Since the revolution, the old man`s beloved Cuba has
Since the revolution, the old man’s beloved Cuba has been
suspended in time. On the eve of another new dawn,
NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE seeks out the island’s legends
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P HOTOGRAP HS
M AT T W I L S O N
y Cuba was formed by
Graham Greene in his
novel Our Man in Havana,
about an English vacuumcleaner salesman recruited
by MI6 during the fag end
of Batista’s dictatorship.
Vivid in memory is the
battered Penguin copy
Greene later showed me:
the gift of a Russian cosmonaut who had read it in space. While
circumnavigating Earth, he underlined the places that he’d visited
in Havana—the Country Club, the Malecón, the Floridita bar,
where Ernest Hemingway downed his daiquiris.
I’ve no idea whether the cosmonaut made a pilgrimage to the
Finca Vigía, the white watchtower outside Havana whose walls
reminded Hemingway of old sails, but that was another image I
preserved: the home that Martha Gellhorn found for her thenhusband, and where they lived while he wrote For Whom the Bell
Tolls, dedicated to her.
Greene believed Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism was the result
of the implacable attitude of the US. Martha surpassed even
Greene in tolerating no criticism of Cuba’s leader. She would
come to spit small particles of hot steel at the mention of
Hemingway, but Fidel was sacred always.
In the 56th year of Fidel’s revolution, the 54th of the American
blockade, and just a fortnight before the unexpected thaw in CubaUS relations, I decided to test the island of my imagination against
its reality. I was curious to see what Greene—whose last visit was in
1983—and what my late friend Martha—who never returned after
1944—might have made of Cuba today, in, as it turned out, its last
moments as a Cold War thorn in America’s side.
here’s a statue of a headless woman at the base of a
staircase in Havana. It appears in the 1993 film Strawberry
and Chocolate, filmed in this building before the top floor
was renovated into one of the city’s better restaurants. A
subtropical Venus de Milo, the marble figure stands as a mute
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encapsulation of Cuba since 1959. While her body is free to dance
and make love, her head remains elsewhere. As if in its place on the
grey wall behind is painted the vermilion word “Fidel”.
I climb the staircase, through a fishnet of hard shadows cast by
a baroque iron banister, and reflect that in Cuba everyone’s head
Cuba is Kafka in the Caribbean. Right from its origins—with
Columbus sailing west to discover the East, and thinking he’d
reached China—nothing is as it seems. For instance, the cherry
and white 1955 Chevrolet driving me in from the airport is
powered by a Toyota engine. “Look under the surface,” says an
English businessman who has lived here 10 years. “Everything’s
the opposite.” Masters of the one-liner, Cubans tell you that if you
want to understand Cuba you’ll end your days in an asylum. “In
other countries, time is money,” says a man with a lopsided white
moustache. “But in Cuba, time is time.”
A routine observation is that Cuba, like its gorgeous fruitcoloured cars and buildings, has been wedged in a time warp since
January 1959, when a band of bearded middle-class revolutionaries
led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara overthrew Batista. Now, the
one-liner I hear most often is the amputated phrase “Everyone is
waiting…” Suspended in the humid air is the rest of the sentence:
“… for Fidel to die.”
Meanwhile, like an empty cigar box still smelling of stale
slogans, his propaganda remains on display, from the huge
roadside hoardings advertising “justice”, to the aggressive
marketing of Fidel’s (apparently) favourite novelist, whose redbound selected works he took with him on his car trips. Exactly as
Greene made an improbable secret agent out of Wormold, so the
Castro regime, headed these days by Fidel’s brother Raúl, has
suborned Hemingway and his inconvenient love of Cuba to its
Martha joined Hemingway in Havana in February 1939. She
didn’t take to the Hotel Sevilla Biltmore, where he slept; or the
draughty fifth-floor room in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where
he’d written on and off since first visiting in 1928. In a local
magazine, she read an ad for a house on a hill 20 minutes from
Set in 21 acres of palms, the Finca Vigía, which Hemingway
bought for $18,500, remains as he left it in 1961, expecting to
return. Martha hired builders to put in the sash widows through
which, on this bright afternoon, two coach-loads of tourists gawp
at his typewriter, his size-11 boots, the stuffed antelope heads. Said
Greene, “I don’t know how he can write surrounded by so many
To begin with, Martha responded well to the orchids and the
cats, even to Dear Bug, as she called Hemingway: “My God how I
love this place and how happy I am…” For Hemingway, it became
his favourite home, where, feet planted on a kudu skin, he
completed his major works. “I am so damn happy with Marty,” he
said. “I’m a damned lucky bastard to be alive.”
