Before I started my research into Cuban Communism and more particularly the life of Che Guevara; I had not even the slightest inkling that there was even a suggestion in some quarters that Fidel Castro was of jewish origin. Nor would I have credited such an argument which seemed not only improbable but absurd as Castro had done nothing, as far as I knew, to have warranted such a suggestion.
Now although I am not yet satisfied there is a strong enough case to argue it cogently, as what we have is speculative and hearsay although from those who knew Castro in his youth (ergo of evidential value to make a decent case but not enough to prove it), I thought it prudent to lay before my readership some of the tantalising reasons we have to suggest that Fidel Castro (and therefore his brother Raul Castro as well) is of jewish origin.
A largely ignored problem, because it is of only minor interest to most biographers, with Fidel Castro's life story is that we know very little about the origins of his father's parents or about his mother in general.
This is for two reasons:
A) Castro's mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, was a working-class woman in Cuba and as such her family left little to no written records of their existence.
B) Castro actively suppressed all our sources of knowledge regarding the life of his parents and his lineage.
Now the traditional explanation of this oddity is the fact that Castro was born a bastard and as such was particularly sensitive about his ancestry, because it was the symbol of his rejection from Cuban society and as such, he suppressed knowledge of it in order to protect his injured pride. (1)
There are three things that make this explanation unconvincing.
Firstly, Fidel's father Angel Castro did in fact marry his mother Lina, but after Castro was born and as such despite being born a bastard Castro is no longer one. Although one might suggest that the bastardy remained a stigma: Fidel would be little different to the many children who are born to Catholic mothers before they are married and who then subsequently marry. There is no evidence, as far as I am aware, that it is common for bastards to actively suppress their origin and indeed in Cuba the culture of Machismo undoubtedly caused many a bastard child to be born. (2)
Secondly Fidel was a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist to whom the bourgeoisie conventions such as bastardy are supposed to mean nothing as they are derived from 'bourgeois religious teaching', which acts as Marx's famous 'opium of the masses'. We know Marxists in organised parties and groups, such as Fidel's, of this time tended to perform periodic self-criticism of their actions so that they could alter future actions to be more revolutionary and radical in keeping with the tactics of the organised revolutionary cadre that was enunciated by Lenin in the work that made his name: 'What is to be done?'
We know that Fidel performed such self-criticism while he was in the Sierra Maestra, since Che Guevara notes as much in his diary, (3) and as his habits didn’t alter much after then. There is little reason to suspect that he did not still perform this revolutionary self-criticism as derived from Lenin's thought throughout his life. (4) As such therefore it seems very improbable that Fidel would have kept to such a bourgeois convention especially as he has long been an atheist and an active opponent of any form of Christianity that did not directly or indirectly advance the interests of Cuban revolution.
Thirdly the explanation of ongoing injured pride due to his social status as a bastard is not presented with evidence: it is simply used as a convenient reason to ignore a thorny issue. This is not to suggest that there is a conspiracy to suppress the ancestry of Castro on the part of historians and biographers, but rather that they have viewed it, as a minor detail, to be far too much trouble than it is worth to look into. As it is quite plausible to suggest that Castro would have closed the Cuban archives to any author who did not comply with his wishes to keep his origins shrouded in a cloak of mystery and speculation. (5)
In spite of this we can sketch some detail in regard to Castro's paternal and maternal origin.
