terms, Cuba offered refugee or migrant status to more Jews than
any other Latin American country; more, in fact, than was offered
by the United States. In addition, despite occasional periods
of hostility by certain sectors of the Cuban elite, these Jews
were afforded a good reception. Robert Levine offers three reasons
for this unusual circumstance. First, Cuba had an open economy
with a "worldly" elite, long accustomed to dealing with strangers.
This explains the relative absence of the class-based ethnocentrism
and anti-semitism often found among Latin American elites. To
be sure, prejudice and discrimination existed but, according
to the author, tended to be of the "petty" rather than the institutional
the Jews settled all over Cuba rather than concentrating in
one city (much less one neighborhood), their presence never
engendered the "ghetto" syndrome so common in other countries.
was facilitated by the fact that Jewish migration occurred in
widely spaced historical sequences, each with different settlement
patterns. The two earliest groups were very successful economically
and incorporated themselves smoothly into Cuban society. First
came the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardim, who arrived either
with the conquering Spaniards or from the island of Curacao,
the center of Sephardim culture in the Caribbean. Although not
mentioned by the author, Cuba's most powerful "sugar baron,"
Julio Lobo, was a descendant of this group. This group is not
to be confused with later Sephardim migrants from North Africa
and the Otoman Empire. Religiously orthodox, poorly educated
and non-Spanish speaking, these Jews were always disdainfully
referred to as "Turcos." The second earliest migration was that
of American Jews. They arrived with the United States occupation
troops and held important technical and commercial positions
from the start.
In some way,
therefore, attitudes had been mellowed for later migrations.
These tended to be Ashkenazim (generally referred to as "Polacos")
and while they were not as easily incorporated as the earlier
migrants, it is evident that things could have been much worse.
Those who arrived in the 1920s and early 1930s included a good
number of Marxists, who played a key role in the founding of
Cuba's Communist party. In the 1930s, especially around the
years of the Spanish Civil War, these Jews became targets of
a small but influential sector of the elite that had Falangist
leanings. These elites also opposed the entry of the next wave
of Jews, the refugees from Nazism. Desperate to enter the United
States they settled for Cuba as a safehaven but tended to see
the islands as an "immigration hotel" (p. 285). The unintended
consequence was that their aloofness minimized possible confrontations
with local anti-Semites. It is to this group that the author
gives the bulk of his attention, and it is their often-tragic
story which provides him with his most dramatic material.
This book provides
a powerful sense of hemispheric history repeating itself: refugees
attempting to reach the United States by any means including
expensive smugglers, the United States attempting to get alternate
settlements for them in small Caribbean countries, and corrupt
local officials and politicians enriching themselves from this
sordid game of avoidance and callousness. As such, this book
is about more than just a Jewish diaspora; it is about the many
diasporas which have made the Caribbean Basin what it is.