In the summer, Fidel Castro denounced the Iranian president’s denials of the Holocaust, noting that no one “has been slandered more than the Jews.”
On Sunday, his brother, Raúl -- who replaced Fidel as president of Cuba in 2006 – stopped by Havana’s Shalom synagogue and took part in a Hanukkah celebration, donning a yarmulke and lighting the first candle of the menorah.
Experts on Cuba believe the recent, successive overtures signal a desire by the Castro government to improve relations with Israel and enlist its help in bolstering Cuba's ailing economy.
Though Cuba long has had icy relations with Israel – which routinely votes with the United States opposing the annual United Nations resolution calling for the lifting of the U.S.-Cuba economic embargo – the small Jewish community on the island has not experienced hostility by the regime, experts say.
“Cuba [under the Castro brothers] has had excellent relations with the Jewish community,” said Wayne Smith, the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy’s Cuba program. “They're taking what has been their position with the Jewish community to a new level, going a little further, wearing a yarmulke.”
Smith noted that Cuba is in the midst of economic uncertainty as it braces for the laying off of 500,000 state workers, and the decision by the Castro government to encourage the creation of private businesses.
“It makes sense for Cuba to reach out to Israel and the Jewish community,” Smith said.
“Raul has always been more pragmatic [than Fidel],” he said.
Besides, Smith said, “They’ve been reaching out to the Catholic church, why not reach out to the Jewish community?”
Cuba’s Jewish population is estimated at about 1,500.
Mayra Levy, the director of the Centro Sefaradi de la Habana, said she was shocked to see Raul Castro walk into the Hanukkah gathering at the synagogue where she was a guest.
"What a surprise it was," she said. "It was not expected."
Asked about Fidel Castro's denunciation of the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust, Levy said: "It hurt to hear that denial, the Jewish population suffered so much. Then for my country to defend the Jews was very welcome."
Some Cuban-American Jews expressed skepticism about Castro’s visit to the synagogue.
A particularly prickly issue among many in the Jewish community is the detention of an American Jewish subcontractor, Alan Gross, who according to the U.S. government traveled to Cuba under the USAID program to bring communications equipment to the Jewish community there.
Gross has been accused by Cuban authorities of spying, but they have not officially charged him.
Gigi Anders, author of “Jubana,” a memoir about growing up Cuban and Jewish, said of Castro’s visit: “It’s hard not to be cynical.”
“I don’t think it’s a sign that anything is going to change politically,” Anders said.
She said Cuba’s treatment of Jews in recent decades has been one of tolerance and indifference, not warmth and true acceptance.
“Cuba is officially an atheist state,” Anders said. “A lot of American Jews who have gone to Cuba come back amazed by how little Jews there understand about their faith.”
“At this point, Castro is looking for any friends,” she said. “Raúl is still, in my opinion, part of that whole [tyrannical] dynasty. This visit to the synagogue, these are just little moments that don’t accrue into anything.”