Palestinians in Cuba

By Mohammad Abu Srour*

During the first half of the twentieth century Cuba was a prosperous country and had a vibrant economy that attracted immigration from many countries around the world, including Palestine. Immigration and emigration in Cuba significantly affected the demographic composition of the island, including that of the Palestinian community.

The main waves of immigration into the island took place between 1899, the year of Cuba’s independence, and 1930.[1] By the 1930s, there were around 34,000 Arabs in Cuba, including thousands of Palestinians, but the immigration decreased during the next two decades.[2] The flow of people out of Cuba started during the Batista rule in the 1950s, when about 10,000 Cubans fled to the USA.[3] After the 1959 revolution and Castro’s arrival to power, around half a million Cubans left the island to North America.[4] In total, between 1959 and 1980 almost one million people emigrated from Cuba. While there is no specific data regarding the emigration of Palestinians out of Cuba during the post-revolution years, the dramatic demographic changes probably had an impact on the Palestinian community, which was active in business and trade.

First wave of Palestinians to Cuba

Generally speaking, the arrival of Palestinians to Cuba is connected to the political history of the island, and can be categorized into two parts: the arrival of Palestinians before the revolution and after the revolution. Before the 1960 revolution, the majority of Palestinians arrived to Cuba looking for economic prosperity and the hopes of building a better future.
Photo: The Palestinian Student’s Senate in Cuba Commemorates
the 67 Anniversary of the Nakba, May 2015 (Source: ped.ps)
According to historical records obtained in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the first group of Palestinians arrived to Cuba in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, around the time when the Ottoman Empire started to collapse.[5] Many young men fled the mandatory Turkish military draft by getting onto boats towards the Americas, where they found work and stayed.[6] While Cuba was often a transit point towards the US, many Palestinians ended up staying there.

The majority of these Palestinians arrived to the island in the first decades of the twentieth century.[7] Most of them arrived as day laborers, and with time they started establishing their own businesses selling and trading silk, fabric, hardware, jewelry and/or furniture, among others. By the 1950s, Palestinian business owners together with other Arab traders owned around ten percent of the fabric stores in Cuba.

Most Palestinians who arrived to Cuba before the Nakba were predominantly middle-upper class Christians involved in business and politics and well-represented in the Cuban political and economic arena.[8] Since they left before the 1948 war and managed to maintain their economic positions, both in Cuba and Latin America more generally, they have remained detached from the more traditional nationalistic discourse found in the Palestinian diaspora in Arab countries. This discourse is more centered on forcible displacement, dispossession, statelessness and return. However, this does not mean they were not directly affected by statelessness.

During the British Mandate, all those Palestinians who were abroad were not able to acquire citizenship under the 1925 Palestine Citizenship Order.[9] Moreover, Israel revoked Palestinian nationality through its 1952 Nationality Law.[10] Almost immediately after the 1967 War, Israel conducted a census in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). The 1967 census counted around one million Palestinians living in the oPt.[11] Not included in the census were, among others, those who were outside of the country for personal reasons such as studies, work, or travel.[12] These developments significantly hindered the return of these Palestinians in Cuba to their homeland.

Palestinians in post-revolution Cuba

Under Castro, Cuba’s policies were heavily influenced by socialist principles and the newly-established Cuban government adamantly fought against all kinds of colonialism, be it economic, commercial, military or political. In the international arena, Cuba became a distinguished member of the non-aligned movement and early on showed its support and solidarity with the Palestinian people, even at times when the majority of Latin American countries sided with Israel.[13]

Cuba and the PLO had close ties since the 60s, but especially after a meeting in 1974 between Arafat and Castro. This meeting illustrated the favorable attitude of the Cuban government towards Palestinians and their cause.[14] In the 1950s, a time when most Latin American countries supported Israel, Cuba established relations with Palestinian revolutionaries that were cemented in 1964, when Cuba became one of the first countries to recognize the PLO.[15]

In 1974 the PLO was recognized by the UN as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” which led to the opening of information offices throughout Latin America, including Cuba in 1976. This office and the representatives in it have as one of their goals to re-politicize the Palestinian diaspora as well as to raise funds from wealthy businessmen to fund the PLO’s activities.[16]

As part of its solidarity policies, Cuba supported international solidarity with Palestinians by opening up their universities and establishing a scholarship system for students of countries suffering from colonialism, political oppression or exploitative practices by western states. It is through this policy that many Palestinian students arrived to Cuba to study medicine there.

Today, some sources estimate that there are around 50,000 people in the Cuban Arab community.[17] However, the Palestinian ambassador to Cuba in 2010 estimated that there were around 5,000 Palestinians in Cuba, including the descendants of immigrants who arrived at the beginning of the previous century, as well as new arrivals. This number is questionable as an official census of the Palestinian diaspora was never conducted and the parameters for being considered a Palestinian are unclear. Who is considered Palestinian? Those with Palestinian fathers and mothers? Only fathers? Only mothers? Those with a Palestinian Authority passport? These unanswered questions illustrate the difficulty of calculating the exact number of Palestinians not only in Cuba, but in the diaspora.

