HAVANA, Cuba — It’s now one year since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and by extension, a year since the warming US relationship with Cuba that began under Barack Obama came to a screeching halt — making life even harder for the island’s 1,200 or so Jews.
US citizens may no longer write their own travel license and hop on a plane to Havana as the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) turns a blind eye. And while Americans can still visit Cuba on organized religious or humanitarian missions, a raft of complicated new legal restrictions — not to mention a State Department travel warning — has dissuaded thousands of US citizens from going.
That frustrates Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer of Maryland’s Bethesda Jewish Congregation.
“The individual travelers who were visiting Jewish communities really didn’t bring a lot of money or aid. What really impacted Cuba’s Jewish community was the State Department advisory warning people not to travel to Cuba because of the so-called sonic weapons incidents at the Hotel Capri and other locations,” said Schnitzer this week, who as president of the Cuba America Jewish Mission has led 15 trips to the island since 2003.
“No proof has ever been offered that this occurred,” Schnitzer said, referring to a mysterious illness last year that sparked the evacuation of more than half of all diplomats stationed at the US embassy in Havana.
“But what it meant in practical terms is that trips that had been planned by the Joint [Distribution Committee] and B’nai B’rith were cancelled,” he told the Times of Israel.
“These trips are used to raise funds to support Jewish communities all over the island. The money dried up and, consequently, programming and Shabbat dinners that take place across Cuba have been curtailed. It wasn’t that we couldn’t go. Rather, people were afraid to go. People took the warning seriously. We couldn’t sell our trips,” Schnitzer said.
Schnitzer isn’t the only one complaining.
“American travelers have been a great source of support for religious institutions in Cuba, providing material and monetary support, sharing information and building important friendships,” said Colin Laverty, president of the nonprofit group Cuba Educational Travel, in a press release issued last July after Trump announced he’d crack down on US engagement with Cuba.
“Religion transcends politics and language. It’s a shame the Trump administration is making it tougher for American travelers to visit Cuba,” he said.
Added Ruth Behar, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan and an expert on Cuban Jewish history: “Visits of American Jews to Cuban synagogues and their participation in Jewish rituals and holidays create deep bonds of trust, friendship and solidarity. It would be tragic to undermine these important relationships.”
Havana home to most of Cuba’s Jews
Exactly how many Jews live in Cuba is a matter of debate, though the officially accepted number is 1,200. That pales in comparison to the 15,000 who lived in Cuba in the late 1950s — just before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro into power — and the estimated 23,000 Jews who called Cuba home towards the end of World War II.
These days, intermarriage exceeds 90 percent on a Pennsylvania-sized island of 11.3 million people where barely one in every 1,000 citizens is Jewish. Most left the island for the United States long ago, while in recent years hundreds have emigrated to Israel — despite the lack of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Havana.
“Except for a handful of families,” says Schnitzer, “everybody else is in an interfaith relationship.”
Wilbur Wilson Rivero, 41, is a bartender at the Jewish-themed Hotel Raquel in Old Havana. He’s also a community leader at the Patronato, Cuba’s largest synagogue. Last Passover, he and a few other teachers led a group of Jewish kids on a nearly three-hour walk around Havana’s Vedado district without any water — or without them knowing exactly where they were going.
“The idea was to give them an idea what Pesach [Passover] is all about, to feel it in their skin,” the Hebrew-speaking Wilson Rivero said during my visit in July as he prepared mojitos for visiting hotel guests. “Our community is very proud to be what it is today, and we’ll keep working hard to maintain it, thanks to all the American Jewish groups who always come here to help us.”
Like Wilson Rivero, the vast majority of Cuba’s Jews live in Havana, which including the Patronato is home to three of the island’s six synagogues.
Outside the capital, tiny Jewish communities also exist in Guantánamo (about 70 members); Sancti Spíritus (45), Camagüey (35), Santiago de Cuba (30), Cienfuegos (20) and Santa Clara (10).
Judaism survives in Camagüey
Along Avenida República, a crowded pedestrian shopping street in the central Cuban city of Camagüey, Orestes Larios Zaak runs a popular art gallery. Larios Zaak, a 64-year-old Jew of Polish origin, has been at this location for 12 years, selling his original watercolors and sketches to anyone who can afford them.
Prices range from $25 to $2,500 — and his best customers are the Americans who began coming to Cuba in increasing numbers ever since Obama relaxed US travel restrictions to the island in 2015.
Yet Larios Zaak, whose works incorporate hamsas (hand-shaped good luck charms), menorahs and other Jewish-themed objects, says that influx has already started drying up under Trump’s new policies.
