Castro’s Change of Heart: The Implications for Cuba, Venezuela, and The United States

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After four years of silence induced by grave physical illness, punctuated only by occasional newspaper commentaries, Fidel Castro has regained his voice. To the surprise of many, he is using it to make some startling comments on the escalating conflict between Iran and the western world. In one of his most recent statements on the subject, expressed in an exclusive interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, Castro surprised friends and foes alike by excoriating Iran’s Ahmadinejad for intensifying conflict in the Middle East by encouraging anti-Semitism in Iran. Specifically, Castro criticized Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, declaring to Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.”

Castro has come out since publication of Goldberg’s piece to explain that the reporter missed the crucial irony in his statement that was originally heralded as a shocking admission that the Cuban economic model was failing. Instead, Castro explained that he had meant “exactly the opposite,” that the US capitalist model could no longer be seen as a model for the U.S., much less for Cuba. Fidel has made no such clarification or retraction regarding his words for Ahmadinejad, however. In this case, at least, it seems that Goldberg got Castro’s message right the first time.

Fidel’s choice of messenger—American-Israeli reporter Goldberg, who has historically shown affinity for neo-conservative viewpoints, —seems, at first, an odd one, given Castro’s well-documented history as an outspoken critic of both Israel and, of course, the United States. Castro’s decision to entrust Goldberg with this stern warning to Ahmadinejad is merely the first of many enigmas that emerge from this far-reaching interview. Indeed, the shockwaves sent out from Fidel’s statement will be felt not only in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, but also closer to home in Venezuela, where it threatens to strain Castro’s long-standing relationship with President Hugo Chávez. Most important, however, are the potential ramifications of Castro’s statement here in the United States.

Fidel’s message represents a golden opportunity for the Obama administration to recognize Cuba’s increasing trend toward liberalization and normalize relations with Havana. Cuba’s apparent willingness to abandon old dogmas and to strive for areas of common interest and shared values with the U.S. could be a first step to remedying the estrangement and polarization between the two countries. Whether or not the United States chooses to catch this most recent wave and ride it, however, is up to the Obama administration, which has heretofore remained regretfully timid with respect to Cuba, despite repeated encouraging signs that Cuban leadership has begun to reconsider the island nation’s long-standing state of political and economic isolation.

Castro’s condemnation of anti-Semitism in Iran and his related affirmation of Israel’s right to exist is only the most recent example of Cuba’s attempts to reengage the Western world both politically and economically. As early as the Pope’s 1998 tour of the island—followed by Jimmy Carter’s highly publicized visit in 2002—Cuba began to show signs that, systemic differences aside, it was in fact interested in engaging in dialogue with the West when it came to issues such as ethnic and religious tolerance. On the economic front, since 2008, President Raúl Castro has taken steps toward market expansion, announcing his commitment to open Cuba to increased foreign investment and making previously restricted products such as computers and cellular phones more accessible to the general population. Raúl’s liberalizing reforms in Cuba’s agricultural sector include the limited privatization of land, as well the decentralization of key decision-making structures within the industry. This focus on economic decentralization within the agricultural sector may herald more widespread reforms designed to streamline the Cuban bureaucracy, which Raúl Castro himself has criticized for its staggering inefficiency.

Though many experts suggested that Raúl Castro’s commitment to reducing government bureaucracy would not be followed by concrete action, a groundbreaking August 13 statement issued from Havana announced an accelerated timeline for the one million state job cuts initially promised. Over the course of the next six months, Cuban officials will be laying off at least half a million state employees, much earlier than originally expected. In addition to unprecedented job cuts, according to CNN’s Shasta Darlington, Raúl Castro also announced that the state has “agreed to broaden the exercise of self employment and its use as another alternative for the employment of those excess workers,” in a move that sounds suspiciously like privatization. This announcement from Havana represents a monumental shift away from traditional Cuban economic philosophy, and its importance cannot be overstated.