Angel Castro y Argiz, Fidel's father, was a former soldier born into a family in the village of Ancara (Castro himself spelled it as 'Lancara') (6) near the town of Ludo in Galicia in northern-western Spain in 1875, who settled in Cuba after fighting for the Spanish Empire in the Second War of Cuban Independence. (7)
Angel's father was Manuel de Castro (born 1853) and his mother's father was one Antonio Argiz (born 1857). (8) That is all we know about them, but it has been reasonably suggested that Angel joined the Spanish army to escape a difficult situation with his stepmother. (9)
After the war Angel stayed on in Cuba eventually becoming a landowner and local celebrity due to his innovative hiring of large numbers of Afro-Cuban workers (more than he needed) to cut his sugar cane and then, once they had become proficient in it, successfully renting them out to his neighbouring landowners, particularly the Cuban-American Sugar Company and the United Fruit Company. (10)
Thus, Angel grew rich as well as becoming, due to his Spanish origins, an established element of Cuban high society and while he was married to his first wife, Maria Argota, for whom he seems to have had little real affection. He started to have an affair with Fidel's mother Lina who was a servant girl of European origin and originally an economic migrant from the tobacco planting province of Pinar del Rino. (11)
Lina Ruz Gonzalez is where, as above stated, the trail gets much colder: she is usually described as 'Cuban' which is meant to suggest that she was a native of Cuba, but this is a misleading description precisely because she was, to be a sure, a naturalised Cuban. She was of Spanish origin, specifically from the Canary Islands according to Castro himself, and whose family appear to have never married with the local Cubans. (12)
We know next to nothing about Lina other than that she was a working-class woman of, as far as we know, pure Spanish origin. She was born in 1903 to Francisco Ruz (born 1867) and her mother's father was one Domingo Gonzalez (born 1872). (13) Castro states that she was a devout Catholic, but while possible this is difficult to sustain given the fact that she had several children outside of wedlock and actively committed adultery with a married man (i.e., Angel Castro) as Walker has noted. (14)
That Lina may well have been of jewish origin is suggested by some comments that Fidel made in 1941 at the elite Jesuit school of Dolores that he attended. As Symmes puts it:
'He was never an ideological fascist, Cubenas said, and was definitely not an anti-Semite. Fidel had explained at the time that he could not be 'with' the fascists because they were against the Jews, and he could not be against the Jews for the simple reason that he was one. He volunteered that he was descended, through his grandmother, from Jews. Fidel was Catholic, not Jewish, and Cuban, not European, but he told anyone who would listen that the Jews were his own people.' (15)
Now biographers have been quick to write off this as Fidel in high spirits, (16) but I am not so sure given that there are two points which suggest to me that Fidel might actually have been telling the truth about his origins in light of how little we actually know about his mother's ancestral lineage.
Firstly, at the time Fidel made his claim about being jewish: it was the worst possible time to do so as he existed in an environment that was itself very hostile to jews and their influence. His Jesuit teachers were supportive of the Axis and in all likelihood were also opposed to jewish influence as well given that this was common in the Roman Catholic Church at this time. Castro himself tells us that he was taught about this at the school at the time. (17)
As such it is possible to try and cast this as youthful identification with the jews as a 'persecuted minority', but this is problematic because in doing so we have to ignore the fact that Castro rather admired the Third Reich, Mussolini's Italy and the government of Juan Peron at this time. (18)
Further to this we know that Castro wasn't a socialist or inclined towards the ideology at this time: he certainly did not read Marx or become a Marxist till the late 1940s. (19)
As such to cast it as youthful identification with the 'underdog' is to portray Fidel's motivations only in the light of his later conversion to Marxism and (the usual) attempts to proletarianise his youth. (20) Thus, we cannot agree with those who argue that such an identity was a passing fancy or a fit of youthful pique, because it relies on a priori reasoning.
Indeed, in a hostile environment there is little reason for Fidel to specifically declare himself a jew as an act of defiance. He may as well have declared himself an atheist, a homosexual, a devil-worshiper and so forth if he wished to do that. Since he did none of these then it is difficult to reasonably suggest that Fidel was 'acting up' and therefore we have to take his comments far more seriously than most of Fidel's biographers would like to.
The comments on Fidel's part seem to me to be more like the reaction of a teenager having studied the writings of those opposed to jews with an admiring eye only to then find out, probably from his mother, that she was herself jewish through his grandmother, which would therefore make Fidel jewish as well. To which Fidel reacts by then taking this heritage on board wholesale and openly proclaiming to the world that he was jewish. Only to settle down again and begin the intellectual drift towards a political ideology, which he found in Peronism and then Marxism, that would allow him to be both of jewish ancestry and nationalistic. (21)
Secondly Fidel's mention of his being jewish through his grandmother is quite significant and it is reasonable to suggest that the significance of this statement has been missed by Fidel's biographers precisely because they know little of Judaism or jewish culture.
Very simply put Judaism and jewish culture assign jewishness matrilineally and as such for Castro to mention that it is through his grandmother (and therefore presumably his mother Lina) that he is jewish suggests a knowledge of jewishness that is unusual considering the fact that it is not the kind of thing you would expect a young teenager to know unless someone had explained it to him.
Therefore, we have Castro using a piece of logic that few people his age should know let alone be able to comprehend the significance of. It is possible that Castro picked this piece of knowledge up on his own, but again this seems unlikely as to do so he would have had to read specialised work on the subject to confirm that was actually how jewishness was assigned as opposed to the more common patrilineal system (which fitted more with the Cuban, as well as Fidel's own, belief in Machismo).
