Cuba has never been on my list of countries to visit. With the uncertainty regarding individual travel, I have always been concerned that I might be entering a country that I may not be able to exit. In 2014, president Barrack Obama eased restrictions on travel to Cuba for United States citizens. Since his election, president Donald Trump has proposed to reinstate many of these limits. Last week I took advantage of this current window of opportunity and participated in an organized trip to Jewish Cuba. During my time there, I discovered a community that was effectively forbidden to practice communal Judaism for thirty years, much like the community in the former Soviet Union. Now, Judaism is blossoming again in Cuba, and many young Cuban Jews are choosing to make aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel.
In his State of the Union address (Video and transcript below.), President Obama said that he will veto any new sanctions on Iran passed by Congress before the end of March — the U.S. deadline for reaching an agreement on a framework to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program:
Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies — including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.
But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; making it harder to maintain sanctions; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.
Alan Gross, who was released last month from Cuban prison after five years, was among the audience.
President Obama dedicated a large part of his speech at this year’s Hanukkah party to Alan Gross, who was released from Cuban prison after five years as part of the country’s renewal of diplomatic relations with the U.S.:
He’s back where he belongs — in America, with his family, home for Hanukkah. And I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday, with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy. These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.
Gross was arrested in 2009 while working to set up Internet access for the Cuban-Jewish community as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross’s sister-in-law, Gwen Zuares, thanked Obama personally for her brother-in-law’s release at the party.
B’nai B’rith International said that it “warmly welcomes, and is relieved by the news”:
B’nai B’rith is grateful for the efforts of the Administration and all those who assisted in facilitating the high-level discussions leading to Gross’ release. We are thinking of Gross, his family and his friends
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which called the normalization of relations with Cuba “unwise”, welcomed Gross’s release:
On the first day of Hanukkah, Alan Gross was granted light, freedom, and the long-awaited reunion with his family. The RJC joins the entire Jewish community in celebrating his redemption.
Agudath Israel of America issued a statement on the subject:
The release and return of Alan Gross from Cuban incarceration is truly a modern day Chanukah miracle, and it fills us with deep gratitude to, in the words of the Amidah, “He Who frees captives.” Mr. Gross’ expedited liberation seemed a distant dream, and now it is a dream come true.
We express our heartfelt thanks to President Obama, whose dedicated and determined efforts led to Mr. Gross’ release. And we pray that Mr. Gross will adjust to his return to freedom enveloped in the love and support of his family and friends.