Fidel Castro once said that "Men do not shape destiny, destiny produces the man for the hour". So much has been written about the late Fidel Castro in the past week, but how many people can actually claim to have known him and have a sense of the man and his destiny? Through a mixture of luck and providence, I have perhaps spent more time with Fidel Castro than any other American. Admire him or loathe him, either way my experiences taught me that greater engagement leads to progress and both the West and the Cuban people stand to benefit from greater dialogue. We now have a historic opportunity to bring Cuba in from the cold.
Over the course of thirty years, I met with Castro dozens of times. I can't prove that I spent more time with him than any other American, but I must be pretty high up there. The reason I initially went to Cuba was to help its small Jewish community. However, over the years a productive relationship developed between the two of us. The American government was aware of it and while I didn't have any official role, I sometimes found myself acting as a diplomat. I was always an advocate of greater dialogue with Cuba, I felt, and still do that it benefitted all involved. Every time I visited, I witnessed small changes in my relationship with Castro, including in the candid way which I could speak with him and the reaction I would get when I made a suggestion to him.
I visited Cuba for the first time in the late 1980s, about a week before Passover that year. One of my initial meetings was with the Jewish community. When I asked how I could help them, I was told that they were in desperate need of kosher-for-Passover food and wine. Over the next couple of hours, it was made clear that the only person who could give me permission to bring Passover supplies into Cuba was Fidel Castro. That evening I met him for the first time. When I asked if I could send my airplane back to Miami to pick up the provisions, the first thing he wanted to know was what was kosher-for-Passover wine? I tried to explain. I could see he didn't understand, so I told him I would bring some back for him to try. Which I did. Thankfully, the vintage was good that year. Over many years, we continued the conversation on Jewish issues, and Castro used his time to pursue his curiosity to learn more about Judaism. In that time, the Jewish community had more freedom to practice their religion, and desperately needed repairs were completed on the main synagogue in Havana, which he visited on Chanukah.
While publically Castro revelled in his role as the enemy of the West, in private, I saw a different side. A more humble side. He would do things you would not expect. For example, he would take great care with his guests. I once led a delegation and Castro insisted we all come over for dinner. During the afternoon I got a call saying that Castro wanted to meet me privately beforehand. I assumed that he wanted to talk international politics, as usual, but it turned out he wanted to meet me to consult about seating arrangements for the dinner. It was important for him that everyone there felt comfortable where they were sitting.
Castro took great care in the food he served and almost every time I had dinner with him, he would serve lobster. His recipe, often prepared with his own hands. He even gave me a handwritten copy of the recipe.
As you would expect, Castro and I would often disagree but we had developed the kind of relationship in which I felt comfortable to do that. The dinner discussions focused on issues around the world and the U.S, and often lasted five or six hours. When he discussed Israel he was never critical. I always assumed his public alliance with the Palestinians had something to do with maintaining his stature as a leader of the Third World, the easy way to do that was to position himself as an enemy of the United States and an enemy of Israel.
Looking forward, there is a lot of speculation about the next step for Cuba. It would not be productive for the situation to regress and for Cuba to return to isolation. The dialogue I developed had benefits for the Jewish community of Cuba and, on at least one occasion, the American government. Although progress was very slow, it was still progress. If dialogue stops, then the reverse is true, you end up with a vacuum and whenever there is a vacuum another power can step in. In the long term, I hope that the United States chooses more dialogue and ultimately the lifting of the embargo, which I think would be good for the Cuban people.
My experiences have shown me that there are two sides to every story. The actions of Castro have been widely documented and many have condemned him for what he has done. But, seeing the other side of him made me understand that there were further possibilities for discussion and improving the life of Cubans. There could have been more progress on critical issues, including human rights, and I hope that we are all able to take those opportunities in the future.
The writer is the President of the American Jewish Congress