Rigoberto Vinas

A Cuban rabbi’s bittersweet ‘welcome home’

Joy over Alan Gross's release is tempered by despair at the US move to prop up a repressive dictatorship

Every Shabbat for more than five years my congregation at the Lincoln Park Jewish Center of Yonkers has joined me in prayer for the release of Alan Gross. We are pleased to be able to wish him a Happy Chanukah on American soil after he languished in the hellish prisons of communist Cuba.

For our congregation it was personal. Many of us, myself included, are Cuban Jews (“JuBans”) who understand the Cuban situation not only on an intellectual level, but also on a deeply personal one. We are the refugees and the children of the refugees who sought freedom in America after losing everything to the totalitarian revolution — including our right to complain about it. Can you imagine how it hurts a Jew not to be able to complain? We had to leave! Here in America we found freedom and opportunity, but we have never forgotten what compelled us to come here.

Mr. Gross was accused of bringing satellite phones to Cuba to assist its Jewish community in communicating more effectively with the world beyond their repressive government’s reach. This is illegal in communist Cuba, which controls all communications and information into or out of the island nation. As is the norm in communist countries his trial was unjust and immoral. His imprisonment was full of human rights violations, and his health deteriorated to the point where we were very concerned that he would die there. (Cuba’s prisons are recognized by Amnesty International and other such watchdog organizations as among the worst of the worst violators of human rights. Their privations, coupled with psychological torture, could break anyone’s spirit.) We applaud Alan for maintaining himself in the face of such adversity.

Unfortunately, the belief that it’s possible to violate repressive laws for a higher good reveals a naïveté all too common among our American coreligionists. They want to help, and they assume that the leaders of the existing Cuban Jewish community are just like their own leaders in their own American Jewish communities. Here, we elect our leaders from among volunteers who work hard to maintain our synagogues and institutions. But this isn’t the case at all in Cuba. No one becomes a leader at any level under Cuba’s totalitarian system without the approval of its dictators. In short, the leadership of the Cuban Jewish community is controlled and appointed by the government.

The stories they tell your visiting UJA commissions are stories created and approved by committees in defense of the revolution, designed to manipulate you into giving money that then circulates back to the government as part of the command economy created by the repressive one-party state of modern communist Cuba. They take advantage of your good wishes. They relieve you of your cash and send you home feeling good about yourself, when in fact any money you leave in Cuba furthers the upkeep of the revolution — as all functions of life in communist Cuba are designed to do. Anything that doesn’t further the cause of the revolution is illegal. It’s that simple. “Socialism or death” is written on the walls. In other words: It’s our way or you are dead.

There are lessons to be taken away from the Alan Gross affair:

(1) Perhaps now that we know what’s really going on we can abandon our naïveté and stop sending millions of dollars in humanitarian aid that purportedly helps around a thousand Jews. Let’s recognize that the organizations in Cuba which contact and collaborate with the US Federations and Bnai Briths, the Synagogue Missions and the Men’s Clubs are actually Castro’s lackeys, directly under the control and direction of the Cuban government.

(2) Perhaps we should listen to and believe our Cuban American neighbors instead of rejecting what they say. Because I am a Cuban Jew I do not suffer from the delusion that visiting and leaving behind money, toilet paper, and medicines will resolve the problem of Cuban oppression. My conscience forces me to keep telling you what I know about Cuba. But unfortunately too many of my coreligionists won’t listen to what we have to say. And when we speak passionately (as Cubans always do) they call us “reactionary” or say we are “exaggerating.” It shocks me that the very same soft-hearted liberals who have tolerance, understanding and heartache for every other cause do not hear the cries of pain from Cubans who have had to suffer under the illegitimate repressive regime of the Castro brothers.

Although we are victims we refuse to act like victims. We refuse to be silenced! Stop trying to silence us and marginalize us. Silencing the victims is typical of brutal dictatorships. Playing along makes you complicit.

Have you ever considered that the reason we keep speaking against Castro and the Cuban Communist Party is that this unjust, repressive system continues to enslave our own families in our home country? We hurt because this cancer eats into our bones and the “anesthesia” of our success in the USA, through our hard work and dedication to education, does not dull the pain of continued repression in Cuba. “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Psalm 137) while my brothers languish at home under a stifling one-party system that limits all activity to the service of the state, rather than living in a state that is in service to its people?

The Obama administration’s success in freeing one of our brothers was cause for celebration until I realized that it was coupled with a unilateral decision to “normalize” relations with a government that isn’t normal. Obama’s “normalization” is not attached to change in Cuba. It doesn’t demand open elections or democratization. It doesn’t demand legalization of opposing parties or improvement in human rights. What about property rights for Cubans? No. Instead they sell off our property to foreigners as if it belonged to the state in the first place.

Rather than alleviating our pain, “normalization” will simply provide US capital to a regime that was on the verge of collapse, thereby maintaining this repressive system until my Cuban brothers finally take matters into their own hands. What chance is there for change without violence in the streets of Cuba if the USA won’t stand for democratization, if the USA won’t use its strength to encourage and demand change? I for one would not want to be a visitor in Havana — not even as part of a Humanitarian Commission or a Jewish Men’s Club on that day when the Cuban people decide they have nothing more to lose.

How sad that Alan Gross’ very welcome and joyous release must be accompanied by plans to prolong the misery and oppression of millions of others who cry for freedom of expression and democracy. Alan Gross is free — Mazal Tov. But the Cuban people are not free and America plans to pump money into a decrepit, inhuman regime to prolong its life.

Oy meh haya lanu” – woe is to us. (Lamentations/Dirges chanted on the 9th of Av)

About the Author
Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas (“Manny”), grew up in a traditional Sephardic home, born to parents of Cuban Sefardic ancestry who came to America after the Cuban Revolution in 1960. He was born and raised in Miami , Florida. Rabbi Viñas has Rabbinical ordination from Kollel Agudath Achim.