In this context of substantive reform and exciting, near-daily developments from Havana, Fidel Castro’s criticism of Ahmadinejad can be considered further evidence that Cuba is indeed taking steps to emerge from isolation, as it moves in the direction of increased political and economic dialogue with longtime adversaries. Rather than find common cause with every rogue state spouting anti-U.S. rhetoric no matter what its ideological source, Fidel’s statement reaches out towards areas of ideological agreement with the Western world. As a leader of that world, the United States can no longer afford to ignore these positive developments in Cuba, especially now that Fidel Castro himself appears willing to risk alienating allies Iran and Venezuela to call for peace in the Middle East.

Cuba’s Tangled Web: Tehran, Tel-Aviv, and the Havana Synagogue

Without doubt, Castro’s remark will have implications for Havana’s relationship with Tehran. Cuba and Iran are both members of the Non-Aligned Movement and, in 2005, Iran opened a €20 million credit line to Cuba. Unlike many other Latin American leftist regimes, however, Cuba has never enjoyed a particularly profound relationship with Iran. Compared to, for example, Bolivia, Ecuador, or Venezuela, Havana-Tehran ties are minimal.

As with all of the Latin American left since 1967, Cuba has always been fiercely critical of Israel. Cuba, indeed, has not had diplomatic relations with Israel since Castro cut ties in response to the 1973 Yom Kippur war, in which Cuba also sent 1,500 troops to aid Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. Cuba has also substantially supported numerous Palestinian independence movements, though not religiously inspired ones such as Hamas.

On the other hand, Cuba’s relationship with its 1,500-strong Jewish population has been relatively positive. In her 2007 article for The New York Times, “In Cuba, Finding a Tiny Corner of Jewish Life,” author Caren Osten Gerszberg noted that there are three synagogues in Havana (which has a Jewish population of approximately 1,100), one for each of the three major sects. Havana is also home to a Jewish community center (called El patronato) and a branch of Hadassah, the international Jewish women’s organization. The Cuban city of Santa Clara has a Jewish cemetery as well as a Holocaust memorial. Castro himself, Gerzberg writes, has attended Hanukah ceremonies in the city. In their book An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, Ruth Behar and Humberto Mayol write about how Cuba’s Jewish population is frequently better off than the rest of the population, “a constant stream of individuals stop by to inquire if by any chance they might happen to be Jewish. Word has gotten around that being Jewish in Cuba brings benefits – besides the chicken dinners on Friday night and Saturday midday there is access to alternative information, a well-stocked pharmacy, a lively set of social events, and the possibility of leaving Cuba via Israel.” She notes that the Cuban Jews are also unique in receiving rations of kosher beef, which is considered a rare delicacy for most Cubans, who generally eat far less expensive pork.

It is important to remember that, while Iran and Cuba share an overlapping ideology insomuch as they are both “anti-imperialist” in posture and thus critical of the United States, they disagree on far more than they agree. Cuba was, until recently, a state in which formal expression of religion was banned, while Iran remains a theocratic state whose rationale is entirely Islamic. They are by no means, natural allies. Crucially, Cuba under Castro has been a communist state. Historically developed in conformity with the Soviet line, many of the most important figures in the formation of communism were Jewish and saw even Soviet orthodoxy as an alternative to the rampant anti-Semitism of Europe at the time. Thus, it is a hearkening back to the historic ideological roots of Marxism, that, forced to choose between Iran and the Jewish population, Cuba would condemn Iranian anti-Semitism.

Chávez, Castro, and Ahmadinejad: Bizarre Love Triangle?

But there are other parties with interests in the Cuba-Iran-US relationship, most notably Venezuela. Venezuela, which since Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998 has been Cuba’s close supporter and bankroller, has deliberately sought out connections with Iran and has abetted Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s anti-US and anti-Semitic rhetoric despite obviously not sharing the religious motivation of the Iranian leader. It is thus likely that the most dramatic implications of Castro’s statement will be its possible effect on Cuban-Venezuelan relations. Ever since his election in 1998, Chávez has shared a close personal and diplomatic relationship with Castro and Cuba. Although the subject of Castro’s attack was obviously Iran, his statements have nonetheless put Chávez on the defensive, not only because of his close diplomatic ties to Iran, but also because of the numerous allegations of anti-Semitism that have been raised against Chávez by Venezuela’s Jewish community.

