Overlooking the coastal road hugging the Mediterranean Sea north of Tel Aviv, a cream-colored villa with a stucco roof sits surrounded by a high white concrete wall. To its immediate left is the Herzliyya Medical Center, and to its right, a glass-walled condo complex.
There is no plaque, no marker—nothing to indicate that this mansion on Ramat Yam Street was once the house of Ricardo Subirana y Lobo—a prominent German-Jewish-Cuban businessman, confidant of Fidel Castro, and Cuba’s last ambassador to Israel.
More than 44 years have passed since the Cuban flag fluttered proudly atop this villa. It came down in 1973, when Havana—in a show of solidarity with the Arab world—severed ties with the Jewish state following the Yom Kippur War.
But the two countries maintained informal contacts for years, helped along by Fidel’s underlying sympathy for the Jewish people and the tenacity of an ex-Mossad spymaster declared persona non grata by the State Department. And ever since President Obama’s historic 2016 trip to Cuba, business ties have warmed up considerably.
Consider the following:
- In October 2016, for the first time ever, Israel abstained—along with the United States—in the annual United Nations ritual condemning the U.S. trade embargo. This allowed the resolution to pass the UN General Assembly by a vote of 191-0.
- In early October, Culture Minister Miri Regev traveled to Cuba, marking the first time since 1973 an Israeli cabinet minister has set foot on the island. “This is a private family vacation and had nothing to do with her position as a government minister,” her spokesperson said of the trip, which was first reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
- In early November, Cuba’s famed Lizt Alfonso Dance Company gave four sellout performances at the Tel Aviv Opera House, followed by concerts in Ashdod, Jerusalem, and Haifa. It was the first cultural visit of its kind to Israel in four decades. Cuba’s famous Buena Vista Social Club also plans to tour the country.
- On Nov. 9, the Israel-Latin America Chamber of Commerce held a “Doing Business in Cuba” seminar in Tel Aviv. Attended by 40 or so Israeli business executives, the three-hour briefing, presented in Hebrew, was a prelude to the planned visit to Cuba of an Israeli trade delegation this December.
That all this is happening in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between Havana and Jerusalem is even more incredible.
“There is, of course, interest in renewing our relations with Cuba, along with other countries that severed their ties with us,” said Yoed Magen, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s department of Central America, Mexico and Caribbean affairs, when Cuba Trade asked if such ties would be restored anytime soon. “But it’s not going to be that easy.”
Earlier this year, Israel restored diplomatic relations with Nicaragua’s left-leaning Sandinista government after a seven-year hiatus, as part of a growing interest in Latin America that in September also saw Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu make the first-ever visit by an Israeli head of state to Latin America (he spent 10 days in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia before heading to New York for a speech at the United Nations).
Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Panama and Colombia, acknowledged that “last year, we changed the way we voted on Cuba [at the UN] along with the Americans. However, U.S.-Cuba relations stand on their own. We don’t depend on them, and they certainly don’t depend on us. It’s much more complex.”
Pushed for details, he added with a smile: “If there are secret talks going on [with Cuba] like there were with Nicaragua, we can’t comment on that. You know how it is.”
Yes, we do. This year, following Donald Trump’s crackdown on U.S. travel to Cuba, Israel reversed course and went back to its traditional support of the embargo—voting, along with the United States, against the UN resolution to condemn it. Observers say the Jewish state, which depends heavily on U.S. military and economic aid, had little choice but to play along.
A Friendship Gone Sour
Israel and Cuba weren’t always at odds with each other. As far back as 1919, Cuba’s Senate recognized the Jewish people’s right to national independence, and in 1942—with the Nazi extermination of Jews already underway—it condemned “in the most energetic manner the persecution of the Hebrew race by the authorities of the Axis” (see story, “A Jewish documentary brings Cuba’s forgotten diamond industry to life,” on a new documentary that looks back at Cuba’s wartime rescue of 6,000 European Jews).
Under the Batista dictatorship, which lasted from 1952 to 1958, the island’s 15,000 or so Jews enjoyed unparalleled economic success in retail and manufacturing. And even when Fidel and his band of revolutionaries overthrew the Batista regime—and most of Cuba’s Jews fled to South Florida—those warm relations continued.
