White House

Miami’s Cuban Jews ponder the meaning of Trump’s pick for international negotiator

Children studying Hebrew at the conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Havana. The Jewish community in Havana once numbered 15,000 and now is only 1,500.
Children studying Hebrew at the conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Havana. The Jewish community in Havana once numbered 15,000 and now is only 1,500. AP

To Marcos Kerbel, knowing that a devout Jew will have the ear of the president-elect of the United States to help shape Cuba policy is an encouraging sign.

President-elect Donald Trump named Jason Greenblatt, a top Trump Organization executive and Orthodox Jew, to a new role as special representative for international negotiations. His portfolio is expected to include Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the American relationship with Cuba.

While proponents of President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba see the choice of one of Trump’s business partners as a hopeful sign that the real estate mogul’s business instincts are kicking in, Cuban Jews in Miami see a potential ally who will look out for the island’s vulnerable Jewish community, which has shrunk to a few hundred after 50 years of communist rule and restrictions on religious freedoms.

“We want to make sure that whatever is done – or undone – does not affect the livelihood of the Cuban Jewish community,” said Kerbel, a leader in Miami’s Cuban Jewish community. “Basically, the people are extremely poor.”

Kerbel, the 70-year-old immediate past president of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation in Miami, hopes Greenblatt will visit Havana’s three synagogues, including the Orthodox Adath Israel in Old Havana, where Kerbel’s parents were married and he was bar mitzvahed. He also urged Greenblatt to visit the Jewish cemetery southeast of Havana where his uncle, the first of the family to migrate to Cuba from Poland, and many other first-generation Cuban Jews are buried.

We want to make sure that whatever is done – or undone – does not affect the livelihood of the Cuban Jewish community.

Marcos Kerbel

He suggested Greenblatt have a conversation with the butcher shop where his mother bought kosher chicken for holiday meals.

“He’ll find a group of people who are trying to maintain the traditions,” Kerbel said

Little is known about Greenblatt, who has never held public office but has spent 20 years negotiating on behalf of Trump and his real estate projects. Trump called Greenblatt one of his “closest and most trusted advisers” and described Greenblatt’s responsibilities as assisting him with international negotiations and trade deals around the world.

Greenblatt served as the co-chair of the Trump campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee and has spoken out about the Trump administration’s support for Israel. But he hasn’t discussed Cuba publicly, and his views on the easing of U.S.-Cuba relations are unknown.

He has traveled to the island on Trump’s behalf before, including in 2013 to explore investing in a golf course there. In October, the Cuban Tourism Ministry invited the Trump Organization and Greenblatt, along with other hotel operators, to an international fair to promote tourism. Greenblatt apparently did not attend.

But his background has raised the hopes of some in the business community that Trump will not roll back trade openings and instead allow engagement to continue.

“Both Jason and the president-elect are businessmen, so you would hope their business instincts would kick in and solidify rather than turn back the Cuba opening,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

Cubans in Miami are watching Greenblatt closely, according to Sebastián Arcos, the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

There are questions about his experience. Based on his background, it’s clear his priority is Israel, Arcos said. But Arcos said he hoped Greenblatt would lean heavily on others on the Trump transition team who were more versed on Cuba, such as Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, who has been critical of Obama’s approach to Cuba.

Many in Miami who oppose the Obama administration’s easing of travel and trade restrictions with the island feel they helped Trump carry Florida, and they’re expecting something in return.

“Trump has said a number of things about Cuba and things he’ll do,” Arcos said. “And those Cubans are excited about reversing a policy that they believe was flawed from the beginning. And Trump said, ‘I’m going to fix it.’ And they’re excited to see how he’s going to fix it.”

Trump has sent mixed signals about how he intends to approach American policy toward Cuba. During the campaign, he said he supported the idea of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, but he also vowed to reverse Obama’s opening unless the communist government releases political prisoners and restores religious and political freedoms.

Neither the Trump transition team nor Greenblatt responded to interview requests.

“My philosophy, in both business and in life, is that bringing people together and working to unite, rather than to divide, is the strongest path to success,” Greenblatt said in a statement released by the Trump transition team.

Nearly 95 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population left the island for the United States after Fidel Castro seized power and established a communist government in 1959. Most settled in Miami, though several hundred also immigrated to Israel.

Anywhere from 500 to 1,500 Jews remain on the island, primarily in Havana, where they support, in addition to the Orthodox Adath Israel synagogue, a Sephardic synagogue and the conservative Temple Beth Shalom, which was built in 1957, when there were about 15,000 Cuban Jews, according to B’nai B’rith International, which has provided religious and humanitarian aid to the Cuban Jewish community for 20 years, since the government allowed greater religious freedoms.

We’re talking some serious things from an economic standpoint, from a health standpoint and from a religious standpoint and, most importantly, from a psychosocial standpoint.

Alan Gross, U.S. contractor formerly held in Cuban prison

Each provides meals and operates a pharmacy that distributes free medicine not only to the local Jewish community but also to others in the neighborhood with the help of a local pharmacist.

Alan Gross, who spent five years in a Cuban prison accused of being an American spy for his work trying to set up internet connections for Cuba’s Jewish community, worries that any Trump rollback of eased travel and remittance rules would harm the island’s Jewish community.

“We’re talking some serious things from an economic standpoint, from a health standpoint and from a religious standpoint and, most importantly, from a psychosocial standpoint,” Gross said. “How will the people of Cuba respond?”

Jaime Suchlicki, a Jew who directs the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, thinks appointing an Orthodox Jew is a sign that Trump intends to undo Obama’s Cuba opening. He points out that Cuba is aligned with Venezuela and Iran, two nations whose foreign policies staunchly oppose Israel.

“The fact that Trump has appointed an Orthodox Jew is an indication that he’s not interested in relations with Cuba,” Suchlicki said. “This is an indication that the U.S. will stand with Israel and with countries that support Israel and not countries that oppose Israel.”

Talking about politics is difficult for some Cuban Jews. They prefer to remain apolitical and keep friendships on both sides of the Florida Straits. But views on the rapprochement follow a generational divide.

Sergio Grobler, 75, said his son had talked to him about wanting to visit Cuba. Grobler has encouraged him to go, but he said he could not go himself until the communist leadership is gone.

“I will not go to visit the kings of Cuba. The day there is going to be an election I’ll go to vote as a free man,” Grobler said. “In the meantime, I cannot sit in a hotel having a great steak, and my brothers and sisters starving to death.”

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