books, Essays, Reading

“The Day Fidel Died: Cuba in the Age of Raúl, Obama, and the Rolling Stones” by Patrick Symmes

“Fidel himself always gambled that the long run would make him look good, whatever sins he needed to be absolved of in the short term. He remains a giant, but like any giant, the effect is to foreshorten his own surroundings. His longevity and verbosity, his achievements and his cult both have diminished a revolution that was basically over by 1962. All that followed since then looks increasingly puny and unjustified the longer he stands above it.”

The-Day-Fidel-DiedThe world is topsy turvy, politics are a murky, poisonous soup, and I find it nearly impossible to decipher whom my country considers friend or foe, nevermind how I myself should feel. I was intrigued, therefore, when the publishers of Patrick Symmes’ long form essay “The Day Fidel Died” reached out seeking more critical attention for his recent work on Cuba and its relationship with the United States.

Cuba, one of America’s nearest neighbors, the unpredictable ex-lover whose actions are often shared as morality plays and mythological tales. So much has changed (or has it?) in the past few years between the United States and Cuba with the death of Fidel Castro, the visit from President Obama, and the rise of Donald Trump and his fellow white nationalists.

Symmes frames his essay around this critical time period, looking at the historic Obama visit with anticipation and then hindsight.

“I thought maybe that was Obama’s real weapon – normality. Of all the attacks he could launch on Cuba, the most powerful was to treat the island as normal. Not as a feared enemy, but as a stopover. Not as a historic antagonist, but as an irrelevant nation, the crazy uncle of the neighborhood. Obama’s cool temperament was kryptonite to a revolution and a leadership that demanded the mantle of history. This was the Cuban nightmare: to be treated as just another island, unworthy of special scorn, their revolution ignored as a relic, their defining crusade bypassed, history locked away in the sick ward.”

“Events have a way of overshadowing intentions, and even the grandest gestures can look smaller in retrospect. Obama’s trip in March felt daring at the time; by November 25 it seemed both prescient and perhaps too little, too late. Fidel himself slipped away on that Friday night, bringing a calamitous era and an epic life to a close. In the face of death and a funeral redolent with historic forces, it was the American president’s turn to seem small, to remain unseen.”

Though many of Symmes’ insights were illuminating and thought-provoking, one passage in particular struck my ear with dissonance, though it, too, provoked thought.

“The Cuban economy became inverted. A waiter or chambermaid who had access to hard currency tips could put food on the table, but doctors and pilots went hungry. A prostitute could traipse about in jewelry and spandex, while a scientist wore out the soles of his shoes.”

Perhaps Symmes’ lifelong indoctrination in capitalism and patriarchy, just like so many of ours, made him see this as an inversion, when perhaps it was merely a subversion of what the world had come to expect. What would it look like, what would it mean to live in a world in which the menial jobs, the jobs few people want and which often fall upon women, immigrants, and other outcasts, became those jobs which were the most economically rewarding. Wouldn’t that, in some sense, be distributive justice? Was that, in fact, where the chaos in Cuba might have been heading, at least in part? Fascinating to ponder.

On the whole, Symmes’ writing is fluid, evocative, and vivid. He writes with journalistic detail and novelistic flair. This work hasn’t received the popular or critical attention it deserves, but I suspect if Symmes has a lengthier, more in-depth work in him that gives his readers a better, deeper understanding of his subject, his skills as a writer and a journalist will be met with wider readership and acclaim.

Thank you to Vintage & Anchor Books for providing a complimentary review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Day Fidel Died” is a Vintage Shorts ebook original released in October 2017. 

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