“Israel was one of the first states to recognize the revolutionary government,” notes historian Margalit Bejarano, director of the Latin America, Spain and Portugal Division at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “In the eyes of the Israeli government, the enthusiasm that surrounded Castro’s revolution was similar to the atmosphere of the nascent Israel in 1948. Foreign Minister Golda Meir offered technical assistance to Cuba, not only as a diplomatic tool, but because she felt an ideological affinity with the Cuban Socialist revolution and was committed to assisting developing countries.”
Yet that friendship was not destined to last. Despite Fidel’s adamant opposition to anti-Semitism and his condemnation of Holocaust deniers, the Castro regime became closely identified with the Palestinian cause. After the Six-Day War of 1967, Cuban state media began attacking “Israeli aggression” and Havana quietly began collaborating with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization to train guerrillas.
American Jews and Cuban exiles soon discovered they had shared interests, especially when it came to influencing lawmakers in Washington. Joe Garcia, a former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation who went on to represent Florida’s 26th congressional district in the House of Representatives, said the Miami-based CANF modeled itself after an even more powerful lobby: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In fact, one of CANF’s earliest employees was a Cuban-American woman of Jewish origin who had previously worked at AIPAC.
Bejarano, in a 2015 article in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, wrote that the September 1973 rupture of Cuban-Israeli diplomatic ties “was Castro’s personal, and apparently impulsive, decision,” and that it came after intense pressure from Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi at a non-aligned conference in Algeria. Cuban soldiers even fought alongside the Syrians in the Yom Kippur War, only a month after that conference.
Cuba’s contempt for official Israeli policies continued, despite the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union which drove the island to economic desperation. Yet anti-Semitism was never a problem. For years, Cuba’s 1,000 or so Jews have received special rations for kosher meat, and under an arrangement code-named “Operation Cigar,” hundreds of them have been allowed to resettle in Israel. (In December 1998, Fidel himself visited the Patronato synagogue in Havana’s Vedado district, where he put a kipa on his head and helped light Chanukah candles. A photo taken during that two-hour visit hangs on the walls of the Patronato to this day.)
But official respect for Jewish tradition didn’t easily translate into business deals.
Moisés Asís, a former Hebrew teacher at the Patronato, now lives in Miami. He said that in late 1991, while on a U.S. lecture tour, the World Jewish Congress invited him to visit Israel on an extended trip that lasted until February 1992.
“Later that year, two friends of mine who worked for Cuba’s Ministerio de Comercio Exterior arranged a meeting for me with that ministry’s Asia and Africa divisions. I told her that I had met some Israeli businessmen who had very good trade offers for Cuba,” he said. This included one proposal to buy all available alligator carcasses and fashion them into expensive purses, shoes, and jackets. Another involved selling Cuba pesticides, irrigation equipment, machinery and other essentials for the agriculture industry.
In yet another proposed venture, Kibbutz Ga’ash, a coastal community north of Tel Aviv, hoped to sell Cuba emergency lamps with rechargeable solar batteries for public street illumination—at a time when the island was suffering daily blackouts—as well as battery-powered pens for detecting counterfeit U.S. currency.
“The director replied, ‘It seems interesting, but we should consult first with the Palestinians.’ I was astonished,” Asís recalled. “Of course there was no further contact. After this, I understood that I had to bring out my family to live in another country.”
From Espionage to Irrigation
Rafi Eitan had much better luck.
One of the Mossad’s most celebrated spies, Eitan was famous back home for having masterminded the 1960 capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires. Less admirably, Eitan was also the handler for Jonathan Pollard—a U.S. Navy analyst who in 1985 was caught spying for Israel and sentenced to life imprisonment. Declared persona non grata by Washington, Eitan surfaced in Cuba, where his unusual friendship with Fidel landed the former spy his first contract with the Cuban government.
Eitan’s company, Grupo BM, gradually turned a failing 40,000-hectare citrus orchard near Jagüey Grande, in the province of Matanzas, into a successful export operation. BM later branched out into construction and real estate; in the mid-1990s, a joint venture under its control—Inmobiliaría Monte Barreto—built suburban Havana’s Miramar Trade Center, which today houses the offices of dozens of foreign companies
Yet for years, Eitan’s secretive company refused to discuss its business in Cuba.