Martha told me: “He wrote during the day. In the evening he’d
exercise, play tennis, or fish. He used to read me what he’d written
early on. He was writing the Bell, and I thought it was dreadful, so
he didn’t go on with that. On Sunday
afternoon, he’d have people round to
tell stories to. Then when he’d finished
a book he’d drink because he had
nothing to do and he’d go fishing for
Nazi submarines, and I had to get
Roosevelt to give him a machine gun,
which he sent, being an adventurer.
Ernest claimed he found a submarine,
but I didn’t believe him.”
Hemingway’s boat is dry-docked
beside the empty swimming pool,
where the tennis court used to be. She
was called Pilar. He would board her
in the fishing village of Cojimar, 45
propellers which Carnero and other fisherman donated when they
heard he’d killed himself. One day out fishing in 1956 Hemingway
told the Cuban novelist Cabrera Infante “that all he wanted in his
life was ‘to stay here forever’.” Yet after the revolution, the
American ambassador visited Finca Vigía to put pressure on him
to leave, not once but three times, implying it was unpatriotic to
stay. If you ask Carnero, Hemingway blew his brains out because
he couldn’t face not coming back.
S tormy weather capsizes my plan to go marlin fishing, so I
circle impotently around the Marina Hemingway, chugging
past a replica of Pilar, and yachts named Wet Dream and
Cheeseberger in Paradise, trailing a line for an unlikely barracuda.
The Marina is in its dilapidated state because of “el bloqueo”, and
though our boat, Costa Azul, remains within the harbour, I still
have to present my passport and permit to the coastguard.
Absurdly, no Cuban, not Carnero
even, is allowed on a boat without a
permit—in case they leave for Miami,
which Carnero wants to do.
It was at the Hemingway Marina
that Hemingway presented the
Hemingway Trophy for Billfishing to
Fidel Castro, who had caught the
largest marlin (rather as his son Tony
“triumphed” at Cuba’s Montecristo
golf tournament in April 2013). You
everywhere—another communist red
flag to flutter in the nostrils of an
enraged American bull. “I am a novice
at fishing,” Fidel is saying. “You are a
lucky novice,” America’s greatest
n Cojimar’s Terraza bar, across
writer is replying. It was the only time
from Hemingway’s regular corner
the two men met.
table, cordoned off with a yellow
The photograph was taken in May
rope, I meet the last fisherman to have
1960 by Osvaldo Salas. It has become
known him. Oswald Carnero is one of
a truism that Cuba’s revolution was
those to whom Hemingway dedicated
made by photographers like Salas and
his Nobel Prize after publishing The
Alberto Korda, who captured the
Old Man and the Sea. “This is a prize
universal image of Che now duplicated
Opposite: Hemingway’s study at his estate, Finca
that belongs to Cuba, because my
on Chrevolet bonnets and T-shirts. A
Vigía, near Havana. Above, the staircase at the
work was conceived and created in
gardener shows me Korda’s grave in
Havana restaurant La Guarida.
Cuba, with my people of Cojimar
the Colón cemetery (entry $5; on exit,
where I’m a citizen.”
your car is searched for tomb relics).
His lined face shaded by a scarlet cap proclaming “Miami”,
“Fidel was there at Korda’s burial in 2001, and so was I,” says
Carnero, now 79, remembers meeting Hemingway in 1950, aged Osvaldo’s son Roberto.
13. “He was bringing in a big merlin on his boat. He asked me if I
Roberto Salas is the third of Castro’s principal photographers,
could skin it.”
and responsible for one of the revolution’s enduring images. He
Carnero sold him turtle flesh for soup and ran errands, holds it up for me in his studio: Fidel lighting a cigar with Che
scurrying back to the Pilar with bottles of White Horse, and going Guevara in January 1959.
out to the Finca Vigía (“Put your feet in the water,” Hemingway
“It was the first time I saw Che. At the presidential palace at
told him, motioning at the pool, “Ava Gardner has just swum 3am. I heard a commotion: ‘Che’s people have come.’ I go upstairs,
naked here.”). Hemingway pumped Carnero for details of the to a meeting room used by Batista, a very large table, and they sat
Gulf Stream to use in the film of The Old Man and the Sea. “I was at the top. I see Fidel trying to light his cigar. I place my Leica 3.9
in the movie. I had to row out in a boat and fish.”
on the table, hold my finger on the lens, waiting for the match to
Then, abruptly, Hemingway’s Cuban idyll ended. Carnero says flare up, and open the camera for two seconds. Luckily, it was a
in a hoarse voice: “The day before he left he came here to say lousy cigar, so Fidel had to keep lighting. If it had been a good
goodbye. He said he had to go abroad. He never came back.”
