What’s in a name you might ponder? Well, to be someone really important in Cuba it’s a big advantage if you’re called Ernest. Restaurants, hotels and bars the world over claim Ernest Hemingway’s patronage, though Havana is the real deal. The American author lived here from 1939 to 1960…plenty of time in which to drink, fish, get abusive and write a few novels. In 1940 Hemingway bought Finca Vigia, a small farm on a hill a few kilometres outside of Havana, and immediately set about making his presence felt. As World War II spread beyond the frontiers of Europe, Papa went hammering on the door of the American ambassador to Cuba, volunteering to investigate the former members of the Spanish Falange (supporters of Nazi-Germany), who had left Spain for Cuba after the Spanish civil war. Why allow such coercive forces on the doorstep of the US, he quite rightly reasoned. At the height of his literary fame, Hemingway established an amateur but extensive information service, recruiting his own band of merry agents, an operation which became known as the Crook Factory, no doubt for the assortment of characters he employed, a network of priests, waiters, fisherman, whores, pimps and bums. He supplied weekly reports to Robert Joyce, Second Secretary at the US embassy though, much like Wormold, Graham Greene’s fictional vacuum cleaner salesman-cum-secret agent in Our Man In Havana, their content was noted as being in the range of mildly interesting to utter garbage. In his comings and goings as self-appointed sleuth Hemingway stomped on the toes of the FBI agents roaming Cuba, who disliked him intensely, accused him of being a “commie” and would no doubt have shot him in the back had the author and his wife, Mary, not been so famous and well connected to the US Establishment. Undeterred by a rabble of FBI stooges his next idea was to go patrolling in his yacht Pilar, in order to track the movements of German submarines operating in the Caribbean. Friends who accompanied him on such perilous voyages described them as nothing more than an amusing day’s sport-fishing, the whole event washed down with a cool box or two of chilled beers. For me the opportunity of visiting Hemingway’s house is a big moment in my visit to Cuba. It’s a chance to take a peek into his life, for many of his personal things were left in the house when he departed for the US. I admit that I’m more captivated by Hemingway the legend than by Hemingway the writer, though I rank The Old Man and The Sea, for which he won the Pulitzer prize in May 1952, as one of my all-time favourite stories. I savour the moment as I walk up the steps to the open front door of this most famous of writers. Surely everybody, even if they haven’t read one of his books, has heard of Papa Hemingway. But not so. A small group of Japanese tourists follow closely behind me. Amongst them a fellow is snapping everything in sight with his drainpipe-sized lens…clearly a Hemingway aficionado. As I make way for him to peer into the house he lowers the camera and turns to his guide, saying, ‘So, tell me: who was this guy?’
A second important “Ernest” to feature in Cuba’s recent history is of course Ernesto Che Guevara and our arrival in Cuba is something of a poignant moment for us, for we’ve been following in Che’s footsteps throughout our journey in the Americas. Ernesto Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina on the 14th June 1926. In Alta Gracia we visited Villa Nydia (now a Che Guevara museum), where Che’s family moved in the hope that the drier climate would help the young Guevara’s chronic asthma. In Argentina’s lake district we followed in the path of his 1951 motorcycle expedition where, on the road to Bariloche, he suffered kick-starter problems, struggled to mend a puncture and shot his host’s dog, mistaking the poor creature for a puma. Later, we pursued the Ruta del Che through the Bolivian mountains, the place chosen by Che and his band of guerillas to foment his war to liberate the Americas from US imperialism, ultimately leading to his capture and execution in the wind-blown village of La Higuera. Buried in an unmarked grave in Bolivia, the remains of Che and a number of his fellow combatants were uncovered in July 1997, after an extensive search. Later that year the remains were brought to Cuba and buried in a specially built mausoleum in Santa Clara, a city in which Che had commanded his fighters in a decisive victory against the US-backed Batista regime, heralding a significant change in the fortunes of Cuba. In the early hours of 1st January 1959 President Fulgencio Batista boarded a private plane and fled the country; Castro’s fighters had won. Following the success of Castro’s revolution Che was appointed several key roles, not least the governor of the national bank. It’s said that when one of Castro’s aides asked, ‘Is there an economist in the room?’ Che immediately stuck up his hand, believing the question to have been, ‘Is there a communist in the room?’ They were so in awe of him no one had the courage to turn him down. Our arrival in Cuba has effectively concluded our Ruta del Che…although, hang on a minute, didn’t he go to the Congo in 1965, offering his guerilla expertise to the Marxist Simba movement? Uhm…perhaps we’ll give the Congo a miss!
IMAGES OF HAVANA