Chávez holds Castro and his Cuban Revolution as a guiding influence and inspiration for Chávez’s own Bolivarian Revolution, which seeks to create a socialist, united Latin America. Cuba and Venezuela formed the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of Our America (ALBA), a socialist-inspired Latin American regional integration organization, together in 2004. Venezuela also sells Cuba petroleum well below the average market price as a form of aid to the embargoed island. The two leaders have frequently cooperated on numerous political, social, and economic projects. More generally, they, in general, share a mutual socialist ideology and almost always back each other diplomatically. On a more personal level, Chávez has visited Cuba multiple times and greets Fidel on almost every episode of his weekly television program “Aló, Presidente.”

Castro’s statement, however, may precipitate the first serious diplomatic rift between the two traditional allies. While aimed at Ahmadinejad, Castro’s remark could have been equally applicable to Chávez. In the days leading up to Castro’s remark, Chávez faced escalating criticism by Venezuelan Jewish leaders for his perceived anti-Semitism, culminating in a September 5th call by Jewish leaders to meet with Chávez. For years, Venezuelan Jewish leaders have complained about verbal attacks against Venezuelan Jews by Chávez and members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). The administration has also been accused of either ignoring or tacitly encouraging various crimes committed against Venezuela’s Jewish community, including the vandalism of a synagogue and a minor attack on a Jewish community center in Caracas in 2009. The most recent tensions between Chávez and the Venezuelan Jewish community have arisen as a result of perceived attacks by the PSUV and media traditionally associated with it. Comments that seemed to suggest that Venezuelan Jews were hurting the state’s economy ultimately led Venezuelan Jewish leaders to request a meeting with Chávez, which was realized September 17th.

Domestic issues have not been the only impetus for charges of anti-Semitism against Chávez. His harsh criticism of Israel and strong support for Iran has also greatly concerned Venezuela’s Jewish community, as well as the greater Jewish diaspora. While, like many critics of Israel, Chávez has always tried to distinguish between political Zionism and Judaism, his anti-Israel rhetoric has often blurred the lines between hostility to the Israeli state and a more general anti-Semitism. These incendiary moments have included multiple comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel, and frequent accusations that Israel is committing genocide in Palestine.

In contrast to Cuba, Venezuela has actively cooperated with Iran on many political, economic, and social projects. Iran is thought to have been a major contributor to Venezuela’s nuclear energy program. American regional experts assert that Venezuela has hosted members of the Iranian Quds Force. The Quds Force is a paramilitary wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Its very name alludes to the Arab term for Jerusalem, and the Palestinian claim to that city. The Quds Force has likely involved in training the Venezuelan military over the past few years. A 2009 report by the Woodrow Wilson Center went so far as to suggest that Iran has trained Venezuelan forces in how to conduct “intelligence training, crowd control, and counterintelligence” operations. In 2008, three suspected Hezbollah members were arrested in Caracas.

Of course, Chávez has often found himself embroiled in controversy as a result of his tendency to speak without fully considering the consequences of his words. While this may be irresponsible and tactless, it is not necessarily or consistently anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, although Fidel’s statement did not directly target Chávez, it is hard not to make a connection between the complaints raised by Jewish leaders in Venezuela and Castro’s remarks mere days later. It is also clear that Chávez was put on the defensive by the statement. The day after Castro’s comments, Chávez released his own statement, saying that “we respect and love the Jewish people” and immediately agreed to meet with Venezuelan Jewish leaders.

While it is unlikely that this incident will do serious damage to the Havana-Caracas relationship, Castro’s comments to Goldberg demonstrate just how much he is willing to risk in the pursuit of greater liberalization and an end to Cuba’s half a century of isolation. By condemning Iran, a move that demonstrates Castro’s moral fiber and provides a rare area of agreement between Cuba and the West, Castro has bravely risked straining his relationship with Chávez. If Chávez fails to address the concerns of Venezuela’s Jewish community in an adequate manner, Havana may be perceived as hypocritical for condemning Iranian anti-Semitism while nonetheless maintaining such friendly relations with Venezuela. This, in turn, could put considerable pressure on Venezuelan-Cuban relations. At the very least, Chávez must show discipline and strive for conciliation with the Venezuelan-Jewish community in the short term. In the longer term, Chávez may ultimately have to choose between Cuba and Iran. On one hand, Iran has far more, in terms of tangible goods and services, to offer Venezuela than Cuba. However, Cuba is undoubtedly the ideological forefather of the Latin American left. In fact, strained relations with Cuba could greatly undermine Chávez’s domestic and regional legitimacy. If Cuba continues to denounce Iran, it seems unlikely that Chávez will be able to have his cake and eat it too.