Cohiba, the shot mightn’t have worked.”
We walk past the jetty towards the Spanish fort where Carnero
White, sudden, angry, the sea breaks over the Malecón, lashing
was born, to a bronze bust of Hemingway. It’s cast from the melted the façades along this reclaimed land, unable to forget that it was
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HEMINGWAY CAME TO SAY GOODBYE.
HE SAID HE HAD TO
GO ABROAD. HE NEVER CAME BACK
DO THE TIME WARP
Opposite, clockwise from top
left: the galleried interior of
the National Ballet School; a
Che Guevara-themed mural
at a school near Viñales; a
roadside sign still
revolutionary values of justice
and freedom. This page: one of
Cuba’s many illusions: a red
and white 1955 Chevrolet
concealing a Toyota engine; a
Havana street scene.
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here. With the same cleansing force, the revolution swept away the
Miami mafia, their brothels and casinos. Fuelled by $100m losses,
the mafia, in league with the CIA, was behind an estimated 637
assassination attempts on Fidel. Obsessed by his fondness for
cigars, the CIA allegedly soaked leaves in botulinum toxin and, it
is even said, impregnated a box of Fidel’s signature Cohibas with a
depilatory to make his beard fall out. “We were doing almost
everything you could dream up,” said a CIA official.
n a tobacco barn near Viñales, I watch a fourth-generation
farmer, Julien Yulieski, expertly roll a cigar. Dried leaves
hang above us like fruit bats, and out in the field an ox drags a
plough forged in 1898, in Detroit. After a long slump, the cigar
THE BRITISH RAN THE ISLAND FOR 11 MONTHS—
O A RESIDUAL FONDNESS FOR UNION JACKS
trade is reviving, with orders streaming in from China.
“What’s the most important tobacco advice you can pass on to
your children?” I ask.
Julien considers the question. “Not to smoke.”
Diving was another Fidel passion, one he shared with Martha.
It is said it inspired the CIA to develop not only a poison aqualung
but an exploding seashell for him to pick up. Today, you can go
scuba-diving in the Bay of Pigs, where, on 15 April 1961, Miami
Cuban mercenaries attempted a counter-invasion. Martha wore
motocycle goggles to view the small shoals of iridescent blue and
yellow fish. I can’t find a seashell, but observed by a monitoring
Guachanche barracuda, plain-clothed in the marine shadows like
a Castro agent, I return to the surface with the lichen-encrusted
case of a mortar shell.
ater, I sit on a porch with two locals who witnessed the
disastrous invasion. They set each other off, rocking back
in their chairs, eyes shining in the evening sun. Suddenly,
they are 21 again and bombs are dropping from planes with false
Cuban markings, and 1200 men are leaping ashore from
aluminium boats—“and 65 hours later, all POWs”. They laugh at
their own good fortune and they don’t feel like talking any more.
More successful was Britain’s invasion in 1762, when the Navy
landed 4,700 troops on Hemingway’s cherished beach at Cojimar.
They ran the island for 11 months—leaving behind a residual
weakness for Union Jacks (particularly on women’s underpants),
John Lennon (there’s a park in Vedado named after him) and the
late Princess of Wales (one of the most peaceful places in Old
The beach at xxxxxx. Top:
dancers at the Cuban
National Ballet School.
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Havana is the Jardín Diana de Gales). The most significant legacy
of the British, though, was the printing press.
The history of Cuban literature is one of the longest in the
Americas. The person who organized Graham Greene’s visits in
1963 and 1966 is Cuba’s senior writer, the poet Pablo Armando
Fernández. He says that when Greene met Castro, Fidel presented
him with a painting by the Cuban artist Portocarrero—plus a very
Cuban dilemma. “As Fidel had dedicated it to me on the back,”
Greene said, “I don’t know which way to hang it.”
Standing in his study of 6,000 books, I ask Armando Fernández
which single volume he would take with him to another island. He
darts his blue-green eyes around the shelves. García Márquez,
photographed with the author and Fidel in this very house?
Carson McCullers, who back in 1947 proclaimed him a poet?
Greene, whose dedication to Our Man in Havana reads: “For
Pablo—at last our meeting in Cuba—affectionately, Graham.”
