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Ernest Hemingway's Likeness Is Being Used to Sell Tourism in Havana

Avi Davis

Avi Davis

America's literary hero is big business in a country most Americans can't visit.

This story appears in the September Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

For a guy so concerned with his own manliness, Ernest Hemingway ended up with a pretty girly signature drink: the frozen daiquiri. Hemingway might be America's most famous writer, but he lived in Cuba longer than he lived anywhere else, and when he lived there he drank frozen daiquiris at a bar called the Floridita in Old Havana. This past June, I sat in the Floridita, drinking a frozen daiquiri just like everyone else there. It looks more like a 19th-century ballroom than a tavern: lots of fake classical columns and velvet curtains. A team of bartenders in red Floridita-branded aprons churned out about ten daiquiris per minute for the tourist crowd, pouring them into martini glasses and topping them with brightly colored straws. They tasted like alcoholic lemon sorbet.

Hemingway's status as an icon of mid-century intellect and adventure has reached comic levels. In the US, marketers slap his name on cigars (even though he didn't smoke them), Panama hats (though I've never seen a picture of him wearing one), and entire lines of luxury home furnishings. In Cuba, he's used to sell bus tours, fishing trips, and restaurants. But the Cuban Hemingway tourism industry exists in a weird limbo, stuck in the one country in the Western Hemisphere that American tourists are not supposed to visit.

Hemingway left Cuba in 1960, a year after the revolution put Fidel Castro in power. Then Hemingway killed himself in 1961, a year before the US embargo was enacted. For 55 years, the US government has blocked American tourists from visiting Hemingway's Cuban house, boat, and bars—all of which now belong to the communist government.

Cuba's Hemingway-themed tourism destinations include (from left to right) Ambos Mundos, the hotel he frequented; Finca Vigía, the home he owned; and the Floridita, where he drank frozen daiquiris.

I went there during the last days of the more relaxed Obama-era travel rules: Tourism was still off-limits, but Americans could visit if their trip fell into one of 12 Department-of-Treasury-approved categories. (President Trump reversed the policy two days after I got home.) I had come for "research." The woman sitting to my right at the Floridita bar said she was there for "people-to-people activities." To my left was a life-size bronze statue of Hemingway. In front of him was a bronze book, but, strangely, no drink. "Does it look like I'm kissing him?" a tourist yelled as she posed for a photo with bronze Hemingway. At first I wanted to think the statue was there to make sure everyone had a good time. But now I think he's there to supervise the Hemingway tourism industry.

Fishing was the main reason Hemingway came to Cuba. The first time he traveled there, in 1932, he got heavily into marlin. "The Cuban coast offers one of the best fishing grounds in the world," he told a reporter that year. "I really shouldn't be telling this," he added, already worried about tourists. In 1934, he bought his own boat, and in 1940, he bought the Finca Vigía, a house in the hills outside Havana. In 1950, he helped found a marlin-fishing tournament in Havana, which was soon named after him. For years, participating in the Ernest Hemingway International Billfish Tournament was one of the few legal ways Americans could visit Cuba.

I went to Cuba to try to see the 2017 tournament and experience marlin fishing in person, after years of only having read about it. When I landed in Havana, I went straight to the captain's dinner, which was held in a place called, inevitably, Marina Hemingway. I chatted with captains and fishermen—most of them American—about fishing and traveling while they loaded up on Cristal beer and mojitos at the bar. The next day, I walked up and down the canals of the marina, trying to convince men in giant white boats to let me write about them catching marlin. But nobody wanted a writer onboard, even when I reminded them that this was a tournament dedicated to America's most famous one. Too much liability, not enough space, they said. They had come to Cuba to fish, and that was it.

Once the tournament crowd left for the day, the marina felt empty. A handful of well-to-do Cuban families hung around the pool and the bowling alley. The hulking, gray Hotel El Viejo y el Mar was closed for renovations.

The one person who I was reasonably sure would understand why I, as a writer, needed to write about marlin fishing was Phil Thompson. I'd been in touch with him since I first heard about the tournament a few years ago. He's been competing since the 1990s and won the tournament in 2013. He has self-published two novels about fishing and smuggling in the Florida Straits.

At the end of the day, I found Thompson lounging on the deck of his boat, drinking a pint-size rum and coke. We talked for a while about the politics of the tournament, about how it had recently been taken over by a state-run group, Marinas y Nauticas Marlin SA, and about an American doctor who won the tournament in 1992 only to have his trophy confiscated by the US Coast Guard.

