Cuban leader reaches out to religion amid tense times
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Cuban ruler Raúl Castro participated in a Hanukkah ceremony with the
Jewish community in Havana, a first for him and an indication of his
communist government's efforts to reach out to religious institutions on
One analyst described the visit Sunday to the Shalom synagogue in Havana
as part of a Castro effort to project ``a bit of normalcy'' at a time of
rising tensions due to the rocky economy and coming layoffs of a
half-million public workers.
Wearing a dark suit and a yarmulke, Castro lit the first candle of a
menorah to start the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the
rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE.
But he made no public mention of Alan Gross, a Jewish-American
subcontractor for the U.S. government jailed for the past year in Havana
for delivering illegal satellite communications equipment to Jewish
groups on the island.
The Communist Party's Granma newspaper devoted about one-third of its
front page Monday to a report on the Hanukkah visit, underlining its
importance for the government.
It was a marked contrast to the way religious institutions were once
treated by Havana.
The Cuban government declared itself officially atheist in 1962 -- a
designation that remained until the early 1990s -- and in 1969, it
removed Christmas from its official calendar of holidays because it said
it was interfering with the goal of reaching a record sugar harvest.
Castro's synagogue visit appeared to be part of a recent outreach
effort, said Enrique López Oliva, a Havana academic who specializes in
``This is part of an overall policy trying to show a growing improvement
in the relations between the government of Cuba and the Cuban religious
institutions,'' he said.
This year, for example, Castro has met several times with Cardinal Jaime
Ortega, archbishop of Havana, and took part in the Nov. 3 inauguration
of an addition to the San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary in Havana --
the first Catholic construction in Cuba since the early 1960s.
His meetings with Ortega led to a Cuban promise to free the last 52
dissidents still in jail from a group of 75 rounded up during a
crackdown in 2003. Forty-one have been released and sent into exile in
Spain, and 11 remain in prison.
Such efforts are designed to project ``a bit of normalcy at a time
there's severe tension'' because of Castro's plans to slash state
subsidies and lay off 500,000 public employees, López Oliva said by
telephone from Havana.
During his synagogue visit, Castro declared, ``We feel extremely happy
and proud participating in this festivity with you, and I hope to be
back to learn more about the Hebrew Community in Cuba and the fabulous
stories of the Hebrew people.''
The 79-year-old Castro also told the congregation that he was ``in good
health'' and praised the nationwide debate launched by the Communist
Party to discuss the many reforms he has announced to overcome a deep
economic crisis, Granma reported.
``That is what we want to defend: permanent differences in all ideas,
which, in my modest experience, is where the best solutions come from,''
other Cuban news media reports quoted Castro as saying.
But neither the Granma story nor a Cuban television report on the
ceremony mentioned Gross, who on Dec. 3 marked one year in jail. The
Potomac, Md., subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International
Development has not been officially charged.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Cuba to release Gross
on humanitarian grounds, and asked Jewish-American organizations to
lobby the Castro government. Cuban Jewish community leaders have denied
Cuba's Jewish community, once estimated at more than 15,000, is now
believed to have about 1,500 members, including some who converted or
became members through marriage.
The number of Cuban Jews has been growing slowly in recent years, López
Oliva noted, because members have the opportunity to emigrate to Israel
and receive assistance from Jewish communities abroad.
Castro was welcomed to the ceremony by Adela Dworin, president of the
Cuban Hebrew Community Foundation, who gave him a copy of the first
three books of the Bible. The program noted that former Cuban leader
Fidel Castro had participated in a Hanukkah ceremony in Havana in 1998.
Although Cuba's foreign policy has long and strongly favored the
Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Fidel Castro recently
drew praise from Israeli leaders by disagreeing with Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments denying the Holocaust.
``I don't think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews,'' he said
during a September interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, a national
correspondent for The Atlantic, adding that Jews ``were expelled from
their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world.''