Starting in 1994, this reporter visited BM’s Miramar office, and was immediately shown the door. A repeated attempt in 2002 also got nowhere. Even as recently as this July, a polite attempt to interview Sergio Meisler—the company’s Cuba representative—resulted in a brusque “we don’t talk to reporters” and a request to vacate the fourth-floor premises, whose walls are decorated with framed certificates of recognition from Aguas de La Habana, Quimimport, and other Cuban state entities.
Ronen Peleg, BM’s export manager, finally opened up to Cuba Trade during a Nov. 9 seminar at Tel Aviv’s Industry House that was attended by the 90-year-old Eitan and dozens of executives, academics and potential investors.
“It’s no secret that companies working in Cuba have problems because of the U.S. embargo,” the Madrid-based businessman told us. “Most of them try to keep a low profile and not get into trouble.”
Peleg, 51, has been involved with Grupo BM since January 1993. Over a 20-year period, the company’s involvement in the Jagüey Grande citrus operation helped generate $680 million in orange and grapefruit exports for Cuba.
“This started out as a contract to finance and upgrade an existing citrus orchard,” he explained. “We didn’t invest our own money. What we brought was know-how and lines of credit from external entities.”
BM is no longer involved in citrus, nor is it a shareholder in Monte Barreto, though its operations are still housed in the Miramar Trade Center’s Edifio Jerusalén—one of six buildings that make up Cuba’s largest office complex.
Peleg says BM has about 20 employees and an annual turnover of $25 million. This comes from sales of tractors, agricultural equipment, fertilizer, irrigation technology and related machinery to various Cuban state entities. “In Cuba, everybody deals with the government,” he said. “There’s no other option.”
A Jewish-Themed Hotel in Havana, Cuban Salsa in Tel Aviv
Although Cuba and Israel have comparable populations (11.2 million and 8.7 million, respectively), the similarities end there. Cuba, a communist dictatorship, is more than five times the size of Israel, yet its agriculture-based economy lags far behind that of democratic Israel, a high-tech Middle East innovator that’s given the world dozens of inventions ranging from the USB flash drive to drip irrigation and Waze GPS technology. The result: Cuba’s annual per-capita income barely reaches $7,000, while tiny Israel’s exceeds $37,000.
Politically, Israel is among the most pro-American countries on Earth, siding with Washington on just about every resolution ever brought before the UN General Assembly. At the same time, Cuba’s vocal opposition to “U.S. imperialism” is legendary, as is Havana’s frequent attacks on “Zionist aggression” and the building of controversial Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which the Arabs consider occupied territory.
Even so, Israelis seem fascinated with the Caribbean island, particularly among those whose have just finished their mandatory army service and want to explore some place besides India, Thailand, Peru, and other well-worn Israeli backpacker destinations.
These days, Hebrew-speaking tourists can now be heard on the streets of Old Havana, and some establishments—including the Hotel Raquel with its Jewish-themed art, kosher-style menu, and Israeli music playing in the bar—have gone out of their way to accommodate them. These travelers are also drawn to the island’s five remaining synagogues (three in Havana including the Patronato, one in Camagüey, and one in Santiago de Cuba) for Shabbat dinners and Jewish cultural events.
In Israel itself, Cuba seems to be the rage. Movie posters at Tel Aviv bus stops advertise an upcoming Buena Vista Social Club concert, while on Yehuda Macabi Street, the Devidas cigar shop sells a variety of premium Cuban stogies. On weekend nights, Israeli youths flock to Alma de Cuba to perfect their salsa-dancing skills.
Ronen Paldi, an Oregon-based tour operator whose Israeli affiliate, Polaris International, has been licensed to sell Cuba packages since 2002, says 7,000 to 10,000 Israelis travel to the island every year. Even though Cubana de Aviación has an agent in Tel Aviv, Israelis must still obtain visas through Cuba’s consulate in Athens.
But tourism can work both ways, he pointed out.
“Cubans are starting to travel abroad, and not only to visit family,” said Paldi, interviewed at Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel. “I’ve spoken at some churches in Cuba and see pilgrimages from Cuba to Israel taking place someday for both Catholics and evangelicals. When Israel will issue them visas and their finances allow, I’ll be the one organizing them. The Cubans love Israel and they will make it happen.”
Paldi, who’s been to the island 41 times, calls Cuba a “virgin country” that could benefit tremendously from Israeli entrepreneurship and chutzpah.
