The bar in the re-opened Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. is named Hemingway. This isn’t because Ernest Hemingway was a prodigious drinker, although that helps. Fidel and Rául Castro have been exploiting the writer’s love for Cuba for decades, and Bar Hemingway is just the latest—and most political—instance of the Castros’ appropriation of Ernest Hemingway’s legacy.
Since ousting the authoritarian Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the Castro regime has been in steady need of cash and credibility. Hemingway was and remains internationally legendary, and a cultural touchstone between the U.S. and Cuba. And his legacy is lucrative, perhaps nowhere as in Cuba where he spent the better part of 20 years beginning in 1939. Today more than ever Hemingway is a major theme in the Cuban tourist experience.
The ineluctable fact is Ernest Hemingway died before Fidel Castro declared himself and the revolution he led to be communist. Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961. Six months later on December 2, 1961, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist. Love Hemingway or hate him, no existing fact supersedes this one to justify the Castros’ appropriation of Hemingway’s legacy to benefit their communist cause.
Hemingway’s legacy is susceptible because Hemingway was, according to Kenneth Kinnamon in the Cambridge Companion to Hemingway, “not a consistent political thinker” and “did not adhere to a systematic political theory.” Hemingway’s chief concern was himself. Furthermore, in his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson points out Hemingway had a long history of lying, including in the cultivation of his own mythic persona. In a sense, the Castros’ haven’t done anything to Hemingway’s legacy that Hemingway didn’t do himself. Of course this doesn’t make the appropriation right.
The author of Old Man and The Sea lived much of those two decades on an estate he owned outside Havana named Finca Vigía or “Lookout Farm.” When he wasn’t writing, Hemingway fished, kept up a complicated love life, drank scary amounts of alcohol, and hunted German subs off the coast from his fishing boat The Pilar.
Nowadays when you go to Cuba, you do the Hemingway thing. Start with mojitos at La Bodeguita and daiquiris at El Flodidita. One of the Castro-controlled monopolies owns the latter and installed a statue of the writer, which is a popular photo op. The room he kept at Hotel Ambos Mundos is kept up and you can see it for a fee.
The marina where he moored The Pilar now bears Hemingway’s name, and hosts a bust of Hemingway made from old melted-down boat props. If you’re lucky you get to hold his Nobel Prize medal. And you visit Finca Vigía, which despite visitors not being allowed to enter the house, remains one of the most visited attractions in Cuba.
Fidel and Ernest met once in May 1960 at a fishing tournament. There is some indication Hemingway was worried Castro might confiscate his beloved Finca Vigía, but witnesses reported nothing important was said between the men. The photo taken of them that day is ubiquitous.
A second-hand account exists that “right after the revolution” Hemingway drank daiquiris while watching Che Guevara’s firing squad execute political prisoners. The account is uncorroborated since it came out in 2009, and therefore fails to establish a sufficient link. This would sully Hemingway’s legacy for the Castro regime, so if there was any evidence on their end, it is likely destroyed.
The revelation that Hemingway did a stint as a NKVD spy is true, but was assessed and dismissed by the CIA. The NKVD was apparently not the only agency Hemingway had stepped into, toe-deep anyway, in an attempt to be a real spy. “We are left with the irony that four organizations that could not agree on much—the NKVD, OSS, FBI, and Department of State—all arrived separately at the same conclusion: Ernest Hemingway may have wanted to be a spy, but he never lived up to his potential.”
According to the polemic writer Humberto Fontova, Hemingway said in 1960, “Castro’s revolution is very pure and beautiful. I’m encouraged by it. The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time.” The timing of the uncited quote doesn’t do much to incriminate Hemingway. In 1960 the revolution hadn’t been declared communist and there were defensible grounds for optimism.
In 1990, the human rights journalist Jacobo Timerman wrote, “With the exception of the worship of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, no worship is promoted more in Cuba than the worship of Ernest Hemingway.” Timerman continues, “Although it’s never stated explicitly, the tourist gets the impression that Hemingway supported Fidel Castro, that the writer is part of the Revolution,” but “the regime never managed to establish a solid link between Hemingway and Castroism.”
Those who knew Hemingway’s Cuba are put off by Cuba’s Hemingway today. Writing in 2007 after a trip to island, Valerie Hemingway, briefly Papa’s secretary in Cuba and later married to one of his sons, said “The Hemingway I encountered on my ten-day visit was both more benign and more Cuban than the one I knew…there seemed almost a proprietary interest in him, as if, with the yawning rift between the United States and Cuba, the appropriation of the American author gave his adopted country both solace and a sense of one-upmanship.”
She spoke to a British impresario familiar with Cuba. He reported the irony that “Cuba sells the image of Cuba in the ‘50s the whole time while rejecting its values.” Hemingway is undoubtedly the central figure of that image.
The Cuban people genuinely love Hemingway. He and Mary endeared themselves to the Cubans they hired and knew. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to the Cuban people because the book that won it, The Old Man and The Sea, draws heavily on Hemingway’s experience in Cuba. However, nowhere in the Cuban government’s portrayal of the Hemingways will you read about how Mary helped René Villarreal, longtime staffer at Finca Vigía, leave Cuba for New Jersey as reported by Valerie Hemingway.
Hemingway left Cuba in mid 1960 expecting to go back. His health and worsening relations between the U.S. and Cuba prevented that. After Bay of Pigs in April 1961, President Kennedy arranged for Hemingway’s wife to return to Cuba where she gathered as many paintings and papers as she could. Hemingway shot himself three months later in Ketchum, Idaho.
Finca Vigía was either given to the Cuban government or confiscated, depending on whom you believe. It was more or less shuttered as the Hemingways left it, full of a trove of papers and artifacts including a 9,000-book library.
After decades of neglect, the Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation made a deal with the Castro regime to save Hemingway’s house. The Foundation raised $860,000 for renovation supplies that had to be purchased in America and shipped to Cuba because basic building supplies are not readily available on the island. In exchange for allowing an American foundation to underwrite the cost of salvaging one of their most popular tourist sites, the foundation is allowed to send facsimiles of papers and marginalia back to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
At the re-opening ceremony of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. in July, Cuban Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabañas refreshed the Hemingway connection in a clever and misleading statement: “He will be present in that moment when we raise our flag and build our relations. He had a contribution of this day.” In other words, Hemingway tourism is part of new U.S.-Cuba relations and Hemingway would have wanted this. He’s our man, Cabañas is saying. Although Hemingway was generally leftist in the 20th century, he was stalwartly independent. Papa wasn’t really anyone’s man except his own.