When Cubans flee their homeland, they say adiós to an island of lies. One such exile, with meticulous attention to academic rigor, has devoted his life to raising awareness regarding the plight of his fellow countrymen under the totalitarian communist regime.
Not only has José Azel informed the general public through his columns, books, interviews, and speeches, he has changed the course of my life. After taking his class at the University of Miami in 2013 — in which I read his academic overview, Mañana in Cuba (2010) — I traveled to Cuba and met many dissidents, including the Ladies in White and Nelson Chartrand of the Cuban Anarcho-Capitalist Club. Azel's influence on my understanding of Cuba and foreign policy continued with his columns that I published with the PanAm Post.
The grave problem he and other exiles face when calling for a more outspoken and confrontational approach to the regime is rife illiteracy, and that includes the academy of the United States and Canada. Outside Miami and the Cuban-American community, few people are aware of the tragedy that Cuba has been since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Even worse, the late Castro, succeeded by his younger brother Raúl, managed to cultivate an international Robin Hood image with progressives and socialists. He played the victim and scapegoated the United States for the crushing poverty suffered by those stuck on the island. The average monthly wage, for example, is around $20, and even medical physicians typically make $50 per month.
Azel has sought to strike the root — the battle of ideas — informed by his many decades in the United States. He came with Operation Pedro Pan in 1961 and received his high-school and university education in Miami, through to his PhD in international affairs, and he developed an affection for classical liberalism in the tradition of John Locke and the Founders.
This contrast of visions, between the individualism of the United States and the collectivism of contemporary Cuba, is the most striking theme of his columns and short policy papers. Going back about a decade, these are now available in book form as Reflections on Freedom (378 pages), which came out in May of this year.
Azel yearns for an independent spirit in Cuba, but he is honest about the meager likelihood of that happening in the near future. In many ways, the anthropological damage is done, and the populace will take at least a generation to learn the values and functioning of a free society.
This reality check of the book is a tear jerker at times, particularly given the autobiographical aspect. Azel has fought the good fight, yet as many people noted after Fidel's passing, bad guys often finish first. Fidel died with his regime in power, living at the expense of the Cuban people, and as the most revered ruler in Latin America of the past half century.
That gross misunderstanding and support for a tyrant shows why Azel's work is essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand Cuba and Latin America. For those who care to look beyond the often pathetic and deceptive coverage granted to the Castros, Reflections on Freedom is waiting for you. With its life story and passion, it offers much more than what you will find in regular policy papers.
Image: Santiago de Cuba (hl_1001).