Reviewed by Bart Moon, Publisher
The Boys from Dolores: Fidel Castro’s Schoolmates from Revolution to Exile. By Patrick Symmes (Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2007. 352 pp. $26.95)
Oriente province is the largest in Cuba, rich in mineral ores and sugar cane. Here, in its capital city, Santiago, Jesuits founded the Colegio de Dolores in 1913, a school for boys between the ages of seven and eighteen. It became the school of choice for the children of the province’s elite, and it was here in the 1940s that Angel Castro, flinty owner of a 26,000 acre ranch, sent his three sons, Ramón, Raúl, and the middle one, Fidel.
Dolores’s priests wanted their students to observe the world closely, to feel strongly, to develop will power, to be competitive, to stand up to confrontation, and to value sports and physical tests. Fidel in many ways was what they had in mind. Tall, tough, and sturdy, with a quick mind, phenomenal memory, and lively curiosity, he devoured books on all subjects. Also, he reveled in physical power and skill. He loved baseball and basketball and especially leading student groups on long hikes into remote and difficult mountainous regions where he witnessed a Cuba unlike Santiago, peopled by the illiterate and impoverished. The young student also had qualities less prized by the brothers and not admired by the other students. A big talker, a bit of a bully, he was boastful and showy, quick to take offense with his fists when he felt slighted. One compañero who laughed when Fidel struck out on three pitches in a stickball game paid for his falta de respeto with a dislocated shoulder. Common knowledge among the students that his parents were not married when he was born compounded Castro’s prickliness. His dislike of things yanqui was also evident during these early years. Eagerly awaited movie nights at the Colegio regularly featured Hollywood westerns. Fidel would cheer for the Indians. This antipathy, however, did not extend to all things American. In 1940, the twelve year old youth wrote to “My good friend Roosvelt” asking the President to send him a “ten dollars bill green American.” There was a White House reply, but apparently Roosvelt sent no American green.
These glimpses of Castro’s formative years represent the still acute memories of his surviving Dolores classmates, tracked down and interviewed by the author of this marvelous book, some as exiles in Florida, others still living in Cuba. Dolores, however, is much more than the story of a schoolboy. Patrick Symmes, a contributing editor of Harpers Magazine, has presented the whole dismaying course of the Cuban revolution: from its causes, including Washington’s complaisant relationship with the dictator Batista; to its initial successes, mainly a highly effective country-wide literacy program and a sharp reduction in infant mortality; and finally to its current ruined economy and a population cowed by a regime obsessed with identifying the disloyal.
He recalls for us those early days in 1959 when an almost universally admired Castro toured Washington and New York, chatting with America’s late night talk show hosts and promising the world a quick return to Cuba’s liberal 1940 constitution (ignored during the Batista years) and free and fair presidential elections within one year. Symmes then catalogues the repeated reasons the new regime discovered to postpone those elections, with Fidel finally declaring that there was no reason for them at all because Cuba was already “a perfect democracy.” As for the 1940 constitution, it quickly disappeared from Castro’s agenda, to be replaced by his Caribbean blend of caudillo-socialism.
During the author’s multiple visits to Cuba researching this book, he found occasions to meet and talk with many Cubans other than Dolores’s alums. Indeed, his devastating portrayals of every day life on the island were entirely credible to this reviewer, not only because they were based on first hand observations and conversations with primary sources, but especially because they seem not to spring from any political bias of his own, but rather from a genuine affection for Cuba and dismay over what has befallen its people.
Writing with verve and an eye for detail, Symmes offers several vignettes that reveal the communist bureaucracy’s intrusion into the most mundane activities. One example: attempting to use Santiago’s main public library, he was stopped by a guard and denied entry because he could not produce a library card. When he subsequently applied for one he was told that his request would have to be “coordinated” with the appropriate authorities in Havana, a process, he was warned, that might take six months or more.
One of the author’s interviewees was among the many exiles living in Florida recruited to fight in the Eisenhower-Kennedy Bay of Pigs disaster. His account of the run-up to the invasion and of its bloody conclusion is a fascinating indictment of the planners’ faulty assumptions and poor intelligence. The popular uprising the invasion was supposed to spark never occurred, and the belief that Cuba would be unable to dominate the air over the landing areas proved tragically wrong.
Dolores concludes on a pessimistic note, admitting that no one knows what brother Raul, the chosen successor, will do when Fidel dies. Tagged by his Dolores classmates as la pulgita, “the colorless, forgettable little flea,” Raúl is now described by some as “an inflexible, charmless, and violent ideologue.” In the Havana streets he is known as el chino. In Symmes’s view, perhaps the best that can be hoped for would be his movement toward a Cuba “opened to property and profit… managed by a dictatorship of the Party and the military,” i.e., the Chinese model.