The Dictator in Prep School

Reviewed by Wendy Gimbel
Sunday, July 8, 2007


Fidel Castro's Classmates From Revolution to Exile

By Patrick Symmes

Pantheon. 352 pp. $26.95

In 1942, at the Colegio de Dolores, the elite Jesuit prep school in Santiago, Cuba, 15-year-old Fidel Castro and his fellow students posed for their class photo at the city's most popular photography studio. Tall, pale, with heavy eyebrows punctuating a round face, Castro looked more like a potential seminarian than a future rebel leader. How strange that, before he reached middle age, this young man would be responsible for the political tsunami that engulfed the island and swept away its most revered institutions.

In The Boys of Dolores, a brilliant, albeit somewhat scattershot and disheveled book about Cuba, Patrick Symmes approaches Castro's revolution through the arched gates of that powerful institution. Students of the prestigious Colegio received enormous benefit from the Jesuits' intellectual rigor. "Ask everybody everything every day," their teachers advised. "A minimum of precept, a maximum of practice," was commonly recommended.

Well connected, white and wealthy, the Dolorinos, as the students were called, had every reason to look forward to predictable futures as pillars of the bourgeoisie. Their social advantages separated them from most Cubans, including their schoolmate Fidel, whose family had plenty of money but was short on pedigree. Angel, Fidel's father, was an illiterate ex-soldier who beat his employees and stole a fortune from United Fruit. (Castro's awareness of these class distinctions must have fostered his resentment of Santiago society.)

At school, Fidel sometimes presented himself as compassionate -- a brooding adolescent who identified with the underdog. Whenever the school's film society showed Hollywood Westerns, the future rebel sided with the losers. Everyone understood that he had no sympathy for the cavalry. He explained to a classmate, "the wrong side won."

Along with his love of mountain-climbing, this boyish commitment to the cause of the oppressed foreshadowed Castro's early days as a romantic guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra. By the time Castro reached the University of Havana, he no longer paid much attention to the plight of cinematic Indians. The innocence of his Santiago youth was gone forever. With a more ambitious, sharper sense of himself he also developed a resolve, which ripened into a will of steel. He was getting closer to the final audition for his great part in Cuban history.

"Everything had been so neat," Symmes reminds us, "before it unraveled." But, alas, the moment did come when traditional Cuban society fell apart. Soon after Castro's triumphant march into Havana, the Jesuits were expelled from Cuba. The Colegio de Dolores became just another school: "The Jesuit mission in Santiago was over. There was no place for an elite in the new Cuba, even an elite of merit."

Shifting among Havana, Santiago, Miami and New York, Symmes collects tales of the exiled Dolorinos. Each narrative increases our understanding of what happened to Cuba. How did Castro drive more than a million Cubans into the limbo of exile? Did Castro's obsession with power finally derail his once idealistic revolution?

Most of the Dolorinos reconciled themselves to leaving the island, returning only in their dreams. Many of the "boys" settled in Florida and dreamed of the lost Cuba of royal palms and sweet, ripe mangos. For the most part, they became solid members of the Miami exile community. They lived modest, quiet lives: One anti-Castro militant almost killed in the Bay of Pigs invasion now practices dentistry; another who retired to Key Biscayne has begun a tragic battle with Alzheimer's; a chemical engineer who arrived with only a dime now preserves that dime in a Lucite frame.

There are no celebrities among the Dolores boys; there's nobody whom the media would love to chase. But that's no loss, since Symmes's subjects supply plenty of human interest. The most famous of the Dolores alumni, Castro apart, was probably Desi Arnaz, who came to the United States in the '30s, played a Cuban band leader on television and married the wacky Lucille Ball.

Symmes is a staccato historian, a storyteller on speed. One minute he's dancing at Santiago's Carnaval, and suddenly he's flying on a rickety plane to an interview in Puerto Rico. Now he's climbing four flights of crumbling stairs in Havana, and, at the Dolorinos' reunion, he's doing an exuberant cha cha cha. But Symmes is also a superb journalist. His interviews with the Dolorinos form a priceless archive of the Cuban diaspora and argue for the importance of the storyteller's art. He evokes the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, who best writes about the fate of those who leave their homeland. An exile has only two possessions, Dorfman believes, the language of his birthplace and the keys to a house that no longer exists .

It's possible, as Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante suggested, to believe that Cuba's leader is none other than a Cyclops, a terrible giant who rules over a forlorn and defeated island. But it's also true that many others see Castro not as a monster but as a romantic revolutionary. For this core of true believers, Castro ransomed Cuba from the clutches of both a corrupt Gen. Batista and the mob's Meyer Lansky. Perhaps, after all, Castro is neither monster nor hero. Maybe he's just a "boy" from Dolores. ยท

Wendy Gimbel, author of "Havana Dreams," writes frequently on cultural affairs.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company