Finca Vigia: Hemingway’s Island in the Storm

Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third (and last) wife discovered this late 19th century house and grounds in 1939.  It became their home for more than twenty years.  The villa sits in San Francisco de Paula, on the outskirts of Havana.  The lands, vegetation and imposing walls created a tropical paradise and a tranquility conducive to the peace Hemingway must have craved to enable him the ability to craft his art.

The house and gardens reflect Hemingway’s life and personality. His hunting trophies are spread throughout the house.

Understanding as she did her husband’s propensity to drink heavily, Gellhorn apparently preferred that Hemingway have a panoramic view of Havana without being close enough to the city to be subject to its many temptations.  The protection from the city may also have some responsibility for the protection the Hemingway’s seemed to have had from the violence of the revolution.

It is at Finca Vigia that he wrote seven books, including The Old Man and the Sea, Islands in the Stream, and A Moveable Feast.  

Hemingway seems to have had a love affair with Cuba as he did with Key West, Florida.  While he is reputed to have continued his heavy drinking in Cuba as well as his romantic escapades, he must have been drawn to the Cuban people with a strength that remained unabated through the revolution.

In 1960, Washington made the decision to cut off relations with Castro’s government.  During that period, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsall, apparently requested Hemingway to abandon his Cuban home as a demonstration of his patriotism to the U.S. Hemingway refused to do so.  When he did leave Cuba, he left his furniture, clothing, personal property, manuscripts and his library. Local guides suggest that the U.S. pressure on Hemingway to leave Cuba contributed to his death. I know of no support for this claim.  Nevertheless, it is, perhaps, because Hemingway anticipated returning to the island that he left his home virtually intact.

Visitors can observe the conditions in which Hemingway lived and worked through the last years of his career.  Evidence of his personality and his love of literature are everywhere. Over 9000 volumes remain in the residence.

Three buildings are situated on the property, the main residence, this separate children’s/guest quarters, and Hemingway’s office where most of his typing appears to have been done.
His ability to remain in the property despite the reality of the revolution around him suggests at least a cordial relationship with the Fidel Castro, with whom he was occasionally photographed.

He also left his beloved boat: Pilar.  It now sits adjacent to the swimming pool where Ava Gardner swam nude while visiting Hemingway’s home.

Hemingway donated the estate to the Cuban government.  The property has been restored through the combined efforts of the U.S. and Cuban governments, in one of the few cooperative endeavors in which the two countries have engaged.

Our travels continue.

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Cuba: The Cult of Che

Che Guevara was executed in the jungles of Bolivia on October 9, 1967.  Forty five years later he is venerated in Cuba. He has attained something akin to “rock star” status.  His face is on Cuban money, t-shirts, banners, and tourist art.  Billboards with his image encourage the Cuban people to work hard and support the revolution.

Even in the U.S., celebrities wear Che’s signature beret.  He is featured in a movie, The Motorcycle Diaries,whose executive producer, Robert Redford,[1] has depicted Che’s 1952 journey across South America; a journey generally credited with planting the seeds for his future radicalization.

Born Ernesto “Che” Guevara, on May 14, 1928, he was educated as a physician and was already active in social reform when he met Raul and Fidel Castro.  He quickly became Fidel’s 2nd in command and played a key role in the success of the Cuba Revolution against Batista.  He is credited with his work on Cuba’s literacy campaign and its agrarian land reform.  He was a bank president and diplomat for Castro’s government.  He represented Cuba throughout the international community, speaking on behalf of socialism and against the exploitation of the Southern Hemisphere by Western countries.  Ultimately, he  became critical of the Soviet Union, also condemning it for exploiting Cuba.

Celebrated by many as an idealist, he was a lifelong, and very charismatic, revolutionary.  While revered by many for his struggle to liberate the poor, focused primarily in Africa and South and Central America, he is reviled as a guerilla leader ruthless in his discipline of his troops and brutal as the revolution’s chief executioner, instrumental in the war trials and summary executions of Castro’s adversaries.

The nature of his relationship with the Castros at the time of his death is unclear.  On October 3, 1965, two years before Che’s death, Castro made public a letter from Che resigning his positions with the Cuban government, and giving up his Cuban citizenship. Whether his actions result from disagreements with Castro or merely a belief that he should be engaged in a wider campaign of “social justice” is unclear. He returned to Cuba only briefly after authoring that letter. His death changed a questionable relationship to martyrdom.