Regardless of the exact number, the Palestinians community in Cuba is divided between the capital, Havana, and the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, Granma, Holguin, Las Tunas, Ciego de Avila, Matanzas, Villa Clara and Pinar del Rio.[18]

In 2016, the Palestinian community included 80 medical students from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon, among others; ten Palestinians working in diplomatic and political affairs on the island, and their families; and 30 Palestinians officially registered as such in the Palestinian embassy in the island.[19]

Political and cultural movements

With the aim of preserving their identity and culture, the Palestinian community in Cuba founded the ‘Palestinian Arab Society’ in 1919.[20] It offered Arabic classes and radio programs about Palestine and its culture, as well as a library. This Society continued until 1979, at which time all the different Arab groups and societies of Cuba merged into a single national organization called the Arab Union of Cuba (UAC). There is also the General Union of Palestinian Students in Cuba (UGEP), which is one of the most active groups of Palestinian students in all of Latin America.[21]

In a meeting of all the members of UGEP in 2010, the Union made a commitment to strengthening Palestinian national unity, both in Palestine and in the diaspora, and to challenge Israel and its policies.[22] They also called for the release of the more than 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli jails, and reaffirmed their recognition of the PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.[23]

The Union has also reaffirmed their commitment to continuing fighting for the cause of the Palestinian people until they achieve self-determination and the return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes of origin, as stated in UN Resolution 194.[24]  

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*Mohammad Abu Srour is a Palestinian refugee originally from Beit Natif, currently residing in Aida camp. Mohammad studied Medicine in Cuba for seven years and was the President of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) in Cuba for four years. Fast Cash Loans in New Jersey USA
 

[1] Margalit Bejarano, La inmigración a Cuba y la política migratoria de los EE.UU. (1902-1933), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1993. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20090606060146/http://www.tau.ac.il/eial/IV_2/bejarano.htm.
[2] Susan Hurlich, Cuban-Arabs: Another Rich Legacy of Cuba, Unión Árabe de Cuba, 2003. Available at: http://www.unionarabecuba.org/fearabe011203e.html.
[3] John Powell, Encyclopedia of North American Immigration, Facts on File, Library of American history, Infobase Publishing, 2009, 69. Available at: goo.gl/qwele9 
[4] Daniel Wilkinson, Families Torn Apart - The High Cost of U.S. and Cuban Travel Restrictions, Human Rights Watch, October 2005. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2005/10/18/families-torn-apart/high-cost-us-and-cuban-travel-restrictions
[5] Alia Gilbert, Palestinian Embassy in Havana, Brownbook’s 2015 Design Directory — Embassy Architecture of the Middle East and North Africa, 2015. Available at:  http://brownbook.tv/palestinian-embassy-in-havana/
[7] Hurlich, Cuban-Arabs.
[8] Cecilia Baeza, Palestinians in Latin America: Between Assimilation and Long-Distance Nationalism, Journal of Palestine Studies 43, February 2014, 59–72. Available at:  http://www.palestine-studies.org/jps/fulltext/162937.
[9] Palestine Royal Commission Report, London, HMSO, 1937, 331; Adnan A. Musallam, Folded Pages from Local Palestinian History in the 20th Century: Developments in Politics, Society, Press and Thought in Bethlehem in the British Era 1917-1948. Bethlehem, WIAM - Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, 2002.
[10] Israeli Nationality Law, 1952, Article 18(a). Available at: http://www.israellawresourcecenter.org/israellaws/fulltext/nationalitylaw.htm.
[11] Human Rights Watch, “Forget About Him, He’s Not Here,” Human Rights Watch, 5 February 2012. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/02/05/forget-about-him-hes-not-here/israels-control-palestinian-residency-west-bank-and; BADIL and COHRE, Ruling Palestine – A History of the Legally Sanctioned Jewish-Israeli Seizure of Land and Housing in Palestine, Geneva, Switzerland, Bethlehem, Palestine, COHRE - Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Rights and Refugee Rights, 2005, 125.
[12] BADIL, Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2010-2012, Vol. VII, Bethlehem, Palestine, 2012.
[13] Richard Becker,  Fidel Castro: More Than a Friend of Palestine, Much More, TeleSur, 29 November 2016. Available at: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Fidel-Castro-More-Than-a-Friend-of-Palestine-Much-More-20161129-0005.html.
[14] Dalia Hatuqa, Fidel Castro: The Palestinian connection, Al Jazeera, 26 November 2016. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/castro/2014/03/castro-palestinian-connection-201435132839149718.html.
[15] Ibid.   
[16] Baeza, Palestinians in Latin America.
[17] Hurlich, Cuban-Arabs.
[19] Information received from the Palestinian embassy in Cuba in December 2016.
[20] Hurlich, Cuban-Arabs.
[21] Gilbert, Palestinian Embassy in Havana.
[22] Juan Dufflar Amel, Celebran Congreso estudiantes palestinos en Cuba, Unión Árabe de Cuba, May 2010. Available at: http://www.unionarabecuba.org/fearabe150510s.html.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.