If Mañana Ever Comes to Cuba, José Has the Plan


EspañolWhen I and other coordinators of a liberty seminar for recent Cuban exiles arrived at the University of Miami earlier this year, José Azel greeted us and offered a briefing on life in Cuba and what to expect. More than his references to history and the economic wasteland that is Cuba today, his assertions regarding the Cuban psyche resonated.

We were there to share the ideals of a free society, the mission of the Language of Liberty Institute, and Azel noted that many new exiles have no concept of private property, profits, contracts, or even how to write a check. Worse, they have been subjected to totalitarian indoctrination, which makes independent thought and living more difficult.

This manipulated psyche manifests itself with what José calls a schizophrenic view of government. On the one hand, he says, many new exiles are eager to enjoy the wealth and luxuries of a free society: new houses, cars, yachts, electronics, travel, fine dining, etc. However, they remain adamant that the government must offer an array of entitlements: “free” education, medical care, housing, unemployment insurance, food support, daycare, and on it goes.

(José Azel)

These two desires are at odds with one another: “a government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.” However, this truism is lost on those who’ve spent decades disconnected from any form of market economy.

That irony of hopes versus realities also permeates Azel’s book, Mañana in Cuba: The Legacy of Castroism and Transitional Challenges for Cuba. He and I crossed paths more recently as I completed the month-long Certificate in Cuban Studies program. He is the lead instructor with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, and his book was one of the two primary course readings — the other being Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond by Jaime Suchlicki.

This course, which allowed me to meet and interact with the leading Cuban academics and dissidents of the era — including Huber Matos and Yoani Sánchez — exceeded my expectations. It also opened my eyes to the somewhat “depressing” outlook that Azel wrestles with, after more than 50 years in exile.

He continues on, though; “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” he notes — a quote from Blaise Pascal. In fact, he splits Mañana neatly into two sections that could easily be titled, “Realities” and “Hopes.”

The first section is a concise overview of contemporary life in Cuba and how it compares with other totalitarian regimes. This content is, to a large degree, conservative and introductory, and it will be familiar to many observers of Cuba. Most important, though, Azel concludes that there is widespread apathy and essentially no likelihood of a bottom up movement — at least not one with sufficient influence — to dislodge the ruling class.

The only two long-term prospects for change he foresees are “reincarnation” or “continuity.” In other words, the Cuban Armed Forces are set to continue ruling Cuba, and any variation will only be a form of branding — be it purely in name only or a slight loosening, with essentially the same individuals and oppressive measures in place.

Given that painful reality, Azel proceeds with what I call his “Hopes” section: “The Reform Process.” Should, by some providence, there be an opening for wholesale reforms, Mañana offers a set of broad policy outlines or discussions for reinvigorating Cuba. This consistent push is for a sophisticated, liberal democracy — with a mixture of  libertarianism, “choice architecture” or soft paternalism, and pragmatism.

In doing so, he seeks to reject the notion that Cuba is predisposed to being Marxist or collectivist, despite an acknowledged history of corruption and violence. He even draws on José Martí, the famous Cuban philosopher:

“Man loves liberty, even if he does not know that he loves it. He is driven by it and flees from where it does not exist.”

This is where the reading becomes tough going, however. If you’re already persuaded that the ruling class has a tight grip on power, speculation about how one might enact reforms seems more of an intellectual exercise than anything else.

That is not to say Azel is loose with his analysis and proposals. Rather, they are extremely well thought out and reflect a great familiarity with the research in Cuban relations and human development. Assuming an opportunity to be at the helm in Cuba, one would surely do well to recruit Azel.

Going by its objectives — a meaningful, accessible, and interdisciplinary overview of Cuba, and a set of preferred policy strategies — Mañana hits its target. However, the severe challenges of a weakened, oppressed populace and an aging exile population mean this book cannot help but reveal a bleak outlook.

For further discussion, I recommend this presentation from Azel, from when Mañana first came out in 2010.

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