Che and twenty-nine comrades who fought with him in Bolivia are buried in the Che Guevara Mausoleum.  It is located outside Villa Clara, Cuba, near one of his most significant military campaigns.  It is treated as a shrine, almost a place of worship.  Cameras are forbidden inside the Mausoleum, hats were required to be removed.

Nelson Mandela described Che as “an inspiration for every human being of our era who loves Freedom”.  Jean Paul Sartre described him as “the most complete human being of our age.”  Surely, Cuban exiles living in the U.S., whose family members were executed by Che’s firing squads, find no humanity in his deeds.

Such totally different images of a human being long dead seem incapable of reconciliation. For purposes of this post, I will not try.  Instead, the question may be whether those who exalt him as a hero are influenced to do good or ill. And, from an entirely different perspective, whether his veneration impacts the nature of the short-term–and mid-term–relationships between the United States and Cuba.

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[1] Robert Redford is photographed with Fidel Castro on the wall of the National Hotel, one of the few luxury hotels in Habana, presumably taken during a brief encounter between the two men during Redford’s trip to Cuba for a private screening of The Motorcycle Diaries for Che’s widow and children.

The opinions of this post do not reflect the views of our employers, our families or–necessarily–each other.

Habana: Sunrise Over a Once Forbidden City

Habana, Cuba.  In the states we refer to the city by the name Havana.  But it is their country and it seems they should receive deference in how to spell it.  Long forbidden to U.S. citizens, it is a place like no other.  Just 90 miles from the United States, it is shrouded in mystery.

The sunrise over Habana Harbor on the second morning of our visit was as dramatic as the city.  The sun was an intense reddish-orange and the clouds were dark as night.[1]

As I watched, the sunlight produced a softer image of the city around us illuminating the sky and the Atlantic Ocean in muted shades of grays and blues.

Within just a few additional minutes, the colors and the texture of the city were in full view.  This photograph reveals the contrast of the beauty and the decay that have enveloped Havana since Fidel Castro’s revolution. A revolution that has resulted in changes that continue to dominate life in Cuba more than 60 years later.

I had anticipated our trip to Cuba would be an exciting and a constantly changing experience for me, and for all the members of our tour.  I was right.

Our journey had really just begun.

[1]  These photographs were taken with my Nikon D5100 camera using a Tamron telephoto lens.  They are not altered or enhanced.  Their beauty and their flaws are all my own.  To stabilize my camera for these slow shots, I leaned against the railing on my 17th floor hotel room and held tight.

Our Founding Fathers

On July 4, 11776, our founders declared in the Declaration of Independence: “we hold theses Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty,pursuits Pursuit of Happiness.”  With these words, they began the process of shaping a government that obtains its powers from “the Consent of the Governed.” The Constitution continues in a similar fashion, professing the desire of the people of the United States to “establish Justice”, and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” to ourselves and our posterity.”  These are powerful words, and the goals expressed in them have shaped this nation.  What kinds of men authored these documents?

When I read Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, her brief description of the philosophical and religious perspectives of our first Presidents intrigued me.  Albright’s own belief in religious tolerance may certainly impact her vision of our founding fathers.  Particularly pertinent is her belief that religion should not be  a source of conflict and hate.  It is reasonable that she focuses on similar attributes in our founding fathers.

What were the beliefs of the men who shaped these documents?  What is it that inspired George Washington and others to create our Constitutional form of government?  How is that these men created a government based on concepts of liberty, freedom and democracy?  What caused them to enact a Constitution that gave so much power and dignity to the common man?  Albright believes they considered themselves to be like the Israelites, guided by God through the wilderness, presumably to the promised land, the a United States.

Almost certainly, the vast majority of early colonial leaders were closely associated with clearly defined religious denominations: Primarily Congregationalists, Puritans, and Anglicans. In contrast are the less clear cut beliefs of a small group of pivotal individuals who took center stage as authors of the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.  Their letters and speeches suggest they were deep thinkers, wise and thoughtful, “primarily political–not spiritual theorists” who focused  on “civil concepts: democracy, liberty, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, jury trial, all of the fundamental rights we hold dear.”

Consistent with their own political and philosophical beliefs, these men were highly respectful of the wide scope of religious and philosophical beliefs found among the citizenry.  What do we know about their beliefs?  Their religious beliefs appear not to have been stagnant.  They grew and changed as they faced the challenges of building a nation.  Historians describe them as very religious, not very religious, atheists or Deists, depending at least in part on the perspective of the various historians who write about the, while relying on whatever quotes fits.  Without question, they seem to have believed that this new nation should welcome people of different beliefs.

