Commentary: Mainers find a Cuba in search of itself

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Editor’s note: Perry B. Newman is a former columnist for The Forecaster who lives in South Portland and Boston, and writes from time to time about international affairs. He recently traveled to Cuba with a group organized by the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.

PORTLAND — When President Obama announced the resumption of diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than 40 years of political estrangement last December, the sands beneath the island nation and Florida began to shift.

The president’s admission that a U.S. policy of isolation had failed to bring down the Castro regime was for many a welcome recognition that the policy had done little other than impoverish the Cuban people, and in fact had played into former Prime Minister and President Fidel Castro’s hands as he sought to institutionalize a siege mentality for his own political benefit.

The president’s announcement thus created a burst of excitement and anticipation. Relaxation of travel restrictions would surely make it easier for families to reunite – and for Americans to bring back Cuban cigars.

But did the diplomatic rapprochement signal Cuba’s acceptance of greater political openness? Was Cuba’s ruling regime recognizing that socialism had failed? Would foreign investment be more welcome? Would Cuba be transitioning to a market economy?

It was against this backdrop that a largely Jewish group of Mainers traveled to Cuba earlier this month.

The principal purpose in making the trip was to ferry needed supplies to Cuba’s small remaining Jewish population: everything from children’s books to toiletries were presented to representatives of the Jewish community, which now numbers roughly 1,500 people in a nation of 11 million.

Once 25,000 strong, Cuba’s Jewish population is a centuries-old story in itself, a story first of escape from the Inquisition, then of escape from Nazi persecution and losing everything in the Holocaust, and finally a tragic tale of losing everything once more in the nationalization of Cuba’s economy.

It is a story of assimilation alongside a stubborn “otherness” that defines many small and isolated Jewish communities.

Surprisingly, it is also a story of acceptance by ordinary Cubans and the Cuban government, so much so that many Cuban Jews have said that the concept of anti-Semitism is simply foreign to Cuban society. Many Cuban Jews were supporters, philosophically and politically, of the revolution in Cuba, owing to the corruption of the pre-Castro, Batista regime and the deplorable conditions in which many ordinary Cubans lived.

Nonetheless, post-revolution reality inevitably clashed with idealistic fervor, and most of Cuba’s Jews fled Cuba in the early 1960s, when Castro seized the businesses, properties and the worldly possessions of any value of those who remained.

Those who had the wherewithal to escape did so, and those who remained either could not afford the fare to get out, could not conceive of yet another flight from persecution, or perhaps did not believe that Castro would be a lasting fixture.

But here we are, more than a half-century later, and Cuba’s tiny Jewish population hangs on, preserving its places of worship, its cemeteries, and its customs with the support of the Jewish diaspora, maintaining a presence in the cultural landscape and hoping that economic opportunity in Cuba will improve so that younger Cuban Jews, the children of those who escaped to Florida, will return to rebuild a society.

What are the prospects for change in Cuba? Time will tell, of course, but at the moment Cuba is a country of pronounced contrasts.

Expressions of welcome and hope for the future exist alongside vestiges of revolutionary fervor. Sarcastic caricatures of American presidents greet visitors to the Museum of the Revolution, while taxi drivers proudly declare that they have a brother in New Jersey.

“Socialism or death!” shouts a dowdy sign atop an office tower, while ordinary Cubans wink and say, “The government pretends to pay me, and I pretend to work.”

Five-star hotels dot Havana’s seaside Malecon, but many of the showers in those glitzy towers trickle brown water.

Privately owned restaurants in historic homes offer outstanding cuisine, while government-owned restaurants serve predictable, Soviet-style fare.

The next few years will be critical for Cuba and its warm, beguiling people.

Castro’s ruthless socialism undoubtedly lifted the population out of squalor, providing health care and education to all. The American embargo ignited Cuban creativity, giving rise to a living museum of vintage automobiles that today carry visitors from the very country that isolated their drivers.

Everyone the Mainers met expressed a desire to improve their lives economically, even as they exhibited a desire to preserve the solidarity fostered by decades of shared sacrifice.

Cuba is in a battle for its own soul.

In the end, it may come down to this: Do Cubans want Starbucks in Havana, or will they decide on an embargo of their own?

Perry B. Newman can be contacted at

Sidebar Elements

Chimneys in a Havana neighborhood spell out “Viva Cuba.”

A steel outline of Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuego’s face at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. Accompanying the facade are the words “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel), representing Cienfuego’s response to Castro at a January 1959 rally where Castro declared a military barracks would be made into a school, and then asked Cienfuego, “Am I doing all right, Camilo?”

David Tacher, leader of the Jewish community in Santa Clara, Cuba, describes the challenges of keeping religious traditions alive as the population ages with members of the delegation from the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.

The Jewish cemetery in Havana.

Cubans watch Portland’s Jewish delegation from outside cemetery gates in Santa Clara.

Editor’s note

Perry B. Newman is a former columnist for The Forecaster who lives in South Portland and Boston, and writes from time to time about international affairs. He recently traveled to Cuba with a group organized by the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.