The enduring links between America and Cuba
By J. Chambless
A classic Buick on the street in Havana.
By Gene Pisasale
This is the third in a three-part series inspired by a Smithsonian Tour of Cuba my wife and I took in April 2017, where we visited Ernest Hemingway’s home, his favorite bars, the quaint fishing village of Cojimar and other sites.
Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25, 2016 at the age of 90 after ruling Cuba for almost five decades. During his reign, Castro turned Cuba into a Marxist-Communist dictatorship, with a centrally planned economy and nationalization of virtually every industry and small business.
After relations with the United States soured in 1961 and the embargo ensued, Castro’s alliance with the Soviets was his lifeline for a sustaining economy. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s economy went into a major depression, causing GDP to contract by well over 25 percent, a time Castro termed the “Special Period.”
Many years of economic hardship ensued, when citizens were near starvation, crime and prostitution rampant and the nation nearly collapsed into the abyss. There’s a sculpture today on the streets of Havana which marks this plunge into despair, symbolized by a girl prostitute offering her services for food. Cuba today is far different from the one Ernest Hemingway knew and loved.
In recent years, relations between the U.S. and Cuba have thawed. Closed for more than 50 years, on July 20, 2015, the U.S. “interests section” in Havana was officially upgraded to its former status as a fully-operating embassy.
Our April 2017 visit to the embassy was enlightening. The U.S. representative spoke in tentative language, noting that the changes were so new that developments were difficult to estimate. He mentioned that life in the country presented many challenges, including limited access to basic foodstuffs like milk and spices, admitting he was certain of being monitored by the Cuban government “24 hours a day,” which would have shocked Ernest Hemingway had he remained there, rather than leaving in July 1960.
These recent developments contrast with the genuine affection many Cubans have for Americans. In all our travels around Cuba, we and members of our tour group were greeted cordially by the locals. Cubans are a hearty, proud and resilient people. Whether you are on a tour bus, in one of the classic cars for a cruise, or walking the streets on your own, you will experience a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. The country -- at least to most Americans -- will appear to be in a time warp. You can see hundreds of automobiles from the 1940s and 1950s on the streets.
Hemingway’s legacy lives on in more places than just his books. The Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament was established by him in 1950 and continues today, based out of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana. True to form, Hemingway won the first three. Typically held in May or June of each year, the tournament is now the highlight of Cuba’s fishing events, attracting anglers from more than 30 countries.
Hemingway waited nearly his entire life for a major literary award recognizing his achievements. On May 4, 1953, he got it. The Old Man and the Sea earned him the Pulitzer Prize and a $500 grant. A year and a half later, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Prize in literature to the author. The achievement this time for Hemingway was notably more lucrative -- $36,000, a gold medal and a diploma.
Because of health issues, Hemingway could not attend the Nobel award ceremony, but his acceptance statement, called the “Banquet Speech,” resonated with many of the insights he had gained over his long writing career:
“Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes … but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten,” he wrote. “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness, but I doubt if they improve his writing … For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment … then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed … It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.”
During his lifetime, Hemingway published seven novels, six short story collections and two works of non-fiction. Many of these, notably The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, received high praise from critics and readers around the world. Several other works were published posthumously. Some of Hemingway’s short stories, including “Big Two-Hearted River” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” are rated among the finest written in the 20th century.
Hemingway considered himself a Cuban son. Speaking of the Nobel Prize, he said it “belongs to Cuba, because my works were created and conceived in Cuba, in my village of Cojimar, of which I am a citizen.”
He donated his Nobel medal to the Virgin de Cobre, patron saint of Cuban fishermen, a group he included himself in. He loved the country and felt himself a part of it. Cuba inspired him and prompted Hemingway to produce the writings for which he will be remembered. With his body of work, Hemingway showed the world that he was willing to go beyond where other writers had gone, out past where he felt safe, drifting on the uncharted waters of the Gulf Stream, to achieve something that would become immortal.
Every visitor to Cuba who tours his beloved home, the Finca Vigia, spends time at his favorite watering hole, El Floridita, strolls along the seaside in Cojimar and dines at his favorite restaurant, La Terraza, will come away with a much richer understanding of Hemingway, Cuba and the Great Blue River.
Gene Pisasale is an historian,
author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His nine books focus
mostly on American history. His new book, “Hemingway, Cuba and the
Great Blue River,” details the many places Hemingway loved in and
around the island nation. For more information, visit
www.GenePisasale.com or e-mail Gene@GenePisasale.com.