Hemingway, Tourism, and the Contradictions of Revolutionary Cuba

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At El Floridita bar in Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway drank in the afternoons and supposedly met his only Cuban love, Leopoldina (a sex worker). Hemingway, although he has been dead for over 50 years, is still hanging around the bar. Today a life-size bronze statue of the author stands in the corner, in his favorite drinking spot. On the walls behind him, black-and-white photos show an aged and bearded Hemingway talking closely with Fidel Castro and drinking with actors Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy. The memorial, commissioned by the Cuban revolutionary government, has become a popular photo-stop for tourists. Large groups of foreigners order expensive daiquiris, listen to live music, and take pictures with a timeless Hemingway.

2003 Hemingway statue by José Villa Soberón, via Wikimedia Commons

Attractions like this one awkwardly neighbor the poverty of everyday life in Havana. The contradictions of the Cuban Revolution are a half-century in the making. But with the arrival of more and more tourists, they have become increasingly obvious. Last year, 2.85 million tourists visited the island. U.S. citizens are also joining the tourist crowds. Over 170,000 travelers from the U.S. arrived to Cuba in the first three months of 2014. The question is: what will this new 21st century boom in tourism mean for the Cuban people?

The afternoon I visited El Floridita, a group of men and women lingered outside the bar's only entrance, waiting for foreigners to exit with lubricated pockets. Hemingway's favorite drink - a daiquiri - costs around $6.50, roughly one-third the average monthly salary ($20) of a Cuban worker. The bar, owned by the Cuban state, isn't really for Cubans. Neither is the Hotel Habana Libre (Free Havana), nor many other tourist attractions in the city. Extreme economic inequality and state policing separate local and foreign access to food, entertainment, and certain "public" spaces.

Tourism has become Cuba's new enclave economy. The hotels, and the best restaurants and bars, are exclusive sites. Foreigners are allowed in and Cubans are physically kept out. The revolution (1953-1959) was supposed to end these social problems and the demoralizing divide between the majority of Cuban 'have-nots' and the exclusive foreign 'haves.' The decadence of tourism in 1950s Havana helped mobilize a nation against dictatorship and U.S. imperial arrogance. Today, though, the Cuban government offers international tourism as the nation's best hope. The revolution's leaders have decided to build a new contradiction on top of a very old one. As the state-owned Hotel Meliá-Cohiba tells its employees, "smile, always" for the tourists.

Scene from the 1964 film I am Cuba

Old problems are reemerging. As tourism grows, so does a culture of hustle. Male and female hustlers, locally called jinteros, use slick words, lies, quick friendship, and sex to get money, luxury, and mobility. Jinteros are willing to prostitute soul and sometimes body to economically survive and find diversion in the mundaneness of a restricted life. The reasoning goes: "If the tourists can have a drink, a fun night out, a good meal, a travel visa, a decent income, why can't I?" The state has responded by harassing, and when it sees fit, jailing Cubans who talk too much with foreigners in the streets of downtown Havana.

The boom in state-run luxury tourism undermines the revolution. The Ministry of Finance and Pricing is on the far end of Obispo Street, the same street where El Floridita and many other tourist bars and restaurants are located. Inside the ministry's neocolonial building there is a huge banner, with a younger-looking Fidel dressed in green fatigues, explaining the meaning of Cuba's ongoing struggle. "Revolution," it declares, "is the feeling of an historical moment; it is to change everything that should be changed; it is plain equality and liberty; it is to treat everyone like human beings." It concludes: "Revolution is unity, it is independence, it is to struggle for our dreams of justice for Cuba, for the world."

I empathize with and respect the 1959 Cuban Revolution. There was legitimate reason for revolt. A visit to the island, however, makes it impossible to morally accept what's happened since. Rhetoric and action have long parted ways.

There is not enough hope or basic necessities for the majority of Cubans. Healthy and affordable food, consistent and clean drinking water, uncensored news sources, the internet, sustained cross-cultural connections (not just at hotels with false smiles), a livable income... travel... freedom... these should be the fruits of revolution. Instead, they remain intangible possibilities for Cubans who stay on the island and follow the rules.

Young people are trapped in a country run by old authoritarians talking about 1959 like it was yesterday and forever. The nation's leaders keep looking to the past. In the face of material and existential uncertainty, the revolutionary government has in fact returned to develop one of its original enemies.

At first I was confused how Hemingway could be a beloved figure for a state claiming to be so revolutionary. For all of Hemingway's literary talent, and his sympathy for the downtrodden (fishermen, peasants, war veterans, bootleggers, and Indians), he was still by most accounts a bigoted white man who demanded that he be called "Papa." People of color and women were always inferior to the risk-taking righteousness of Hemingway and his white-male characters. His image of himself was his favorite literary figure. He was the authority, the troubled explorer, looking out on the good, bad, ugly, and also the beauty of the world. He was "Papa." The Cuban Revolution has created a similar narrative, and image, of itself. Fidel is still the island's "Papa." The revolution's most revered characters continue to be virile white-men. Che, Camilo, Raul, even Martí. Everyone else is still in the backseat, or serving drinks.

Photo by Eva Hershaw

For travelers contemplating a trip to Cuba this shouldn't mean stay home or visit somewhere else. Just the opposite. The embargo is also wrongheaded policy. It shares responsibility for the island's troubles. There is both an external and internal embargo against Cubans.

If you do travel to Cuba: engage, meet, and listen to local people, with love and humility; talk politics and history, and the uncertain meaning of freedom; share and exchange, and avoid the poison of apartheid luxury; learn and speak the truth about the troubles and advantages of the different political-economic systems in the U.S. and Cuba. Dialogue and cross-cultural exchange are the only hope for forging a respectful relationship between our two nations.

Viva Cuba Libre!

And don't be a tourist.

This century's revolution is just beginning.