Our first President, George Washington, often acknowledged the importance of a supreme being, while advocating “scrupulous support for religious tolerance” including “Mohametans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or Atheists”.  In Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, R.I., he wrote: “The government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  He made frequent references to a deity, nonetheless, ministers of his time, including the Rev. Bird Wilson, Episcopalian, and Rev. James Abercrombie, Rector of Washington’s church, described him as a “Deist”.  Certainly as Secretary Albright indicates, he was committed to the right of every citizen to worship “according to the dictates of his own conscience”, as he did himself.

Our second President, John Adams, is described by Secretary Albright as a Unitarian who considered liberty “a gift from God” and democracy “a creation of man”.  She describes him as having had little use for the concept of the Trinity.  A prolific writer in the area of philosophical and religious issues, his various writings provide little clarity as to his personal beliefs. Like Jefferson, his religious and philosophical views were intertwined.  His primary concerns appear to have been civil rather than religious.  As a statesman he was dedicated to religious tolerance. Treatises about him quote him as inconsistently stating both that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people” and in contrast that “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”  I wonder whether this statement was in response to world events of his time.  He expressed concern that people “are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority”, as demonstrated by “every page of the history of the whole world.” Almost certainly a reference to the French Revolution which occurred almost simultaneously with our own, but with a level of brutality we never experienced.

Albright describes Thomas Jefferson, our third President, as a student of science and ethics.  The controversial nature of his beliefs is evidenced by his opponents’ attacks against him, labeling him an atheist. His own words make this suggestion highly suspect. In his letter to Benjamin Rush, in 1800, he acknowledges God, stating: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  But he certainly ascribes to a very personal system of beliefs: “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any part of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself.  Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”  He had little good to say about Christian clergy, describing them as the “greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus”.  Ouch, my dad would loudly protest against any suggestion that his life’s work is an obstacle to the teachings of Jesus!!

Jefferson is the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.  He and George Mason, authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776.  In addition to codifying rights including freedom from excessive bond, separation of the powers of the three branches of government, the right to freedom of the press, and the right to jury trial, the document states that: all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience”; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Jefferson wrote respectfully of atheists in a letter to Thomas Law in June 1814: “If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him whence arises the morality of the Atheist? … Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”  In a speech to the Virginia Convention in June 1778, he proclaimed:  “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects…For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”  Finally he states: “Say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my God and myself alone.”  Letter to John Adams, January 1817.

James Madison, the fourth President, and often identified as the “Father of the Constitution” authored major sections of the Federalist Papers, advocating for the passage of the Constitution.  He was certainly one of the greatest champions of that document. Because his early expressions of his religious views are said to have varied greatly from his private statements late in his life, it is difficult to set forth a concise statement of those beliefs.  Early in his political life he described that the “democratic will” is subordinate to the commands of God, but clarified that those commands are “heard and understood in the individual conscience”. Advocating for the Constitution’s language on the separation of church and state, he stated that “Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance;…in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”  Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.  Madison spoke and wrote frequently on the issue of religious freedom. He authored Federalist Papers #51, in which he wrote a slight variation of his theme, stating that: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

 Last, but not least, of our best remembered colonial leaders is Benjamin Franklin.  Never a President, and always somewhat apart from the main stream even of the late 18th century, his thoughts about faith, only months prior to his death are witty and plain-spoken: “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe…That the soul of man is immortal…As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.”
What does it matter? It is apparent that they were respected by their peers, that they were able to define themselves as men of integrity who embraced people of good will where ever they found them.  Certainly, in forging a government of people from such varied backgrounds they were able to shape the original “big tent” of which President Ronald Reagan spoke.  But further, they constructed a government in which people were able to come together as equals, with the interests of the majority and the interests of the various minorities all considered and given worth.  They gave respect to the individual, created a government based democratic values and expectations of liberty.  Most important, they gave our citizens a Constitution and Bill of Rights that became the basis for a government that has thrived for over 200 years.  Sadly, they did not protect us from the inhumanity of  slavery or insure the equal treatment of women and minorities.  But over the course of U.S. History. the concepts of liberty, equality and justice have prevailed and these fundamental rights were extended to all citizens.
                                                                                          Out of Many, One