In Cuba, they remember Hemingway better than ever

HAVANA — Havana -- AT 93, Gregorio Fuentes is the guardian of a priceless treasure: He is the only man alive in Cuba who knew Hemingway well.

For years, Fuentes has been revered in Cuba for being the courageous fisherman immortalized in Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." Martha Gellhorn, one of Hemingway's former wives, has called Fuentes "the only link to my Cuban past and the only Cuban repository of Hemingway lore."


Now old age is playing tricks on Fuentes. He hasn't been the same since his wife, Dolores, died in October, and his once-clear memories of his rich 40-year friendship with the American novelist are becoming more inextricably intertwined with Cuba's pastiche of political folklore.

Fortunately, Cuban historians have exhaustively recorded the recollections of Fuentes in more lucid moments, with the ample support of the socialist state.


Cuba, which has elevated the cult of personality to new heights, is carefully dusting off one of Havana's richest and most neglected modern legends: Hemingway in Cuba. The leftist government is making his legacy a cornerstone of a new cash-earner, tourism.

Just before the $104 million Pan American Games began Aug. 2, tourist officials reopened La Floridita bar and restaurant, an old Hemingway haunt that had been closed for restoration. Visitors crowd the bar, sipping the famous house invention, the daiquiri. Bartenders are happy to custom-blend the icy rum drink with mangos or any other tropical delight on hand.

Buses take tourists to the Hemingway Museum at the writer's restored former home, the Finca Vigia, in the village of San Francisco de Paula on the outskirts of Havana. Hemingway spent most of the last 20 years of his life in the villa, writing, fishing and entertaining.

The centerpiece of the official Hemingway commercial empire is the Marina Hemingway, a lavish new tourist complex on Havana's west side that is a devoted center of Hemingway history, some of it rewritten. A few years ago, tourist officials relocated the annual Ernest Hemingway Marlin Tournament, 41 years old, to the Marina, though its original home was the international fishing club in Havana harbor.

The current Hemingway nostalgia was stoked last year by the release of "Hello Hemingway," a Cuban movie about the recollections of a Cuban who as a poor, barefoot child, before the 1959 Revolution, knew the novelist.

If socialist Cuba had enshrined Hemingway to this degree before they commercialized him, there is little evidence. There is an Ernest Hemingway library branch in Marianao district, but most of Cuba's hospitals, schools and public buildings bear the names of past or present revolutionary martyrs.

The bronze bust of Hemingway that looks out to sea at Cojimar was erected by Fuentes and other working men of the town. And most historians say there is no evidence that Hemingway and Fidel Castro met more than once before the writer's death in Idaho in 1961.

That meeting took place in May 1960, when Hemingway awarded Castro the individual championship at the Hemingway marlin contest. Photos show a very young Castro, standing alongside an aging "Papa" Hemingway with a snowy beard.


By the time of the encounter, Hemingway was nearing the end of a long era when his villa had served as both a refuge from his exploits and as a stage for two marriages and some of the best times of his life.

"They had great parties. So many women, movie stars, beauties, came to see him. He would fight about it all the time with his wife," Fuentes recalled, adding: "But he was not a womanizer."

It was at the Finca Vigia that Hemingway wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls," a book which Castro said helped him learn guerrilla warfare tactics. It was also there that he wrote "The Old Man and the Sea," a novella that helped him win a Nobel Prize for literature. Most historians say the Old Man, Santiago, was actually a composite of several fishermen.