Jose Azel discusses Cuba’s transition; life after the Castro brothers

VOXXI correspondent Diego Rosette sat down with Cuban exile scholar, Jose Azel— currently a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at…

Jose Azel talks about Cuba’s economic, social, and political state. (Wikimedia Commons)

VOXXI correspondent Diego Rosette sat down with Cuban exile scholar, Jose Azel— currently a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami—to discuss political and economic transition in Cuba, the embargo’s role amongst the exile community, and what the future hold in store for the island nation.

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Q: Personally, what’s your connection to Cuba?

I was born in Cuba, and came to Miami in 1961 as part of what is known as the Pedro Pan Children. I’ve never been back and I never saw my parents again since I left. So I’ve spent the last 55 years, in essence, fighting against the revolution.

I dedicated most of my life to the business world, retired some years back, and then came to the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at UM where I’ve been carrying out my research ever since.

Q: Can you talk about the Cuba Transition Project here at the University of Miami?

Well, the Cuba Transition Project was very active shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the collapse of the communist regime in Cuba seemed imminent. It’s role fundamentally centered on putting together the different experiences of the nations that had undergone a transition from totalitarian to democratic forms of government, and from centrally-planned economies to market economies.

The Cuba Transition Project tried to learn from those experiences: what worked, what didn’t, what plans were successful, which weren’t, what were the ideal policies, etc.

Q: In your article, “The Cuban Embargo as an Ideological Stand-In”, you discuss the embargo’s central role as the cornerstone of debate surrounding potential reform in Cuba. Quantitatively, what have the effects of the embargo been?

The Cuban embargo

The U.S. economic embargo is not the cause of Cuba’s misery. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Quantitative data indicates that the Cuban embargo has limited the amount of resources that the government gets. And I would argue that this fact is clearly a good thing, as it limits a government which spreads anti-American sentiment and represses its own people.

Obviously, however, the embargo hasn’t been a policy which has brought about regime change. Consequently, other people would argue that it has given the Castro government an excuse as to why its economy is such a failure. Ultimately, I think anyone that is somewhat knowledgeable realizes that the collapse of the Soviet Union proves that centrally-planned economies simply do not work. The failure of Cuba’s economy is not due to the embargo; it’s due to the fact that centrally-planned economies have been proven to fail.

Q: In other words, has the role the embargo played in the failure of the Cuban economy been overstated?

The fact of the matter is that Cuba is free to buy products from all over the world. The government buys products from the Chinese, Germans, Italians, and everybody else. So one cannot make a claim that Cuba can’t buy products; actually, they can buy great products from all over the world.

In fact, even with the embargo, the United States is the fifth or sixth largest supplier of products for Cuba. Food and medicinal trade aren’t restricted under the embargo, so the United States is actually a very large trading partner.

Q: What type of transition—political or economic—is more important in order to bring about true reform in Cuba?

One of the main things we’ve learned from the transition of former Soviet bloc nations in Eastern Europe is that those countries that adopted political reforms together with economic reforms, are today both successful economically and politically independent. I’m talking about countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, amongst others.

Meanwhile, those countries that chose economic reform prior to political reform have failed. Therefore, what we do understand in terms of political science is that the citizen must be empowered. Based on this evidence, I would argue that political and economic changes must occur hand-in-hand in order to institute successful and long-lasting reform in Cuba.

Q: Three generations removed, is it realistic to believe that the exiled community will ever return to Cuba?

Well, no. I have adult children who were born here and, interestingly, even in their 40’s they’ve never been to Cuba, speak terrible Spanish, but still identify as Cuban-Americans. And yet, even I have no interest in returning to Cuba in a permanent capacity; I want to help to reconstruct the country in whatever capacity I can from here.

My life has been here and that applies to a much greater extent to my children and grandchildren. The second and third generations of exiles are now made up of American-born Cuban-Americans, as opposed to Cuban-born Cuban Americans.

Q: What do you expect to see once the Castro brothers have both passed away?

The collectivist mindset is now part of the Cuban psyche, so even after the Castro brothers are gone it’s going to take a lot of effort to bring about change of the kind that I would like to see. What’s most likely to happen is not a transition, but a succession to the kleptocratic Russian model.

In other words, we’ll probably see a form of kleptocracy where military leaders turn themselves into businessmen that own everything worth owning, as happened in Russia.

SEE ALSO: Majority of Cubans in Miami say embargo hasn’t worked