Jenny Phillips and Bob Vila

Better relations through Hemingway

By Jenny Phillips and Bob Vila
June 25, 2009
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AS PRESIDENT OBAMA prepares to open a dialogue with Cuba, he may well want to draw lessons from the collaborations between Americans and Cubans that are already underway. Since 2002, The Finca Vigia Foundation has worked with the Cuban government to preserve Ernest Hemingway’s literary legacy in that island nation.

Hemingway’s memory has done what no political leader on either side of the Florida Straits was able to achieve: It has created a joint working group of Cubans and Americans sanctioned by both governments to preserve Hemingway’s home, a timeless, literary shrine on the outskirts of Havana. The focus is purely cultural and collaborative, and carefully sidesteps any political landmines.This work has not been easy. The Bush administration, which placed the most restrictive policies ever on the American embargo, nearly shut the project down. The Cubans, who have kept the Hemingway home as a museum, had to overcome their long-held fears of North American exploitation.

Next week will be the 48th anniversary of Hemingway’s death, and yet his reputation in both countries endures. Many Cubans think he was Cuban. Few Americans are aware of his close ties to Cuba, where he lived for the last 22 years of his life and did much of his greatest writing. The villa, Finca Vigia, has been fully restored, including the room in which Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls’’ and “The Old Man and the Sea.’’

Despite the political divisions, the project has flourished. Over 3,000 documents have already been preserved, and microfilm copies arrived this year at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, and became part of The Hemingway Collection. Other work continues. The Cubans have provided the financial and material resources, and the American technical team has brought their expertise about historical restoration.

The work attracted a diverse coalition of supporters. Nothing illustrates this more than the stories of Senator John McCain, the conservative Arizona senator who spent years in a Communist prisoner-of-war camp, and Fidel Castro, the Cuban Marxist revolutionary leader. Both men describe the impact upon them of Robert Jordan, the heroic figure from “For Whom the Bell Tolls’’ and an idealized representation of young manhood.

At a press conference to launch the Hemingway project at Finca Vigia in 2002, Castro described his long hours of reading about Jordan as he prepared for the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. Castro added that he is now shifting his thinking from the young fighter, Jordan, to that of Santiago, the old fisherman in “The Old Man and the Sea.’’

McCain, meanwhile, had written eloquently about Robert Jordan. As a 12-year old boy, seeking a book in which to press a four-leaf clover, he pulled “For Whom the Bell Tolls’’ off his father’s bookshelf. Captivated by the book, Robert Jordan entered McCain’s imagination. When asked if he had had the book with him throughout his years of imprisonment, McCain said he had had it in his memory.

Hearing this story, the Finca Vigia Foundation appealed to McCain in 2005 to help reverse a State Department decision to deny it a license to work in Cuba. McCain, while expressing his antipathy toward Castro, readily offered to intercede at the highest levels of the Bush administration.

Many Cubans and Americans have made this project possible. In Cuba, the foundation has worked closely with the Cuban Council of National Patrimony. US Representative James P. McGovern has played a critical leadership role. The National Trust for Historic Preservation contributed historical and technical expertise.

Along the way, the foundation learned that open communication will achieve much better results than domineering and bullying. Ultimately the success of this project, amid a decades-long political standoff, is built upon the power of great literature, of unforgettable characters like Robert Jordan and Santiago. Rather than seeing Cubans and Americans fighting over the literary spoils of Ernest Hemingway, we have instead celebrated and restored them together.

Jenny Phillips and Bob Vila are co-chairs of the Boston-based Finca Vigia Foundation. Phillips is the granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway’s editor. Vila, the original host of TV’s “This Old House,’’ is the son of Cuban parents.

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