Hemingway and Cuba

February 12
Dateline: Hemingway’s Havana

Long before we began planning for our Cuban trip, I knew that Ernest Hemingway had lived in Cuba and had written one of his most famous books, The Old Man and the Sea, about a lone Cuban fisherman battling to catch the big one while dreaming about lions in Africa and the great Joe DiMaggio. But I had no idea of  how important Papa Hemingway was, and still is, to the Cuban people. Clearly, he is the most revered American on the island. And it has been that way for six decades.

Our writer-in-residence Tom Miller told us tonight in his talk to prepare us for the several Hemingway sites we’ll see tomorrow that the myth about Hemingway “has outstripped the reality.”

“The Cubans venerate him. This was before, during, and after the revolution.” Miller said. “They like him because he was for the working class and anti-intellectual.”

Cubans are a people who love to read and Hemingway is definitely one of their favorite authors. Every school child reads The Old Man and the Sea, sometimes in both Spanish and English. The story of reading in Cuba is remarkable.

In 1960, less than a year after their victory, Fidel Castro and his government decided to wipe out illiteracy. They recruited 120,000 volunteer teachers, most of them young high school students. Armed with only books and Coleman-style gas lanterns, the volunteers entered the most remote areas, teaching peasants of all ages to read. Within a short period of time, Cuba’s literacy rate rose to 97% and it has been near that ever since.
A few years ago, Miller, who learned his craft writing for alternative weeklies in the Southwest and Rolling Stone magazine, was working on a story about Hemingway and Cuba. “I was out on the Malecon at 5:30 in the morning and I ran into Humberto, a 34-year-old fisherman. I asked him if he knew about Hemingway. He began reciting the 1st lines of The Old Man and the Sea in Spanish from memory.  He said it as if he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”

For his part, Hemingway returned the adoration he received from his beloved islanders. In 1959, the author announced he wanted his Nobel Prize for Literature to remain in Cuba. “Don’t give it to the Cuban government, give it to the Cuban people,” he said. In 1988, that medal was stolen. After it was recovered, it was placed in the hands of the Catholic church for safe-keeping. Several years later, a documentary was being made about Hemingway featuring his granddaughter, Muriel. Miller was part of the project. Arriving in the town of Santiago, the film crew found that the medal had been stored in a priest’s desk for safekeeping. Miller said he asked if he could hold the medal “I was in a daze,” he said. “I never dreamed of receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature and here I was holding Hemingway’s.” His reverie was broken by a laughing Muriel who said “OK, Tom. That is enough.”

n addition to Hemingway’s home, which has been preserved as a national tourist attraction, Hemingway fans from all over the world also want to visit the Havana hotels where he stayed and the bars where he downed his mojitos and daiquiris. That is especially true for would-be writers hoping for some of that Hemingway word magic. “They think Hemingway drank here so I’ll drink here. Maybe I can write like Hemingway,” Miller said. “Trust me. It doesn’t work.” 

At the conclusion of his talk, Miller supplied some details about where we would be eating, the paladar La Guardia.  A paladar is a privately-operated Cuban restaurant, a type of operation which is in the forefront of Cuban economic change. Once, paladars were limited to being able to seat only 12 diners and all workers had to be members of the same family. Now, however, under loosened restrictions, the restaurants have been expanded and are being operated by a growing number of great Cuban chefs and cooks.

La Guardia is the most well-known paladar in all of Cuba, primarily because its was a setting for the Cuban film Strawberries and Chocolate.  The restaurant perfectly captures the dichotomy that is Cuba. We had to climb up several flights of stairs in what could most kindly be described as a run-down tenement. However, once inside the restaurant, we were greeted with views of elegance and beauty and food of great taste.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

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