David Herrle interviews Patrick Symmes, author of THE DAY FIDEL DIED: CUBA IN THE AGE OF RAÚL, OBAMA, AND THE ROLLING STONES

(This interview also is featured at Bookolage.)

According to the late dictator Fidel Castro, the Revolución Cubana’s legacy was almost blameless, constructive, justifiably defiant and positively epochal rather than dystopian and fated for failure. However, besides ever-intrusive government, the quest for mass social justice requires drastic actions, so it’s easy to find Fidel’s denials of civil-rights abuses, executions and intolerance incredible. 

On the other hand, adopting an either/or take on the man is lazy, since we’re all susceptible to armchair diagnoses and essentializations. One mustn’t doubt that Fidel was an impressive, suave, profound and smart person. Also, he cannot be considered without considering Cuba itself, since for more than half a century his personality (real, perceived and fabricated) has “spoken” for the nation he wrested from Batista, a ruler who shared more similarities than differences with the more gregarious rival. 

An astute handler of this subject and equipped with some worthy first-hand knowledge of Cuban life (previously told in depth in an excellent Harper’s Magazine article called “Thirty Days as a Cuban”), Patrick Symmes has achieved in The Day Fidel Castro Died: Cuba in the Age of Raúl, Obama, and the Rolling Stones, an intellectually/politically honest portrayal: fair enough to admit favorable points and not to demonize irresponsibly, yet wise enough to resist belief in the regime’s careful charade.

When Viking proposed an interview between me and the author, I accepted with some apprehension, fearing yet another fawning take on Fidel Castro and romanticization of collectivist dictatorships in general. I needn’t have hesitated. Smoothly written and of perfect compact length, The Day Fidel Castro Died has earned my appreciation, respect and endorsement. Please enjoy our exchange.


For fifty-seven years every blown lightbulb was the work of the Americans.
– The Day Fidel Castro Died

DAVID: In Castro: A Graphic Novel Volker Skierka observes that Fidel’s story is “so true that one couldn’t invent it without it seeming implausible.” Despite the inconvenient truths of Fidel, his heyday rattling of history is remarkable, even cinematic. In your book you aptly quote Hamlet’s Hamlet: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” (Think Touch of Evil’s Tanya: “He was some kind of a man.”) How do Fidel’s attractive style, intellect and articulation strike you? Why are eclectic, clever rogues so compelling? Tell us about your preparative approach to, as you put it, “the singularity that is Fidel.” 

PATRICK: He was transgressive, in the beginning. A young lawyer from the best schools, married into a top family, yet he grew a beard and risked his life in battle rather than accommodate himself to that system. The kids who grew up with him actually feared him, because he was so strong-willed, so devoted to his own exceptionalism. It was easy to hope and believe he would usher in a new era of freedom; the vast majority of Cubans and even many Americans supported him by January 1, 1958. But over time the transgressive appeal faded: he cracked down on dissent, long hair, rock and roll, private stores, one thing after another that alienated people. Yet, by constantly flowing and adapting – Soviet when he needed to be, champion of Africa, denunciatory environmentalist – he always had a new way to captivate, justify, and even thrill. But you can’t sustain faith for decades, and whole generations disappeared while nothing ever changed. The uniforms, slogans, and even names are mostly the same today as in 1959. What was once captivating to millions became tired and hypocritical long ago. I was stunned – almost no one important showed up for his funeral! 

DAVID: You think Fidel “should have died young and left a beautiful corpse” in order to be “purified by distance” rather than grow old gracelessly. Meanwhile unctuous Ignacio Ramonet includes him in “the pantheon of world figures who have struggled most fiercely for social justice and with greatest solidarity came to the aid of the oppressed.” Yet you (rightly) write that “he became the dictator he’d rebelled against, the problem to his own solution.” Did Fidel make any significant difference against social injustice and oppression? Is Cuba worse or better off because of the Castro regime?

