Hemingway, Tourism, and the Contradictions of Revolutionary Cuba
Hemingway, Tourism, and the Contradictions of Revolutionary Cuba
Posted: 09/10/2014 3:33 pm EDT Updated: 09/10/2014 3:59 pm EDT
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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: Hemingway, Tourism, and the Contradictions of Revolutionary
Cuba | Blake Scott –