“Cuba desperately needs agriculture, and Israelis have a lot of products to offer. And, more than the Americans, they know how to work in corrupt and complicated societies like in Africa,” he told us. “But they don’t have patience, and in Cuba without patience you can’t move around.”
Israeli Trade Mission to Visit Cuba
Rodrigo X. Carreras, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to both Israel and Cuba, agrees that “great potential” exists for scientific cooperation between the two countries, especially in medicine and agriculture.
“Shimon Peres asked me when I was leaving Israel, if I would look into the possibility of arranging for him a meeting with Fidel,” said Carreras, who was posted to Israel from 1988 to 2001 (when Costa Rica’s embassy was still in Jerusalem) and then again from 2010 to 2016, after the embassy had been moved to Tel Aviv.
“Fidel had made a declaration affirming the Holocaust as a reality. That reflected a certain goodwill. I transmitted that message to friends at the Cuban Foreign Ministry and also to one of Fidel’s sons,” Carreras told Cuba Trade. “From the Foreign Ministry, I never got a response, [but] from Dr. Antonio Castro, some interest. Finally, after a long time, I was told that as long as the [Israeli] occupation persists, they weren’t interested.”
On the other hand, the fact that Israel is sending a trade delegation to Havana in December means attitudes among Cuba’s leadership are clearly shifting. For one thing, Fidel is dead. And with the uncertainty of continued oil subsidies from Venezuela and hostile signals coming out of Washington, the island clearly needs new friends.
“I think the Cubans are very mature these days and very interested in having decent relations with everyone they can. They understand much better than before that the world has changed,” said one Havana-based observer who asked not to be named. “They’re not taking sides as much as they used to.”
Carlos Alzugaray, Cuba’s former ambassador to the European Union and a frequent commentator on U.S.-Cuba relations, says his country’s future ties with Israel rest, to a large degree, on the Jewish state’s ability to make peace with the Palestinians.
“I don’t think we in Cuba are unsympathetic to the Israeli tradition. I myself was a big fan of the kibbutz movement,” he told Cuba Trade recently. “But our attitude toward Israel is contradictory. As we see it, Israel bases its independence and self-determination too much on abusing the Palestinians and denying them their homeland. I don’t know if the Israelis will ever be able to extricate themselves from this problem.”
In the meantime, business is business, and 15 or so Israelis will soon be arriving as part of the first trade delegation of its kind ever to travel from Tel Aviv to Havana.
The Dec. 5-7 trip, organized by the Israel-Latin America Chamber of Commerce, includes a seminar at the Hotel Nacional, a visit to the Mariel Export Processing Zone, and a dinner hosted by Grupo BM.
According to a Hebrew-language flyer distributed at a Nov. 9 briefing about the upcoming trip, “this is the first time in history that we are taking a delegation to this fascinating island. The local trade office got special authorization from the president [of Cuba] to host this delegation because of the special economic distress of Cuba. Israeli companies can turn this crisis into an opportunity.”
Gabriel Hayon, CEO of the Israel-Latin America chamber, says the most attractive sectors for Israeli companies in Cuba are agriculture (poultry, fish, pigs, irrigation, citrus, fertilizer, seeds, and pesticides); water and sewage treatment; energy (especially wind and solar technology); food production (coffee, juice, and alcohol); real estate (offices, factories, and hotel management); chemicals (for local industry and agriculture); and pharmaceuticals (for both the local market and potential export to Latin America and the Caribbean).
“I think Israeli know-how can contribute greatly to Cuba’s agricultural sector with industrialization—giving farmers better yields than they have today—and also in food production, implementing modern, innovative technology,” he said. “Those two points alone will reduce Cuba’s dependency on imports.”
Hayon, who spent 15 years in the Dominican Republic where he ran factories and other business ventures, said that since Obama’s 2016 visit to Cuba, potential Israeli investors have been peppering him about opportunities there.
“For several years, we were expecting things would improve in Cuba, and we realized this is the right moment,” he said. “Unfortunately it came at the same time Trump changed the rules of the game a bit, but that has nothing to do with us. Cuba is not an enemy of Israel.”
Nonetheless, the Jewish state still doesn’t have an embassy in Havana, and with no sign of Washington’s 55-year-old trade embargo ending anytime soon, the last thing Hayon needs on his delegation is headaches. For this reason, he said, “I’m telling people, ‘If you carry a U.S. passport or work for an American company, don’t come.’”