“The US has again put restrictions on travel, so we don’t know what’s going to happen,” the artist told The Times of Israel this summer. “Only groups can come, not independent travelers, so it’s going to be a lot more difficult now. This affects me because fewer tourists are buying.”
Larios Zaak had harsh words for politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the son of Cuban exiles who opposes normalized US relations with the Castro regime.
“They are hijos de puta [sons of bitches],” he said. “All this dirty politics affects me because fewer tourists are buying. The Canadians don’t buy like the Americans do. We have to eat.”
About 10 blocks away — on a humble street aptly named Calle Pobre (Poor Street) — lives the president of Camagüey’s Jewish community, Sarah Bedoya. On a shelf inside Bedoya’s tiny apartment, she’s displayed a photo of herself and nine other women posing at Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives with a large Cuban flag. The photo was taken in May 2016 during a 10-day trip to Israel to mark the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project.
Bedoya, 44, said that when the synagogue, Tiferet Israel, opened on nearby Calle Andrés Sánchez in 1998, Camagüey still had 150 or so Jews. But since then, most of them have emigrated to Israel.
“Here we have about 34 people left in the community,” Bedoya said as she fanned herself to keep cool. “We get about 20 a week for Shabbat services. The Joint gives us money to do Shabbat dinner, generally fish or chicken.”
Popular hotels on the blacklist
These days, relatively few American Jews — or Americans of any religion, for that matter — pass through Camagüey, a provincial city located 500 kilometers east of Havana.
“Some of the Jewish tours do go to Santa Clara and its Holocaust memorial, or to Cienfuegos because it’s so pretty. They go to those two towns because they’re only three hours out from Havana,” said Schnitzer. “But nobody goes to Camagüey, very few to Sancti Spíritus, and very few to Guantánamo or Santiago de Cuba. If these communities see tourists once a year, it’s an event.”
And now, such visits are poised to become even more rare. In early November, new restrictions on travel to Cuba by US citizens took effect. These rules, enforced by OFAC, prohibit Americans from visiting on individual “people-to-people” trips; they’re also banned from staying in 83 hotels including the luxurious new five-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski as well as the Hotel Raquel, where Rivero works as a bartender.
All properties on the blacklist are operated by GAESA, Gaviota, Habaguanex and other entities linked to Cuba’s military or intelligence apparatus.
Still allowed are specialized cruises to Cuba, renting cars from private citizens and staying in casas particulares, or private homes, across the island. Religious missions such as the ones Schnitzer operates are kosher under US law as well, though confusing rules along with hefty fines for violating them are keeping many Americans away.
Prominent Cuba travel writer Christopher Baker, who’s led dozens of people-to-people tours to the island on behalf of National Geographic Expeditions, calls this confusion intentional. He calls the recent State Department warning about the sonic attacks “a politically motivated attempt to scare potential travelers” from visiting Cuba.
“It’s worth noting that no names of diplomatic personnel supposedly affected have been released, nor any corroborating evidence whatsoever presented,” Baker wrote on his blog in November. “Cuba even invited the FBI to investigate, and the four FBI teams (and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police team) that were sent to Havana found no evidence of the purported attacks.”
In fact, if Trump’s intent was to cripple the island’s economy, the strategy appears to be working. A steep drop in oil subsidies from chaos-wracked Venezuela — coming just as the new US laws take effect and Cuba continues digging out from the devastation left by last year’s Hurricane Irma — has sparked unofficial predictions of zero growth for 2018.
But average Cubans — not the Castro regime — are the ones paying the price.
“This has already had a negative impact on Cuba’s small-business community, which was growing under the Obama administration,” said Schnitzer.
“A lot of the bed-and-breakfasts and cab drivers suddenly saw their business hurt in a big way. Shops that opened up to serve tourists from the US now found that people aren’t coming. While general tourism is up this year, it’s mostly up in the resorts — not to towns and provinces,” he said.
Asked if he sees any improvement in bilateral relations, Schnitzer said it’s highly unlikely as long as Trump remains in the White House. Last June, the 45th president — who would need Florida’s 29 electoral votes to win a second term — promised hardline Cuban exiles in Miami that he’d cancel the Obama administration’s “completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” and “expose the crimes of the Castro regime.”
“My opinion is that we’ll see no change in Cuba policy for the remainder of this election cycle,” said Schnitzer this week. “Ensuring that Florida votes Republican in presidential elections is an important agenda item for the Republican Party. And this is a president who keeps campaign promises.”