One of the better attempts to explain this claim of jewishness has been made by Szulic who claims that Castro was called a 'Jew' by his classmates, because he was a bastard, and that 'Jew' was Cuban slang for being an unbaptised bastard. (22) Skierka uncritically repeats Szulic's claim, (23) while Coltman suggests Fidel confused the Spanish word 'Jote' (a large black bird) used for the unbaptised with the Spanish word for 'Jew'. (24)
All these alternative explanations are utterly speculative. They also fail to explain why Castro would explicitly identify as jewish relatively late into his boyhood (as well as in his manhood) well after he had been baptised nor why he would go home, and have it reinforced that he was of jewish origin himself.
Castro's behaviour at that early point in his life make no sense unless he really believed, or knew, there was something to the contention.
Indeed, as recently as 1993 Allan Metz has backed this view and detailed that Castro believed himself to have converso (i.e. followers of Judaism converted to Christianity) ancestry and that this belief influenced his decision-making both in regards to domestic and foreign policy. (25)
Therefore, we have to take Castro's claim from 1941 that he was a jew quite seriously as he has no reason to make it other than the fact that he was, or believed himself to be, of jewish ancestry. As such we have to conclude that there is a good case, albeit a speculative one, that Fidel Castro was in fact of jewish origin and would halakhically be considered jewish.
(1) Tad Szulic, 1986, 'Fidel: A Critical Portrait', 1st Edition, Hutchinson: London, pp. 59-60
(2) Patrick Symmes, 2007, 'The Boys from Dolores: Fidel Castro and His Generation – From Revolution to Exile', 1st Edition, Robinson: London, pp. 33-34
(3) Che Guevara, 2006, 'Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War', 1st Edition, Harper: New York, pp. 41-42
(4) Szulic, Op. Cit., p. 47
(5) Clive Foss, 2006, 'Fidel Castro', 2nd Edition, Sutton: Stroud, pp. 95-96
(6) Fidel Castro, 2007, 'My Life', 2nd Edition, Allen Lane: London, p. 24
(7) Sebastian Balfour, 2009, 'Castro', 3rd Edition, Pearson Longman: London, p. 19; Leycester Coltman, 2003, 'The Real Fidel Castro', 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, p. 1; Volker Skierka, 2004, 'Fidel Castro: A Biography', 1st Edition, Polity Press: Malden, p. 7; Steven Walker, 2012, 'Fidel Castro's Childhood', 1st Edition, Matador: Kibworth Beauchamp, p. xviii; Szulic, Op. Cit., p. 55; Symmes, Op. Cit., p. 102
(8) Walker, Op. Cit., p. xviii
(9) Ibid, p. 2
(10) Nathaniel Weyl, 1961, 'Red Star over Cuba: The Russian Assault on the Western Hemisphere', 1st Edition, Devin Adair: New York, pp. 40-41
(11) Szulic, Op. Cit., p. 59; Walker, Op. Cit., p. 9
(12) Castro, Op. Cit., p. 31; Szulic, Op. Cit., p. 59; Simon Reid-Henry, 2009, 'Fidel and Che: A Revolutionary Friendship', 2nd Edition, Sceptre: London, p. 20; Hugh Thomas, 2010, 'Cuba: A History', 2nd Edition, Penguin: New York, pp. 518-519
(13) Walker, Op. Cit., p. xviii
(14) Ibid, p. 12; Castro, Op. Cit., p. 32
(15) Symmes, Op. Cit., p. 335
(16) Ibid, pp. 64-65
(17) Castro, Op. Cit., p. 39
(18) Symmes, Op. Cit., pp. 335-336; Szulic, Op. Cit., pp. 78-79; Weyl, Op. Cit., p. 42
(19) Ibid, p. 89
(20) For example Castro, Op. Cit., pp. 24-25
(21) Marxism is usually seen as a purely international and egalitarian creed, but it in fact encourages nationalism among 'oppressed peoples' like the Cubans so that they can overthrow their 'capitalist oppressors' and then develop their thought so that they become 'citizens of the world' disregarding ethnicity, race and country of origin. This is why, incidentally, most Communist parties; especially outside of the West, after their first years in power almost inevitably turn out to be nationalist not egalitarian political movements.
(22) Szulic, Op. Cit., p. 63
(23) Skierka, Op. Cit., p. 7
(24) Coltman, Op. Cit., p. 6
(25) Allan Metz, 1993, ‘Cuban-Israeli Relations’, p. 117 in Jorge Perez-Lopez (Ed.), 1993, ‘Cuban Studies 23’, 1st Edition, University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh