What’s Coming in Cuba (I) Patrick Symmes

Is Cuba, after Fidel Castro, in for a Velvet Revolution? or a civil war? or more of the same?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Symmes here (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

patrick symmes

The marvelous Patrick Symmes, who has a keen ear for Cuba’s own prophets, is haunted by the miserable chants of a woman in Central Cuba who told him, “we’re going to suffer… we’re going to suffer!” But will the suffering come from a settling of scores when Raul Castro, too, is gone? From raw violence along color lines, or between have-nots and have-less? From a homecoming of the children of Miami exiles? From a mad rush to condos and every other kind of money-making development? From drugs, drug-money and guns?

Patrick Symmes hung his remarkable history of the Cuban revolution on a single school picture — and the family stories of about 250 boys who went to prep school with Fidel Castro at the Jesuits’ Colegio de Dolores in the 1940s. The New York Times Book Review listed The Boys from Dolores among the ten best books of 2007. Thanks to the master-reviewer Richard Eder for mentioning to me that it was the best book he read all year. And thanks to Patrick Symmes for ten years research in the field, and for leading off a continuing Open Source conversation on Cuba.

Havana! I loved the capital, bitterly and deeply, an unrequited love made possible only by distance and loss. The luminous blue-gray hurricane light. The storm spray that left cars, people, and decaying mansions coated with the white dust of salt. The oily harbor, fuming and ringed with Spanish forts… A global capital of the quixotic, where free market superstars came to denounce capitalism, apostles of asceticism fell off the wagon, and most secrets were vulnerable to a $100 bill. The parks were full of prostitutes, the houses full of liquor, and in this capital immoral of the Revolution, even cocaine…

Despite the 2.2 million who lived here, Havana was notable for its emptiness, for the quietness of its avenues by day and their inky darkness at night. The streets were full of spectacular wrecks, black-eyed houses and abandoned hotels, mansions with holed roofs, featureless plains like the Plaza of the Revolution, a gigantic parking lot where legendary rallies had once been held… It was “the city where the whole world went to be lied to.” I found Havana dangerous to body and soul, a high-low environment where you could get arrested for nothing but everyone got away with everything.

Patrick Symmes,

The Boys from Dolores, pages 150-1.

Dolores Boys

Don’t try to get to know them, because in their souls they live in the impenetrable world of dualism. Cubans drink happiness and bitterness from the same cup. They make music from their weeping and laughter from music. They take jokes seriously and make everything serious a joke.

Never underestimate Cubans. The right arm of Saint Peter is a Cuban and the Devil’s best advisor is also Cuban. Cuban has never produced a saint nor a heretic. But Cubans pontificate among heretics and blaspheme among the saints. Their spirit is universal and irreverent. Cubans believe in Catholicism, Chango, in charades and horoscopes all at the same time. They will appeal to your gods and make fun of your religious rights. They don’t believe in anybody and they believe everybody. They will never give up their illusions and they never learn from their delusions.

Don’t argue with them, ever. Cubans are born inherently wise. They don’t need to read, they know everything. They don’t need to travel, they have seen everything. The Cubans are the chosen people… chosen by themselves. They pass among lesser peoples like a ghost passing over water.

Cubans are characterized individually by their sympathy and intelligence and as a group by their shouting and passion. Every one of them carries the spark of genius and no geniuses are tolerated. That’s why it’s easy to reunite Cubans, and impossible to unite them.

Lundy Aguilar in an essay on Cuba, quoted in Patrick Symmes,

The Boys from Dolores, pages 23-4.

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  • Potter

    “A country out of time”…. what a delightful “listen” this was!

    I never understood our policy towards Cuba which spans several adminstrations and never accomplishes anything except perhaps it has kept Cuba in that state of half paradise, half hell- a weird place as described. I thought for a few moments that The Buena Vista Social Club could change things.

    I have a book of Walker Evans photos “Havana 1933” which I just took off the shelf for my next free moments.

    Again- Thank you!

  • Potter

    The music for the opening of this interview and at it’s end what was it?…. should I guess Arturo Sandoval since he was mentioned? I am listening now to his “I Remember Clifford” (Brown).