Podcast

Cuba Present And Past: Patrick Symmes, T.J. English

Patrick Symmes

Journalist Patrick Symmes talks about living on $15 dollars a month in Cuba. His article in the October Harper’s is “Thirty Days as a Cuban: Pinching pesos and dropping pounds in Havana.” And we air a 2008 interview with T.J. English about HAVANA NOCTURNE. It’s about how the Mob took over Havana and lost it to the Revolution.

In September, Fidel Castro told an American journalist the Cuban model doesn’t work anymore and said the system needed changing. He backtracked on his remarks a few days later, but then, a week later, the Cuban government announced it would be laying off half a million workers and encouraging the growth of small businesses. It was a momentous shift toward allowing private enterprise in what has been a tightly controlled state economy since the Revolution in 1959.

I first visited Cuba in 1970. I went with a group of about 100 young Americans who wanted to show their support for the Cuban revolution by cutting sugar cane in the big harvest. It was called the Venceremos Brigade.

At that time all Cubans had enough to eat, prostitution was non-existent, and most people had too much money, not too little. With housing, health care and education free, a ration system that provided adequate food and not a whole lot of consumer goods to buy, money wasn’t a problem.

But then the Soviet Union collapsed. And Cuba lost the billions in aid that had been propping up its economy when the US embargo choked off trade. It was the Special Period, when people really went hungry.

Then Cuba opened up its doors to foreign tourists and their currency. The Cuban economy split in two, between those who had access to dollars and those who had only Cuban pesos. It means that now, about 80% of Cubans struggle to make ends meet.


Journalist Patrick Symmes decided to find out what it was like to live on the wages of a Cuban journalist, about $15 US dollars a month. It wasn’t easy. He spent most of his time scrounging for food and lost 11.5 pounds in the process. His story, “Thirty Days As A Cuban,” is in the October 2010 issue of Harper’s.

Patrick Symmes writes about Latin America and other topics for Harper’s, Outside, and Condé Nast Traveler among others. He’s also the author of THE BOYS FROM DOLORES, about what happened to Fidel Castro’s own schoolmates, and CHASING CHE.

Read “Thirty Days As A Cuban”

While making ends meet isn’t easy for an ordinary Cuban today, it’s a lot easier than it was before the Revolution. Health care, education and decent housing were out of reach for most Cubans. The brutal regime of Fulgencio Batista kept the peace for the comfort of American corporations like United Fruit and the Cuban elite. And also for the Mafia. TJ English wrote about the Mafia’s plundering of Havana and how the revolution ended it in his book Havana Nocturne. I spoke with him about it in 2008.

Read an excerpt from Havana Nocturne

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About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca Rheannon is an award-winning independent radio producer. In addition to hosting Writer's Voice, she's a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and its affiliates. Recipient of the prestigious Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for reporting on substance abuse issues for her news series, VOICES OF HIV, produced for 88.5 WFCR public radio in western Massachusetts. She is also finishing a book on Provence (PROVINCE OF THE HEART) and working on a memoir of her father, THE ARGONAUTS.

One thought on “Cuba Present And Past: Patrick Symmes, T.J. English

  1. I think Patrick Symmes it’s full of bolony (bs). I am a colombian and you as a foreigner can walk the city of Bogota without any fear. And in reference of Cuba I’m sure he’s lying, I know Cuba as of today and the country is changing for the better and most of his writting is false. Probably that’s the way he makes his money, if he writes the real thing then he we’ll be leaving in the Bronx where there you see real poverty and human humilliation.

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