MIAMI—José Azel left Cuba in 1961 on a cargo ship with a group of children and Catholic seminarians when he was 13. His father, in sending his son away alone, thought it would be for just a few months. Azel had been active in the underground movement against Fidel Castro, delivering messages, being a lookout, and performing “economic sabotage,” which at times just meant pouring sugar into the gas tanks of government vehicles so they would never run again. The American government, his father thought, would never let the communist regime last that much longer. Azel, along with the 14,000 other so-called “Pedro Pan” children who were granted United States visa waivers through the Catholic Church between 1960 and 1962, would return when the situation was safer, they thought. But, Azel says, “I never saw him again.” Castro’s government wasn’t toppled, Azel wasn’t able to return, and his father was never able to leave. Over 50 years later, Azel looks back with longing and pain, both because he had to leave his family and for the prosperity he says his home country lost. “What a shame,” he laments.
Like many political exiles who left Cuba in those first waves to South Florida, Azel takes a more hard-lined approach to the communist regime, opposing new political engagement from the Obama administration, especially the president’s trip to Cuba this week. “I don’t want to shake the hand of a dictator,” says Azel, a senior scholar at the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “The morally correct position is to stand with the Cuban people with freedom and not with the oppressor.” Azel won’t even visit Cuba, for “a political exile does not return to the country of origin until the conditions that caused his exile change.”