In first since 1973, Israeli minister in ‘private’ visit to Cuba

Visit by Miri Regev said to be ‘family vacation;’ will not meet with any government officials of the communist nation that does not have diplomatic ties with Israel

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at a press conference in Jerusalem, May 8, 2016. (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at a press conference in Jerusalem, May 8, 2016. (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Culture Minister Miri Regev has traveled to Cuba for a “private family vacation,” her office said Tuesday,  marking the first time that a cabinet member has visited the country since it broke diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973.

The visit, first reported by the Haaretz newspaper, was not organized through the Foreign Ministry and will not include any meetings with Cuban representatives, a spokesperson for the minister told The Times of Israel. But both the MFA and the Prime Minister’s office were informed of the trip, he said.

“This is private family vacation and had nothing to do with her position as a government minister,” the spokesperson said, adding that Regev left on Sunday and the trip would last a week and a half.

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the visit.

With no Israeli embassy in the country, Canada currently represents Israel’s interests in Havana, including assisting the country’s Jewish community.

Despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, Israelis do business with Cuba — Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad officer MK established several large agricultural and construction ventures there — and Israelis regularly visit as tourists. Since 2003, Cuban Jews can visit Israel.

Fewer than 1,000 Jews are now living in Cuba, down from about 30,000 in the 1950s, when Jews began joining the exodus of fellow Cubans who fled the repressive regime.

Regev’s spokesperson  declined to comment on whether she would meet with representatives of the community.

Entrance to Havana’s Patronato, the largest of Cuba’s five functioning synagogues. On July 8, the Patronato hosted Cuba’s premiere screening of ‘Forgotten Jewels.’ (Larry Luxner/ Times of Israel)

In December 2014, the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Havana, declaring an end to decades of enmity.  In March 2016, Obama became the first American leader to visit the island since 1928.

For decades, Israel and the US were the only countries that supported an economic embargo of the nation. Given Jerusalem’s close ties with Washington, Israel was widely expected to follow Obama’s course of detente with Cuba. “We have no conflict with Cuba; the disconnect between our countries is unnatural,” a diplomatic official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel last year.

Jerusalem considers Havana a key player in shaping public opinion in the Latin American left and therefore would like to reestablish diplomatic ties. In the 1950s and 60s cordial relations existed, with Cuba resisting Arab pressure to cut ties after the 1967 Six Day War.

Cars traveling down a busy street in Havana, Cuba. Since the US economic embargo of Cuba began, Cubans have been unable to import new cars, forcing them to continue using vintage cars. September 21, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90.)

Cuba severed relations in 1973, not because of the Yom Kippur War, but because Fidel Castro sought the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Relations have since been largely bitter. In 2010 Fidel Castro compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazi genocide of the Jews. “It would seem that the Fuehrer’s swastika is today Israel’s banner,” the then-83-year-old leader stated.

In 2014, he accused Israel of “genocide” in Gaza and called Operation Protective Edge a “new, repugnant form of fascism.”

In 2010, however, Fidel Castro, who had been replaced as president by his younger brother Raul four years prior, told US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel has “without a doubt” the right to exist as a Jewish state. Asked by Goldberg whether Havana would consider resuming diplomatic ties, the elder Castro replied that such things take time, but he did not outright reject the idea.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.


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