Cuba's Hemingway: Mojitos, daiquiris, legend of 'Papa' beckon tourists
HERALD STAFF REPORT
HAVANA -- Forty-one years after he shot himself to death, Ernest Hemingway lives on as a thriving, quirky industry in Cuba -- his name and bearded visage adorning cigarette lighters and even a billfish tournament.
As visible a trademark as Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara or Fidel Castro, at times ''Papa'' gets better T-shirt and postcard play than the country's national hero, José Martí.
''It's a fascination with the enemy,'' said Alejandro Rios, who directs the Cuban cinema series at Miami-Dade Community College. ``Hemingway is the god of American writers. He is America.''
In Old Havana, tour guides with paddles form tourists into lines outside La Bodeguita del Medio, a popular restaurant and bar riddled with graffiti on its walls. It was here, tourist-book legend has it, that Hemingway was a regular, a fact not lost on its marketers.
Printed on brown paper place mats are the scribe's famous words
about his favorite places for two favorite drinks: ``Mi mojito en La Bodeguita,
mi daiquiri en El
''Tourism is all about experience,'' said Carolyn Feimster, a tourism and marketing consultant in Hollywood. ``People want to go back and relive what the famous have done.''
In this case, to drink Papa's drink. La Bodeguita is quick to oblige, with a long row of mojitos lined up on the bar.
''The secret is its history,'' said bartender Jorge A. Alvarez,
surrounded by walls of autographed photos of dignitaries. ``We have maintained
the spirit. Writers and
personalities still come in.''
Despite its high stature in Hemingway tour lore, at least one expert says the author never set foot in the place. Norberto Fuentes, author of Hemingway in Cuba, insists a Cuban writer made up the phrase about the drinks.
However, tourist books and tour guides don't reflect Fuentes' belief, always hawking the spot as authentic Hemingway.
True Papa haunt or not, the open-air restaurant, founded in 1942, now has branches in Mexico City, the Mexican resort of Puerto Vallarta and Paris.
Nearby, at El Floridita on Obispo Street, Hemingway's roots are historically established. Indeed, there are framed photos of the writer imbibing with famous pals, such as Gary Cooper. Moreover, its fame predates modern tour shtick: In 1953, Esquire magazine named it one of the best bars in the world.
Here, at the reputed ''birthplace of the daiquiri,'' it's all about Hemingway, with a bronze bust of the author, framed photos on the wall, and a Hemingway-style fish fillet (with steamed vegetables and dressed in a seafood salsa) for $18.
Maitre d' Pedro Tejeda Torres estimates that 10 percent of tourists find their way into the Floridita.
One, a German tourist named Joerg, ordered a $6 daiquiri at the long, dark mahogany bar and inquired about sitting in Papa's old stool, now chained off.
The bartender just glared. He wouldn't dignify the request with words. The tourist found another seat.
'This will never be a 'spring break' destination,'' said Tejeda, referring to the establishment's regal aura. ``In Mexico, they would permit it. We would never allow that kind of craziness.''
But author Fuentes said the market is the real arbiter of taste on the island.
''Cuba does what the Americans want,'' he said. ``I don't think Hemingway would approve, but how would he feel about the Hemingway look-alike contest in Key West or the unfinished books that his family published after his death?
``If you sell the sun and the beach, why not sell Hemingway?''
Indeed, Fuentes said the author's former home is a more popular spot than the exalted Museum of the Revolution.
Situated about 10 miles outside Havana near San Francisco de Paula, Finca Vigía is run by the Ministry of Culture.
NO VISITORS ALLOWED
Unlike its cousin to the north -- the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West -- La Finca allows no visitors to wander about inside. The best view, a baby step inside the entryway, goes for $5, which includes permission to snap one photo.
Visitors make the most of the dusty window views, peeking at Hemingway's size 11 infantry boots lined up in his closet and African safari trophies.
Hemingway also slept here, in a modest room at the Hotel Ambos
Mundos in Old Havana. For $2, tourists take a jet-black steel elevator
up to Room 511, where
Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Those who like their Hemingway in one big package hop on a tour bus and for $40 go on a half-day excursion. It includes not only La Finca, but also the fishing village of Cojimar, the setting for The Old Man and the Sea, and lunch at La Terraza, a restaurant where Ernesto, as he was known here, ate.
The author's fascination with the island began in the late 1920s, after marlin-fishing trips from his home base in Key West. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved into a room at Ambos Mundos. He bought Finca Vigía -- his third wife Martha Gelhorn's idea -- in 1940 for $18,500. His widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, willed it to the people after his suicide on July 2, 1961.
Hemingway's political feelings for Cuba are subject to debate. He died before Castro declared himself a communist.
And while Castro has called Hemingway his ''favorite author,'' the two met only once -- at a marlin-fishing tournament near Havana in May 1960, as the author handed out trophies.
A photo of the pair taken that day, showing them standing side by side, has been well circulated. One hangs prominently at El Floridita.
Why does Cuba choose to sell the Hemingway franchise?
''You go with what you've got,'' said Erik Gordon, a marketing professor at the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida in Gainesville. ``You have an economy that needs hard cash and has some history of tourism. It's not a dumb thing to do.
``It won't get droves and droves of people. For that, you have to open a casino.''