Indie rock statesman Ian Svenonius on why he loves Fidel Castro

Indie rock statesman Ian Svenonius on why he loves Fidel Castro

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: Onetime Sassiest Boy In America Ian Svenonius has been breaking hearts and musical boundaries since 1988, when he teamed up with some Washington, D.C., pals to form Nation Of Ulysses. The highly animated and highly political punk band released two albums before disbanding in 1992, and Svenonius went on to form and absolutely destroy as the frontman of a number of other bands, including The Make-Up, Weird War, Scene Creamers, and Chain And The Gang, whose latest record, Minimum Rock N Roll, is out now on Radical Elite.

Svenonius has also written a number of articles about political action, including a recent screed against tipping, and published a book of 19 essays, The Psychic Soviet, in 2006.

The fanned: Fidel Castro

The A.V. Club: Why do you like Fidel Castro?

Ian Svenonius: Part of it is probably astrological, because my moon sign is a Leo and, emotionally, I think I have a lot of empathy for Fidel Castro and his approach, because he’s a Leo. If your moon sign is in Leo, you have a lot of empathy for Leos. You empathize with their approach and their aims and their aura, but I also like him because maybe there’s some perversity.

I don’t like the triumphalism of the American narrative, this kind of “chosen people” complex that American people have, so it’s inspiring to see people snub their noses at the American empire and succeed.

Some people prefer Daniel Ortega or some elected official but, ultimately, you look at Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, and they were offended by the Americans and the CIA when they went in and destroyed the revolution, but Castro was successful. That was attractive to me, because he was a winner. People love Che Guevara, because he’s the martyr for the revolution, but I love Fidel because he was the winner of the revolution.

He beat the Americans; he beat them at the Bay Of Pigs, he sent the Cuban army to Angola. He also defeated the racist army of apartheid and Nelson Mandela credited him more than anyone as being responsible for the end of apartheid.

Then you’ve got the look. Fidel Castro’s look was fantastic and he always looked great from the beginning. They were called the “bearded ones.” The story of the Cuban Revolution is that Castro tried to overthrow the American-backed dictatorship that was kind of a front for U.S. multinational [companies] like United Fruit. Cuba was, essentially, a plantation for American corporations, and it was also a place that the mafia had major investments in with prostitution and gambling. There’s a lot of nostalgia for pre-revolution Cuba because it was all whorehouses and gambling, all really close to America. It was also segregated so, for a lot of American racists, they missed that kind of racist segregation that was happening down there. Also, because privilege is a succulent fruit, a lot of the moneyed Cubans are very nostalgic for this era because of the privilege that they lost.

Anyway, Castro started the revolution, and he was thrown in prison and he wrote this brilliant essay, “History Will Absolve Me.” That’s a great title: “History Will Absolve Me.” As a rock ’n’ roller, most rock ’n’ roll bands labor in a kind of half-life of neglect and disinterest, so we all look to somebody like The Velvet Underground as inspiration. Nobody cared about the Velvet Underground, but now everybody gets it. So Castro’s essay really resonates for the rock ’n’ roller. “History will absolve me. You might think I’m insane, but history will absolve me.”

So anyway, Castro gets out of prison, goes to Mexico, meets Che Guevara and they decide to invade Cuba with just 40 people. They’re invading the island with 40 people and their boat crashes. They’re chased into the mountains and they wage this guerrilla war with a distinct look. Again, as a rock and roller that also resonates because it’s like, “Wow!’ These guys are fighting,” and it fits right in with the rock and roll narrative of this little gang against the world, or against an unjust system.

So then Castro comes into Havana on January 1, 1959, with the triumphant Barbudos, the bearded revolutionaries. The crowd is looking on and he gives this historic speech in Revolution Plaza and this white dove lands on his shoulder. From there, there’s this rumor that he’s protected by Shango, the Yoruba god.

Another cool thing about Fidel Castro is that the CIA and the mafia—which are both terrible organizations that tried to murder him again and again—haven’t succeeded.

AVC: Well, not that we know of. He did die.

IS: True. His body may have been sabotaged. We don’t know, but for 50 years they were trying to kill him and they couldn’t.

