ranking Jews in the Castro regime. He insists everything is normal.

"We revolutionary Cubans feel very deep in our hearts for the news about Fidel's illness," said Oltuski, 75, reached by phone Tuesday afternoon in Havana. "We feel sure that he'll be back soon, and in the meantime, Raúl Castro will take over the government. We have great confidence in Raúl. Everything will keep on going."

Oltuski, who recently wrote a book about his life as a Marxist, added with pride: "We have all come to one conclusion: while Fidel is ill, we must keep on working very hard and with great confidence in the future of the Cuban revolution."

Cuban exiles in Miami come to a very different conclusion.

"In Cuba, nobody's going to talk. They're all afraid," said Bernardo Benes, a 71-year-old Jewish banker who left Cuba in 1960, at the age of 25. Over the years, Benes has received death threats from other Cuban exiles for his outspoken support of negotiation, rather than confrontation, with the Castro regime.

"We'll have to see how things develop. I personally believe this is going to continue for awhile, but nobody knows how long," he told JTA. "Obviously, Raúl doesn't have the same personality or charisma as Fidel, and the people of Cuba follow Fidel."

Last year, the United Nations voted 179-4 to condemn Washington's four-decade-old embargo of Cuba. Only the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voted against the resolution; Micronesia abstained.

Even so, private Israeli companies have invested heavily in Cuban agriculture and real-estate ventures, and former Mossad spy chief Rafael Eitan — now a member of Knesset — recently announced that Fidel Castro would light a menorah at a public Chanukah service in Havana this December, for the first time in Cuban history.

Now, some people doubt Fidel will even make it to December.

"For me, it really doesn't change anything," said Miriam Saul, an Atlanta Jewish community leader who has brought 20 humanitarian groups to Cuba over the last five years. "For me, the government is the government, and what I do with the Jewish community is totally separate."

Saul, whose family left Cuba immediately after the revolution, said she will continue bringing Jewish groups to her native island no matter what.

"We have to wait and see whether those people who have said for years that they wouldn't do business with Cuba will change their minds," she said. "Maybe there's a chance now for those people to save face and open up a little bit."

Adds Rick Schwag, a Jewish humanitarian and founder of Vermont-based Caribbean Medical Transport: "It's not in Fidel Castro's nature to give up power, even for one moment. I believe the overwhelming emotion in Cuba is fear. Whether they love or despise Fidel, people are afraid, because they don't know what's coming next."

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