Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Bell tolls for Hemingway treasures as Cuban house caught in sanctions trap
The dining room in Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba. Photo: Conor Clarke
Conor Clarke in Havana and Ewen MacAskill in Washington
Tuesday July 17, 2007
The bullfighting posters are just as he left them, and so are the 9,000 books that line even the bathroom walls. The den, cluttered with mounted heads from hunting trips around the world, still has a well-stocked bar, with bottles of Old Forester bourbon and Gordon's gin an arm's length from his favourite sitting chair.
Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm, 10 miles east of Havana, is the place Ernest Hemingway called home from 1939 to 1960, and it is there that the author's abundant tastes, in literature and in life, are on display. Visitors can see where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, where he dined with Errol Flynn and where Ava Gardner was reported to have skinnydipped.
Hemingway liked trouble, and the chances are he would have enjoyed the fact that he is still creating it almost 50 years after his death. Finca Vigia has become a symbol of the struggle between the US and Cuba.
For the past two years, a group of American organisations has been working to restore the battered house and save the manuscripts and books. But US sanctions against Cuba have hindered the group's attempts to collaborate with the Cuban government. The Bush administration's response has been mixed, flitting between acquiescence and obstruction.
Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is one of the leading campaigners for preserving the house and lifting the sanctions, said: "It's astonishing to me that there are some people dragging their feet on this project. It's silly."
The house made the US National Trust for Historic Preservation list of 11 most endangered historic places in 2005, the first time a site outside the country has done so. The roof was sagging and there was mould on the walls. Parts of the ceiling were so close to collapse that furniture was put in storage.
That alerted Hemingway fans in the US - businessmen, actors and even congressmen - who offered to help. But the sanctions prevent Americans financing projects that might help the Cuban government. In this case, Cubans stand to gain from tourism revenue as Hemingway's house would be a big draw.
The Bush administration blocked direct financial aid, but issued a licence that allowed a visit to the island by US architects and construction specialists paid for by Hemingway devotees. With their help, the Cuban government went ahead with the project, and renovation of most of the house was completed in February.
But much of the rest of the estate remains in disrepair. An impressive tower next to the house is closed, Hemingway's fishing boat is shrouded in scaffolding, and red tiles are sliding off the roof of the termite-infested guesthouse. More importantly, the original manuscripts and books, which contain thousands of Hemingway's notes, are still at risk. The US government has blocked not only the money needed but specialist equipment such as dehumidifiers and scanning equipment.
Molly Millerwise, public affairs director at the Treasury, said: "We do not issue licences that facilitate activity promoting Cuba's tourism. The sanctions against Cuba are in place to help restrict hard currency from flowing to the Castro regime, which lines its pockets with money while forcing the Cuban people to live in fear and oppression."
Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at the Florida International University, said sanctions have not had the impact the US wanted. "Cuba has been lucky. Before, it had the support of the Soviet Union and now Venezuela. The sanctions are not damaging right now and give Castro a good excuse to play the victim." She said the struggle over the Hemingway house showed the "absurdity of US policy towards Cuba".
The struggle started when Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Hemingway's editor, Max Perkins, visited Cuba in 2001 and was stunned by the importance of the collection and the dire state of the house. "This is the house that contains the most important legacy of Ernest Hemingway, and it really was falling apart." When she returned to the US, Ms Phillips founded the Hemingway Preservation Fund and began raising money and interest in repairing the house and saving the documents. She and others helped broker a deal between the US and Cuba in 2002 that allowed copies of the author's papers to be made and returned to the US, but the Treasury rejected an initial request for more direct collaboration.
After a stand-off between Hemingway devotees in the US and the Bush administration, the Treasury allowed the team of technical experts to travel to the island, but refused to approve any direct US participation. In early 2007, the licence that allowed the experts exemption from the travel ban expired and the collaboration stopped. The Hemingway Preservation Foundation and the National Trust are preparing a new, expanded request.
Sarah Stephens, executive director of the US-based Centre for Democracy in the Americas, which is working to change US policy, said: "The Hemingway house is a classic example of how sanctions hurt Cubans and Americans. This is our great writer whose material is being destroyed by weather and time. It is shocking. They are just out in the open air."
Sympathisers include academics, writers and actors. The novelist Russell Banks started a literary campaign that gained the public support of John Irving, Norman Mailer and Salman Rushdie. The Sopranos star James Gandolfini turned up at one fund-raising event, according to Ms Stephens. Among politicians, Senator John McCain, a long-time Hemingway fan, has also helped.
Ms Phillips and Mr McGovern have met Castro. He said he was a Hemingway fan and had read For Whom the Bell Tolls while hiding in the Sierra Maestra mountains. He had met Hemingway once, at a fishing competition.
Speaking from his office on Capitol Hill, Mr McGovern said: "The embargo is an embarrassment. It hasn't worked. We've been doing it for 50 years, and I'd like to think that if something hasn't worked after 50 years, we'd be mature enough to let it go."
Ernest Hemingway began renting Finca Vigia in 1939 and purchased it the next year, when passion for deep-sea fishing and a rocky divorce left him looking for a new home in the tropics. The white one-story house was built in 1886 by a Spanish architect. The author stayed until illness and Castro's revolution forced him to move to Ketchum, Idaho, where he took his own life in July 1961. It was Cuba that Hemingway always considered home, and it was there he wrote some of his most important novels, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, a work based on the fishermen of the island that won him the Pulitzer prize in 1953 and Nobel Prize in 1954. Today the house, along with the guest quarters and his fishing boat, the Pilar, is a public museum. Finca Vigia contains one of the most important collections of Hemingway paraphernalia in the world, including letters from Ingrid Bergman and editor Max Perkins, most of Hemingway's book collection and a rejected epilogue for For Whom The Bell Tolls. The walls and shelves are filled with curios.
JG: The hatred of the Bush regime for anything Cuban, goes as far as obstructing the restoration of Papa's home in Havana. He loved Cuba, and nothing that the Bush thugs do will change that.