the AZEL


Commentary on Cuba's Future, U.S. Foreign Policy & Individual Freedoms - Issue 258

Cuba as the Ship of Theseus

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Theseus was the mythical king and founder of Athens. Many myths surrounding Theseus and his journeys are recounted by the Greek historian Plutarch. Among them is the legend of Theseus slaying the half-man half-bull Minotaur, and the thought experiment we now know as the ship of Theseus.
According to Plutarch’s Life of Theseus the ship Theseus used on his return from Crete to  Athens was kept in the Athenian harbor for several centuries as a memorial. As Plutarch puts it:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians…for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places…”

That is, the ship was kept as a museum piece and, as the wooden parts began to rot they were replaced by new parts so that in time every part of the ship had been replaced. Plutarch then asks us to consider if the ship has been so heavily repaired that it is no longer the same ship. Does it remain the same ship even if it was entirely replaced piece by piece?

Centuries later the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy, introduced a further complication to the puzzle of the ship of Theseus. He wondered what the case would be if the original ship planks were gathered up, cured of their rot and then used to build a second ship. Hobbes then asked which ship, if either, would be the original ship of Theseus.

When does the ship of Theseus stop being the ship of Theseus? Philosophers also use this thought experiment to explore which “you” is you. Are you the person you are today? The person you were ten years ago? Or the person you will be in ten years? In other words, what makes “you” you?

As a thought experiment the ship of Theseus raises the question of identity: Does an entity that has all its components replaced remain fundamentally the same entity? And if not, at what point does the entity stop being the same entity? When a rock band, such as Blood, Sweat, and Tears, replaces all its members, is it still Blood, Sweat, and Tears?

I beg the readers indulgence for this philosophical digression, but is serves to set up the metaphysical spirit of my question: After over six decades of being taken apart piece by piece by totalitarian rule, is Cuba still Cuba?

Like the planks of Theseus’ ship, the social, political, educational, and economic institutions of Republican Cuba have been taken apart since 1959. Moreover, some twenty percent of Cuba’s population has left the country, properties have been redistributed, a new sociopolitical and economic ideology has been introduced, and Cuba’s history has been rewritten so that newer generations have a distorted view of the past. So, is Cuba still Cuba?

I ask the question as someone who left the country over sixty years ago and has never returned. Certainly, time does not stand still, and today’s Cuba cannot be the Cuba of my youth. That is an intellectually uninteresting observation. My contention goes much further; I believe that Cuba’s fundamental identity has changed.

Not unlike Theseus’ ship, Cuba has experienced a gradual loss of its identity as its parts were replaced. In other words, what made “Cuba” Cuba has changed and not for the better.

Those of my generation, that dream of Cuba as they left it decades ago, may despair at this pessimistic assessment that the Cuba we knew has, in fact, ceased to exist. Yet, I take solace in  Thomas Hobbes’ observation on the puzzle of the ship of Theseus. Recall from above that Hobbes wondered what the case would be if the original ship planks were gathered up, cured of their rot and then used to build a second ship. Hobbes then asked which ship, if either, would be the original ship of Theseus.

That has happened, and the authentic Cuba is the one Cubans have built in South Florida.

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Lily & José

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José Azel, Ph.D.
José Azel left Cuba in 1961 as a 13 year-old political exile in what has been dubbed Operation Pedro Pan - the largest unaccompanied child refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere.  

He is currently dedicated to the in-depth analyses of Cuba's economic, social and political state, with a keen interest in post-Castro-Cuba strategies. Dr. Azel was a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami, Jose Azel has published extensively on Cuba related topics.

In 2012 and 2015, Dr. Azel testified in the U.S. Congress on U.S.-Cuba Policy, and U.S. National Security.  He is a frequent speaker and commentator on these and related topics on local, national and international media.  He holds undergraduate and masters degrees in business administration and a Ph.D. in International Affairs from the University of Miami.

José along with his wife Lily are avid skiers and adventure travelers.  In recent years they have climbed Grand Teton in Wyoming, trekked Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Machu Pichu in Peru.  They have also hiked in Tibet and in the Himalayas to Mt. Everest Base Camp.

They cycled St. James Way (
El Camino de Santiago de Compostela) and cycled alongside the Danube from Germany to Hungary and throughout southern France.  They have scuba dived in the Bay Islands off the Honduran coast and in the Galapagos Islands.

Their adventurers are normally dedicated to raise funds for causes that are dear to them. 
Watch Joe & Lily summit Kilimanjaro.

Books by Dr. José Azel
"Liberty for beginners is much more than what the title promises. It is eighty themes touched with the wisdom of a master, and the charm of an excellent communicator. Anyone that wishes to understand why countries do, or do not progress, will find in this book the best explanations.
If it was in my power, this work would be required reading for all college and university students, and I would recommend its reading to politicians, journalists, and policymakers. With this book Azel accomplishes what was achieved in France by Frédéric Bastiat, and in the United States by Henry Hazlitt: brings together common sense with intelligent observation, and academic substance. Stupendous"
Carlos Alberto Montaner

"Libertad para novatos es mucho más de lo que promete el título. Son ochenta temas tocados con la sabiduría de un maestro y la amenidad de un excelente comunicador. Cualquier adulto que desee saber por qué progresan o se estancan los pueblos aquí encontrará las mejores explicaciones.
Si estuviera en mis manos, esta obra sería lectura obligatoria de todos los estudiantes, tanto de bachillerato como universitarios, pero, además, se la recomendaría a todos los políticos y periodistas, a todos los policy makers. Azel logra con este libro lo que Frédéric Bastiat consiguiera en Francia y Henry Hazlitt en Estados Unidos: aunar el sentido común, la observación inteligente y la enjundia académica. Estupendo."
Carlos Alberto Montaner

Compre Aqui

In Reflections on Freedom, José Azel brings together a collection of his columns published in prestigious newspapers.  Each article reveals his heartfelt and personal awareness of the importance of freedom in our lives.  They are his reflections after nearly sixty years of living and learning as a Cuban outside Cuba. In what has become his stylistic trademark, Professor Azel brilliantly introduces complex topics in brief journalistic articles.
En Reflexiones sobre la libertad José Azel reúne una colección de sus columnas publicadas en prestigiosos periódicos. Cada artículo revela su percepción sincera y personal de la importancia de la libertad en nuestras vidas. Son sus reflexiones después de casi sesenta años viviendo y aprendiendo como cubano fuera de Cuba.  En lo que ha resultado ser característica distintiva de sus artículos, el Profesor Azel introduce con brillantez complejos temas en  breves artículos de carácter periodístico.
Mañana in Cuba is a comprehensive analysis of contemporary Cuba with an incisive perspective of the Cuban frame of mind and its relevancy for Cuba's future.
Pedazos y Vacíos is a collection of poems written in by Dr. Azel in his youth. Poems are in Spanish.
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