Eventually, he decides. “Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë
captured me when I was 10. We have been together 75 years.”
ur man in Havana these days is the approachable
British Ambassador, Tim Cole. At his residence, a
former sugar baron’s home, he confesses: “I saw the
film of Our Man in Havana the other night. It didn’t remind me of
my job here. We don’t sell vaccum cleaners.”
“What do we sell?”
“Let’s start from there’s very little trade. They send us oil
products, cigars and a bit of rum. We are sending machinery. And
if you’re established here already, you’ve got a monopoly. A
company making stethoscopes, say, is able to supply stethoscopes
for all of Cuba.” Still, it’s hard to disguise the smallness of the beer.
On the other hand, consular work is increasing, with 150,000
British tourists a year (out of 2.8m). And the political temperature
is warmer. “Our relations are better than they have been, although
we still disagree on a whole heap.” The Navy is in town again—the
frigate H.M.S. Argyll, on a goodwill tour. A junior minister has
just visited, too, the first ministerial visit in 10 years—even if Hugo
Swire didn’t get to see either Raúl or Fidel.
“To be honest, it’s not clear what’s going on inside the ‘cupola’.
The Cuban Communist Party is very disciplined. There are no big
“So when Fidel dies?”
He looks as though it’s odd to say. “I don’t think much will
Two weeks later, in a joint broadcast that takes everyone by
surprise, President Obama and Raúl Castro announce moves to
end more than half a century of hostility.
In a prison in Lima, Peru, four years ago, I interviewed a
beautiful dancer. In May 1986, Maritza Garrido Lecca had
visited Cuba for a ballet congress, and returned invigorated: Cuba
was the just society she could believe in. In 1991, she was arrested
and imprisoned for giving sanctuary in her ballet studio to the
revolutionary who was once Fidel’s foremost disciple: the head of
the Shining Path, Abimael Guzmán.
“Which dancer has influenced you most?” I asked her.
“The Cuban National Ballet with Alicia Alonso.”
I climb the marble staircase of the National Ballet School
on a blustery afternoon, to be greeted by smiling girls in wine-red
tutus who sing out a welcome: “Dance comes from the cultural
history of our revolution, and for this reason we will continue
with our passion.” They are in their first year. As I watch them
perform their pliés, I am ambushed. I confess that I begin to
appreciate what Maritza experienced when she visited Cuba.
In seven years’ time, when they’re 17, 12 of these dancers will
audition for the prestigious Alicia Alonso Academy. By then, if
the blockade is indeed lifted, freedom of movement and speech
will have been restored and they will move with their own heads
upon their shoulders, and Cuba will be dancing among us
once more. Until then, we have Cuba as it is, a little like the logo I
saw stitched on an old man’s baseball cap—“Out of my mind,
back in five minutes.” &
WAY TO GO:
Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk) can organize tailor-made
trips to Cuba such as the one described. Virgin Atlantic flies
direct to Havana from Gatwick once a week on Mondays.
NEED TO KNOW:
Travel agents, more devious even than secret agents, tell you
that Cuba is in a state of transition, that you mustn’t believe
the stories of appalling food, lousy accommodation, nonexistent Wi-Fi. These complaints remain broadly speaking true,
but there are good places to eat and stay.
S TAY anywhere in Old Havana—for example Hemingway’s
writing haunt Hotel Ambos Mundos (153 Obispo, 8609529) or
Hotel Sevilla (Anímas, 8608560).
AVOID a) government-monitored hotels like The Capri, where
you will wait into eternity for a lift, and b) government-owned
E AT at La Guarida (Concordia 418, +53 7 8669047), where
Strawberry & Chocolate was filmed. Booking recommended.
DRINK at Hemingway’s favourite bar, El Floridita (Calle Obispo
557) and Sloppy Joe’s (corner of Zulueta and Anímas), where
Greene’s Wormold was recruited to M16.
SHOP at the artisans’ market in the pier-side warehouse at
Almacenes San José (closed Monday)
NB take cash, especially euros and sterling (dollars are taxed
at 10%). Hardly anywhere takes credit cards and there are few
RE AD ON
Fiction: aside from Hemingway and Greene, perhaps read
Norman Lewis’s Cuban Passage, Pico Iyer’s Cuba and the
Night and Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet. Non-fiction:
Hugh Thomas’s Cuba and Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Red Heat.
Cuba’s flavour is best captured in films. Before travelling,
be sure to see Strawberry and Chocolate (1993),
Soy Cuba (1964) and Conducta (2014).
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