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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 the king 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 30 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 ones. In time, every part of the ship had been replaced. Plutarch then asks us to consider if the ship had been so heavily repaired that it no longer was the same ship.
In other words, when does the ship of Theseus stop being the ship of Theseus?
Does an entity that has all its components replaced remain fundamentally the same entity? When a rock band, such as Blood, Sweat & Tears, replaces all its members, is it still Blood, Sweat & Tears?
This philosophical digression sets up the spirit of my true question: After more than 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, about 20% 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 as someone who left the country long 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. Further, I believe Cuba’s fundamental identity has changed.
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 philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ observation on 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.
That has happened, and the authentic Cuba is the one Cubans have built in South Florida.
Dr. Jose Azel is a retired scholar of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban & Cuban American Studies. His latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”