Brief History of Jews in Cuba

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In proportional terms, Cuba offered refugee or migrant status to more Jews than any other Latin American country; more, in fact, than was offered by the United States. In addition, despite occasional periods of hostility by certain sectors of the Cuban elite, these Jews were afforded a good reception. Robert Levine offers three reasons for this unusual circumstance. First, Cuba had an open economy with a "worldly" elite, long accustomed to dealing with strangers. This explains the relative absence of the class-based ethnocentrism and anti-semitism often found among Latin American elites. To be sure, prejudice and discrimination existed but, according to the author, tended to be of the "petty" rather than the institutional sort.

Second, because the Jews settled all over Cuba rather than concentrating in one city (much less one neighborhood), their presence never engendered the "ghetto" syndrome so common in other countries.

Finally, accomodation was facilitated by the fact that Jewish migration occurred in widely spaced historical sequences, each with different settlement patterns. The two earliest groups were very successful economically and incorporated themselves smoothly into Cuban society. First came the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardim, who arrived either with the conquering Spaniards or from the island of Curacao, the center of Sephardim culture in the Caribbean. Although not mentioned by the author, Cuba's most powerful "sugar baron," Julio Lobo, was a descendant of this group. This group is not to be confused with later Sephardim migrants from North Africa and the Otoman Empire. Religiously orthodox, poorly educated and non-Spanish speaking, these Jews were always disdainfully referred to as "Turcos." The second earliest migration was that of American Jews. They arrived with the United States occupation troops and held important technical and commercial positions from the start.

In some way, therefore, attitudes had been mellowed for later migrations. These tended to be Ashkenazim (generally referred to as "Polacos") and while they were not as easily incorporated as the earlier migrants, it is evident that things could have been much worse. Those who arrived in the 1920s and early 1930s included a good number of Marxists, who played a key role in the founding of Cuba's Communist party. In the 1930s, especially around the years of the Spanish Civil War, these Jews became targets of a small but influential sector of the elite that had Falangist leanings. These elites also opposed the entry of the next wave of Jews, the refugees from Nazism. Desperate to enter the United States they settled for Cuba as a safe-haven but tended to see the islands as an "immigration hotel" (p. 285). The unintended consequence was that their aloofness minimized possible confrontations with local anti-Semites. It is to this group that the author gives the bulk of his attention, and it is their often-tragic story which provides him with his most dramatic material.

This book provides a powerful sense of hemispheric history repeating itself: refugees attempting to reach the United States by any means including expensive smugglers, the United States attempting to get alternate settlements for them in small Caribbean countries, and corrupt local officials and politicians enriching themselves from this sordid game of avoidance and callousness. As such, this book is about more than just a Jewish diaspora; it is about the many Diasporas which have made the Caribbean Basin what it is.