Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Fleeing the Revolution: The Exodus of Cuban Jewry in the Early 1960s

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Fleeing the Revolution: The Exodus of Cuban Jewry in the Early 1960s

Article excerpt

On the eve of the revolution, the Jewish community of Cuba numbered between 12,000 and 16,500 individuals. There were three distinct subgroups within the community: those who came from the United States for business reasons; Sephardim who immigrated from the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I; and Ashkenazim, who arrived from Eastern Europe from the 1920s onward. There were other smaller groups, as well, including German and other Central European Jews who arrived as refugees and a group of ultraOrthodox Belgian Jews of Polish origin who arrived in the late 1930s. Most arrived penniless and many had planned to continue on to the United States. But by the 1950s, the Jewish community was becoming more affluent. The majority lived in Havana, but there were smaller Jewish communities in many other cities and towns throughout Cuba as well. Many of those in Havana had left Old Havana for the more prosperous suburbs of Vedado and Miramar. A significant number had achieved upper-middle-class status, and some had become wealthy. This new affluence allowed them to build new synagogues, including the Centra Hebreo Sefaradi and the Patronato, a large community center.

The revolution's economic policies destroyed the Jewish community of Cuba as it had been in the 1950s, with only a small contingent remaining. Most Jews were middle-class businessmen and the revolution's socialist policies undermined the economic basis of the community. The realization that immigration would be necessary dawned only slowly on most middle-class Cubans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. It should be stressed that the Jews of Cuba left because of economic and political considerations. Neither the revolutionary government nor the Cuban people exhibited any anti-Semitic tendencies. This fact is quite remarkable in light of the considerable anti-Semitism experienced by Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and other Eastern European Jews under Communist rule.

Although most Cuban Jews eventually became alienated from the Castro regime, in the early days of January 1959 they welcomed the revolutionaries. Most Jews were pleased that the Batista dictatorship had come to an end and were hoping that the new government would promote greater freedom and usher in a period of greater prosperity. The original government appointed by Fidel Castro included mostly moderate democrats, but he was already secretly controlling the real decision-making process. Nevertheless, it gradually became clear that Fidel Castro was determined to turn Cuba into a communist country, albeit an idiosyncratic one. Those who felt that the revolutionary government was determined to ally itself with the communist bloc turned out to be right. This made it impossible for middle-class Jewish businessmen to continue to operate as they were accustomed, and most felt that they had to leave the country.

The Political Background

During the first two years of the revolution, Fidel Castro gradually instituted measures designed to tighten his hold on power and to transform the country into a socialist style dictatorship. Because of the immense distain that most Cubans felt toward Batista, as well as Castro's tremendous charisma, Fidel remained immensely popular throughout this period. Many middle-class Cubans, however, became increasingly alarmed at various government policies they believed to be incompatible with a free-market capitalist economic system. The Cuban government also engaged in a series of retaliatory measures with the United States. On 17 March 1960, President Dwight D. Elsenhower approved a covert action plan against Cuba that included the use of a "powerful propaganda campaign" designed to overthrow Castro. The plan included the termination of sugar purchases, the end of oil deliveries, the continuation of the arms embargo in effect since mid-1958, and the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to invade the island. The deterioration in the diplomatic relations between the two countries upset many Cuban Jews, who were concerned that this would choke off their economic supplies and markets. …

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