"What would it take me to convince you to let me ride with you tomorrow?" I asked. "Well, remember," Thompson said, "I'm a writer, too."

The next day, I went to Hotel Ambos Mundos, on Calle Obispo, where Hemingway often stayed before he bought the Finca. Hemingway also came to Cuba to avoid tourists, who by the mid 1930s had started showing up on his block in Key West, Florida, hoping to catch a glimpse of the author of A Farewell to Arms.

Today, Calle Obispo is the main tourist drag in Old Havana. On the outside, the Ambos Mundos looked like a fossilized pink layer cake, and on the inside, it looked like a dried-up lime. At the bar in the center of the lobby you can drink a strong mojito, and there's enough room to keep the tourists from jostling one another.

One side of the hotel lobby, across from a water feature that looks like it has been switched off since the 1970s, is covered with Hemingway photos: Hemingway lounging on the deck of his boat with a beer on his belly; Hemingway in his library, looking drunk; huge, mold-covered close-ups of Hemingway's bearded face.

I joined a group of tourists taking the wrought-iron elevator up to room 511, the "Hemingway room." The operator said he makes this trip about 200 times per day. I knocked on the door to room 511, and a woman holding a paperback opened it. "Are you the tour guide?" I asked in Spanish. "I speak English," she said, sounding annoyed.

She showed us around the room, which was small and V-shaped. There was a writing table, a desk, and a single bed. On the walls were clippings about Hemingway's Nobel Prize win. There was also a model of Hemingway's fishing boat, and a cartoon of a fat, bearded Hemingway looking at a plaque commemorating his own residence in the hotel. (Havana is a shrine to the fat, bearded version of the writer.)

I asked if the room looked this way when Hemingway stayed there. "The air-conditioner isn't original," the guide said. I looked in the bathroom but decided not to ask whether this was the toilet Hemingway pissed in while writing Green Hills of Africa. The guide had already gone back to reading her paperback— Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood—standing up in a corner.

Hemingway's typewriter is on display for tourists in the room he frequented at Hotel Ambos Mundos.

It was hard to tell what Cubans thought about a dead white American being promoted as one of their country's icons. For the passengers I shared taxis with, "Marina Hemingway" was just "the marina." When I took the P7 bus in Old Havana and told the driver that I was going to Finca Vigía, he gave me a blank look. But he called out " Museo Hemingway!" as we got to the front gate. Hemingway might be relevant, but only as museum material.

When I met with Ada Rosa Alfonso Rosales, the director of the Finca Vigía museum, she went into a long prelude about Hemingway's relationship with Fidel Castro, Hemingway's two public endorsements of the revolution (one example: "I sympathize with the Cuban government and all our difficulties"), and the time the Soviet minister of trade visited the Finca.

Rosales led me around the Finca, and through its roped-off doorways and windows, I saw Hemingway's favorite armchair, the African animal heads on the walls, the key to the Ritz Paris on his desk, the posters from Spanish bullfights, his writing board, and the toilet he may have shit in while writing The Old Man and the Sea. The Finca museum director must be one of the world's top Hemingway experts. While the guides from the tour buses told stories about Ava Gardner and Gary Cooper and offered insights such as "he liked to read a lot," Rosales pointed out every modification Hemingway made to his boat, from the outrigger fishing poles to the extra bottle rack. But she kept coming back to the revolution. At the dog cemetery—four white wooden markers—she explained that militiamen working for Fulgencio Batista, the pre-Castro dictator, shot one of Hemingway's dogs.

At the gift shop, I bought an ink drawing of Castro and Hemingway.

I left the Finca and went back to the marina for the Hemingway tournament's trophy ceremony. Banquet tables had been set by the water. In the middle of a buffet was a giant papaya carved into the shape of a round-bellied, bearded man. "Es Papa?" I asked one of the waitresses. She said yes.

The Avimar, a boat helmed by Cuban American brothers, had won the tournament. After he had accepted his trophy, I interviewed Victor Avila. Salsa music alternated with extreme fishing videos on the stage behind us. Avila told me his team had never fished marlin before. "It feels like you're dragging a horse for about an hour," he said.

I asked him if he was a Hemingway fan, and at first, he thought I was talking about the marina. The writer, I said. "I've been to his house in Key West, I've been to his house here in Cuba," Avila said. "He invented the outriggers! The guy's a genius."