Cuba Continues to Take Risks, Time for the Obama Administration to Take One of its Own

For the above reasons, Fidel Castro’s seemingly self-contained criticism of Iranian anti-Semitism in fact has the potential to impact much more than the bilateral relationship between Cuba and Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Indeed, this statement constitutes a tangible political risk for Castro, as it necessarily brings into play Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela, an important ally. It is true that Castro’s unequivocal message affirming Israel’s right to exist and exhorting Ahmadinejad to, in the words of Goldberg, “stop slandering the Jews,” was most likely not directly intended to win the United States’ favor. However, there is no doubt that Castro’s position on the issue brings him much closer in line with the United States and its Western allies—and away from not only Iran, but possibly Venezuela as well. Indeed, if Castro is, as it appears, willing to risk his relationships with fellow international pariahs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chávez by issuing a statement so congruent with mainstream Western values, the Obama administration needs to sit up and take notice.

Castro’s remarks regarding Iran—merely the most recent indication that Cuba has indeed initiated a slow crawl in the direction of increased economic and political moderation—have provided the Obama administration with yet another opportunity to embrace such positive change in Cuba as sufficient cause for a long-overdue rapprochement. Certainly, despite initial expectations for President Obama, the United States has made painfully little progress toward such a rapprochement, missing opportunity after opportunity to take concrete steps to normalize relations with Cuba since Raúl Castro began substantive economic reforms in 2008.

The United States’ inaction with respect to Cuba is merely symptomatic of the Obama administration’s uninspiring record in Latin America on the whole, as illustrated by its lackluster response to the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. By taking a backseat role to the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States did attempt, in part, to enact the lessons learned from the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez (during which the United States initially appeared to unilaterally welcome the coup, well before the OAS came out with an official resolution unequivocally condemning its obvious unconstitutionality). However, in the case of Honduras, the Obama administration missed the opportunity to be proactive within the OAS forum; when the OAS began to flounder, the United States failed to muster an adequate, sustained multilateral effort to restore the ousted Zelaya to power.

With respect to Cuba, President Obama has yet another chance to be truly proactive and begin to set things right in Latin America. Indeed, the United States currently finds itself in a unique position to do away with an embarrassing vestige of Cold War policy and provide Cuba with a tangible incentive to emerge from isolation and engage with the Western world. In fact, the Obama administration could do this without fully abandoning the United States’ historical objection to Cuba’s ideological position, by instead hailing Castro’s remarks denouncing Iranian anti-Semitism as evidence of Cuba’s willingness to distance itself from rogue states and to relate to the U.S. on an issue-by-issue basis, not just as an a priori adversary. As such, it is imperative that the Obama administration seizes the opportunity presented by Castro’s most recent remarks on Iran and Ahmadinejad to move beyond token measures with concrete steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba. Above all else, the President must increase pressure on Congress to reconsider the embargo. As evidenced by the incongruence between the most recent announcement of a massive economic overhaul and Fidel’s hasty backpedaling from his unexpected and purportedly misinterpreted admission that the Cuban economic model had grown obsolete, Castro is treading a dangerous line between liberalization and the alienation of long-time supporters.

Should Obama fail yet again to reach out to Cuba at this critical juncture as it continues to take increasingly bold strides toward political and economic liberalization, the United States could be unwittingly responsible for making future reforms in Cuba even less likely. After 50 years of mutual antagonism, Cuba and its leaders are tentatively opening doors that have long been sealed shut to the United States, allowing for the possibility of change and increased dialogue. Indifference from the United States at this point is tantamount to slamming these doors in Cuba’s face.