We live in a unipolar world at this point with America as a moral arbiter and the whole morality is based on this insane corporatocracy. We’re fucking with people in Syria, we’re fucking with people in Ukraine, we’re fucking with people all over the world and sending them drone missiles. What the world needs is active players to fuck with other things. With Castro, they say he had Che Guevara in the Congo and that, with his help, he supported all of these revolutions, even though he was just Cuba. It would have been considered a third-world country, but they were active participants in the drama halfway across the globe

AVC: He had the support of the USSR, though.

IS: He definitely did. Khrushchev loved Castro. I’d like to know what Khrushchev’s sign was.

AVC: A lot of people don’t like Castro. A lot of people fled Cuba and came to America, citing human rights violations.

IS: A lot of people come to America all the time for economic opportunities. This country is this huge work farm and you can make a lot of money here. America is great and there are a lot of great things about it. But, you know, when a Cuban refugee gets a lot of help, it’s great. But a Haitian refugee wouldn’t get a lot of help. If a Cuban refugee is escaping, we’re saying they’re a political refugee, but why isn’t a Haitian refugee a political refugee? They’re escaping the capitalism and degradation of economic imperialism. We don’t call them political refugees; we call them unfortunate people.

AVC: Castro’s sister left Cuba, calling it “a prison surrounded by water.”

IS: Fidel’s probably an unpleasant person and that’s fine, because everybody is entitled to their opinion. But ever since Star Wars, Americans love and consider themselves these great anti-authoritarians and we look to identify with the rebels across the globe.

AVC: Is Castro the rebel or are the people that left the rebels?

IS: Castro. Maybe [Castro’s sister] is like a Princess Leia figure and Castro would be the Darth Vader. But, that being said, Castro’s sister—hell, I have siblings who hate me too.

AVC: It’s funny that you identify him so much with music and being a rock ’n’ roller, because supposedly he didn’t really like or understand music very much.

IS: What is music in America? It’s this stand-in for political action in a lot of senses. We have no democracy and we have no art culture, and we’ve long considered politics nebbish-y and hopelessly unsexy. So a lot of what would be considered political activism is channeled into cultural work.

AVC: Do you think there could be an American version of Castro who really shakes things up here?

IS: No, because there’s no real nationalism in this county. If you’re poor in America, that’s a criminal offense. You’re not only a criminal for being poor, but you’re also stupid and deficient. We don’t have this national feeling of fraternity. We live in an individualist state where everyone hates everyone else, except your immediate family. We live in a mafia state.

I wanted to talk about Fidel Castro, because I can see America slobbering over this strip of land, because communism is really ecologically not degraded or destroyed. There’s a lot of species of animals that only exist in Cuba because, in this country, capitalism insists that every single resource be exploited and destroyed for immediate financial gain. When a capitalist looks at the river, all they can think about is, “How can I pollute this river and destroy it and make money from it?” Right? In a culture that isn’t obsessed with making money, maybe a river can just be a river. So maybe the communist can just look at the river and say, “A river… to swim in.”

The point is that America is slobbering over this strip of land, Cuba, because all we see in it is this great investment opportunity to rape and pillage. You can see the advance guard going in with Beyoncé and Jay Z as minions of the ruling class. Not minions, but representatives. They’re like the little reconnaissance unit going down to check it out and snoop around.

AVC: You’ve said Castro’s probably not a nice guy. People are going to look at this article and say, “How can you like him? He’s done some terrible stuff!” But you understand that. It seems like you’re saying, “he did some bad stuff, but we all did some bad stuff. He also did some good stuff and I like him for the good stuff.” Is that accurate?

IS: Actually, I do think he’s probably a nice guy. I just think he’d probably be pretty overbearing. He’s a Leo and he probably just talks too much. But Nelson Mandela loved him. Nelson Mandela was considered a public enemy of the United States. They tried to murder him and Castro’s Cuba was the only country that tried to arm the AMC because they were true internationalists. They were fundamental in the decolonization of the globe, and that was the great movement of the 20th century.

Without Castro, we’re re-colonizing the globe. They have this new U.S. military thing in Africa and they’re trying to extend NATO into Ukraine, so we’re talking about major re-colonization of the globe, not to mention these new methods of colonization like the Internet. It’s an unhappy time in that sense, because there was this movement toward emancipation and that movement’s greatest asset was Fidel Castro.

AVC: Do you think there’s another Castro bubbling under somewhere in another country?

IS: Well, Chavez, but they killed him.


More Fan Up