PATRICK: Certainly the social programs of the Revolution had a broad impact: mass literacy, access to a doctor even in rural hamlets, the promotion of black and brown Cubans to sectors of education and social acceptance that were closed. But of course, many countries achieved mass education without mass surveillance. Many countries today have universal health care, but also elections. And in the meantime, so many other sectors of life simply degraded. Havana is a disaster, physically – at least two houses a day fall down in the city, and whole neighborhoods are abandoned due to collapsed roofs and hurricane damage that isn’t fixed even a decade later. The system is paralysis. You can’t even get basic medicines anymore. I still don’t know how to weigh one against the other: the declared intent to help the poor and disadvantaged was valuable, but it didn’t have to come at this cost, where more than 10% of the population fled. The United States exacerbated the problem, but I think it is clear now that the problem began in Cuba, with Fidel’s conflation of himself with the nation. 

DAVID: Fidel likened his social vision to Christ’s multiplication of the loaves and fishes, which is laughable, given the food shortages/rationing exemplified by your passage about a Cuban family’s monthly seafood allotment being “only one fish each – usually a dried, oily mackerel.” Yet, you do admit some promising relaxation effected by less orthodox Raoul Castro. What is your prediction for Cuba? Is sincere amity between it and the U.S. possible? Mustn’t communism be eschewed to launch and maintain a Cuban renaissance?

PATRICK: Prediction is a dark art, but here goes. I think they can and will lose the communism, but keep the Castro. What I mean by that is that, once Raúl passes, the Revolution is just another movement, a political party. Communism is not central to its survival in the future. That’s why Raúl, with the greatest reluctance and constant retrenchment, has relaxed economic controls, allowed widespread self-employment, and facilitated an unprecedented business boom. The core doctrine is not communism, but Fidelism, the idea of the Revolution as a historic mandate. Survival is all. Remember that experiments with privatizing food production began in 1961 – just one year after the nationalization of all farms!

Fidel was always the ideologue, while from the beginning Raúl actually organized the army and ran the machinery of state, seeing the numbers. He’s pragmatic. As long as it doesn’t conflict with his ability to control society, he tolerates economic changes. I think that’s the model for the future. After he dies, the party will continue to rule, but slowly, eventually, I expect them to let go of the economy. The U.S. won’t be able to resist that for long, and I expect the embargo will be forgotten as soon as American companies sense they are losing big opportunities there. As Fidel always feared, that will lead to an independent population, demands for increased pluralism, and even elections. This could take many, many years, but I fully expect to see a member of the Castro family leading a revolutionary party in elections for president of Cuba someday – once all the old crimes are forgotten. Raúl’s daughter Mariela, highly educated, and his grandson, a dimwitted security goon, are both likely candidates. And of course Fidel had five acknowledged sons and illegitimate offspring all over the island. 

DAVID: At the Bay of Pigs the men of doomed Brigade 2506, blindly trusting the CIA and American military might, paid dearly for the flinching White House’s abandonment. This created disillusionment that, I think, helped eventuate “Pepe” San Roman’s 1989 suicide. Tell us about your claim that “the fundamental failure at the Bay of Pigs was not tactical, it was moral.”

PATRICK: I meant that as an accusation against my country, America. The moral failure was believing that America had the right to invade Cuba, to decide things by bombs and sabotage. The Kennedy brothers knew it was wrong; that’s why they tried to hide the American hand, and abandoned the 2506 Brigade rather than launch a US invasion. Among the exiles themselves, the moral failure was more complex: they were blind to the popular support the Revolution had attained, but at least it was their own country they were invading.

DAVID: In extreme contrast to their music having been banned in Cuba in the 1960s, the Rolling Stones (who certainly won’t leave beautiful corpses) first performed in Havana in 2016, which was seen by many attendees as fruit from President Obama’s historic outreach. Far from gushing over brave rapprochement, you say that Obama wielded an ultimate weapon: “treat[ing] the island as normal.” Please explain.

PATRICK: Fidel always claimed the mantle of history and used a kind of histrionic style that placed Cuba at the center of world events. That was true in 1959, 1961, and 1963, but no matter how much the propaganda repeats it still today, Cubans know that the island is weak and left behind. Obama called the Castro bluff. He bypassed their central symbol – no handshake or meeting with Fidel –while showing he was utterly unafraid or unimpressed by the Revolution. He spoke directly to the Cuban people about the value of democracy and human rights, live on national television. Without actually lifting the embargo, he sent an incredibly strong signal to Cubans about the future, telling them to bet on economic changes and a welcoming U.S. Now Trump has renewed the exchange of hostilities and accusations, which I fear has shattered that clear vision of where the two countries were going. 

DAVID: I know of some Americans packing giveaway items (travel-size shampoo, toothpaste, etc.) to be doled out to people they’d encounter on their Cuban vacation. Is this a tactless fad of “slumming” interlopers – and, if so, is such condescension noticed by the folks down there? By the way, why is Cuba such a novelty for many Americans?

PATRICK: Back in the 1990s, a woman burst into tears when I gave her bar of soap. I have never once had a Cuban complain that it was condescending! I find only well-fed Westerners feel guilty about this kind of thing. Nowadays soap is widely available, but only in the dollar stores, at hard-currency prices that few Cubans can afford. So give, and give freely – even a pair of old shoes will find a use. As to the second question, one novelty for Americans can be how American it feels. You can still see the old American brand names on 60-year old signs, the cars are famously American, Havana is full of old American-built hotels, and Cubans themselves have longstanding ties to us, from long before 1958. And of course, the veil of hostility and politics makes all of that seem more exotic and unknown. I feel like I’m a blockade runner when I’m in Cuba. The Canadians are just feeling regular. 

DAVID: Another novelty is Che Guevara, whom Fidel called “an indestructible moral force,” neglecting the man’s atrocious, hypocritical, Stalinist ways. Alberto Korda’s famous merchandized Che image still delights the ignorant or enthralled, though he would’ve had them silenced or executed at La Cabana prison – and he certainly was anti-Rolling Stones. How do you view popular lionization of Che?

PATRICK: The more I learned about his real actions, the more disturbed I became. But eventually I burst out the other side of my cynicism and said, dammit, there is something really important at work here. His image is vastly more influential than the Cuban Revolution itself. I’ve seen peasants in Peru cry as they discussed “the Che” and what he did for them. The historic inaccuracy of that is one thing, but the yawning need for a hero impressed me. People had to reinvent Che, because Latin America has produced so few real champions for the poor. He was the one who actually had the good sense to die young and leave a beautiful corpse. 

DAVID: I compare Che to Saint-Just, the bloodthirstiest devil of the French Revolution, which, like the later major “egalitarian” revolutions, involved social-justice warfare, bitter secularization, property theft and belief in extreme remaking of humanity. Only the American Revolution avoided reprisals, atrocity, police statehood and denial of human nature – and it still hasn’t been duplicated. Why is this? Are potential Nazi Germanies or Jonestowns lurking in all utopians’ genes?

PATRICK: I think that DNA is lurking in all of us. We’re a social species, but I’m impressed with how violent we can become, so quickly. The utopians are convinced they can act on the world. The American founders were afraid of that; they hemmed us in with divided powers and checks and balances. I’m afraid I’ll have to subscribe to the traditional Burkean view that gradual change that reforms institutions works better than radical overthrow of the whole orders. I hope Cuba has careful, steady change over many years, but most Cubans will tell you they are ardiente, or fiery. They may come think they can change everything at once. 

DAVID: Perhaps the most important thing you learned during your Havana residence was Cubans’ fortitude in spite of a police-state environment and deprivation: “In the midst of this suffering, the dignity and pathos of ordinary Cubans struck me deeply.” Tell us more about this. And what do you think of the long trend of defection and the recent spike in emigration to the U.S.?

PATRICK: I’ve learned that the best people live in the worst places. It creates solidarity and fellow feeling even amid deprivation and struggle. But Cubans are smart enough to read the wind, and many rushed to America just before the open immigration policy ended. Enormous numbers are still leaving the island for Central America and really anywhere they can get, because they think they will live better abroad than at home. It’s going to continue.


Visit Patrick’s official site here.
David Herrle is a freelance writer and founder of SubtleTea.