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Why Hemingway still matters to Cubans

John Zarrella

By John Zarrella
CNN Correspondent

July 21, 1999
Web posted at: 11:06 a.m. EDT (1506 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

To drink where Hemingway drank

An ironic revolutionary

A man's man, and a friend

HAVANA (CNN) -- Only when the sun is at its midday highest are there no shadows cast.

The old buildings rise up on either side of the narrow streets like steep canyon walls. Drying clothes hang off rusting balcony railings that overlook the maze of streets that are Old Havana.

The old and young sit and stand in doorways without doors that are entrances to labyrinthine apartment buildings. A mother walking her son from school pushes up against a building as a car makes its way by. The squeeze is tight.

You wonder if Old Havana, "Habana Vieja" in Spanish, is much different than when Ernest Hemingway caroused here some 40-plus years ago.

To drink where Hemingway drank

On one nondescript street, the sounds of music and laughter resonate off the building walls. Even before you get to the source of the commotion, you can hear ice tumbling into glasses.

La Bodeguita de Medio is a bar and restaurant. The interior is cut from stone like the catacombs of ancient Christendom.

Mojitos, a drink with rum and mint, appreciated by Hemingway and modern-day tourists alike   

It's no wonder this was one of Hemingway's favorite watering holes. He came here for the atmosphere and the mojitos, a Cuban drink made with rum and mint and lots of sugar.

Now, tourists strawberried from the sun pack the bar stools to drink mojitos. To go home and say they drank where Hemingway drank. To say they drank what Hemingway drank.

An ironic revolutionary

A few years ago, on a trip to Havana, Hemingway's granddaughter Mariel said her grandfather was one of the three icons of Cuba.

"There is Che and Fidel and my grandfather," she said.

There is an irony here. Che Guevara was a revolutionary. So is Fidel Castro. Hemingway cared little for politics. But Mariel is right about her grandfather's place in history here. He is everywhere.

A few blocks from La Bodeguita is another popular spot, La Floridita. On the walls of the restaurant are pictures of the author with actors Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy. The house drink: daiquiris. What Hemingway drank when he stopped here.

In Cuba, the name Hemingway is good for business. Everywhere he drank or ate or slept is a tourist stop.

There is a marina named after him. A hotel at the marina is named after his novel "El Viejo y el Mar," "The Old Man and the Sea." For $3, tourists can tour room 511 in the Ambos Mundos Hotel.

Hemingway lived here for awhile, and here they say he wrote another of his novels, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

In communist Cuba, Hemingway inspires good old-fashioned capitalism.

A man's man, and a friend

But it is clear that in Cuba, Hemingway means far more than just a way to make a dollar.

Gregorio Fuentes
'Capitan' Gregorio Fuentes shares memories of Hemingway   

The old timers will tell you he was a great man, a wonderful man. He was certainly larger than life. He was, as they say, a man's man. And in Latin culture, that's important.

Why he has become one of the most singularly recognizable figures here is difficult to say. Perhaps he represents a time and spirit that no longer exists here except in the vintage American cars of the 1940s and 1950s that still fill the streets of Havana.

"I will always miss him," says Gregorio Fuentes. Gregorio knew Hemingway perhaps better than anyone here. He was Hemingway's boat captain. The main character in "The Old Man and the Sea" is said to be based at least in part on Gregorio Fuentes.

Gregorio just turned 102 years old. When I interviewed him last month, Gregorio wore an old fishing hat, the word "Capitan" stitched across the front. He met Hemingway in 1928. The two men fished together, went on safari together in Africa and, during World War II, patrolled the Cuban coast in Hemingway's boat for German submarines.

Hemingway's boat
Hemingway's boat Pilar   

The last time Gregorio saw Hemingway, he says, Hemingway told him, "Listen to me. Take care of yourself as you've done, as well as take care of my Pilar as you've been doing."

The Pilar was Hemingway's boat. In the writer's will, he left it to Gregorio. After Hemingway's death, Gregorio says people always called offering large sums of money to fish with him on the Pilar. Gregorio says he always refused.

Gregorio lights a cigar and puffs as he recounts what happened next to the boat. He went to see Fidel Castro, he says. Hemingway and Castro met once at a fishing tournament. There are pictures of that at the marina.

Gregorio says he asked Castro to help him preserve the boat. "'Where would you like to take it?' he asked me. And I replied to him, 'To his home.' And so we did it."

The boat now sits at Finca Vigia, the writer's home in Cuba turned museum.

Hemingway's Cuban home
Hemingway's home in Cuba is now a museum   

Gregorio and I met for our interview at the La Terraza restaurant, just up the street from Gregorio's home in the seaside town of Cojimar.

From here Gregorio and Hemingway often set out to sea. On a street that runs along the water across from an old Spanish fortress there is a monument.

Sitting in the middle of a circular base surrounded by stone columns is a statue of Ernest Hemingway gazing out across the ocean he loved so much.

It was built by the people of Cojimar to honor the man they called Papa. A man they knew as a friend.


More CNN correspondent analysis -- find by dateline
  • y: archives -- United States
  • y: archives -- The Americas

CNN In-Depth Specials: A Hemingway Retrospective

CNN en Español

Ernest Hemingway Museum in Cuba
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West

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