On March 4, 1960, the French freighter La Coubre, delivering Belgian arms to Havana Harbor, exploded, killing 101 people. Fidel Castro immediately denounced the United States for “sabotage.” To protest the “heinous act,” commanders Che Guevara, Ramiro Valdés, Camilo Cienfuegos, William Morgan, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado (who would remain the president of Cuba until 1976), and Fidel Castro walked arm in arm down Calle Neptuno, forming a dramatic contrast between the street’s garish neon signs and the plain green of their uniforms—and the sobriety of their mission.
In a photo taken on March 5, 1960, by Alberto Korda at a ceremony for the victims of the tragedy, Che appears full of sorrow, anger, and determination. That image would become ubiquitous across the world, a trademark, appearing on T-shirts and countless other commodities. Che transcended his personhood and became a symbol for both the struggle against tyranny and of tyranny itself. His spirit seemed to impress even nihilist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, who, with Simone de Beauvoir, was there that mournful day when Che’s picture was taken.
One of Che’s first questions in taking over as president of the Banco Nacional de Cuba in November was where Cuba had deposited its gold reserves and dollars. When he was told Fort Knox, he said that the gold would have to be sold and converted into currency in Canadian and Swiss accounts. During a speaking engagement at the bank two months later, Che apologized “because my talk has been much more fiery than you would expect for the post I occupy; I ask once more for forgiveness, but I am still much more of a guerrilla than President of the National Bank.” As if to prove it, he signed banknotes with his nom de guerre: “Che.” The agenda was the struggle, and so it would remain, and La Coubre only confirmed the necessity of his resolve and commitment to the bitter end.
Most every Thursday evening that season, U.S. Ambassador Philip Bonsal dined with Ernest Hemingway. One evening he came also to deliver an upsetting message: the U.S. government was going to break off relations with Cuba. Washington decreed that Hemingway, as the island’s most conspicuous, high-profile expatriate, should leave Cuba as soon as possible and publicly proclaim his disapproval of Castro’s government. If he did not, he could be sure that he would face serious and unpleasant consequences. Hemingway protested: his business was not politics but writing, and for twenty-two years Cuba had been his home. Be that as it may, Bonsal replied that high officials maintained a different view, had used the word traitor, and saw his collaboration as a nonnegotiable.
That was the message he had to deliver, the ambassador said, and he believed that Ernest should take it quite seriously. As the course of dinner conversation drifted to other subjects, the Hemingways and their dinner guests tried to think about happier things but found it difficult to forget what had just been said. Hemingway was not one to take orders, and one can imagine that this news and the imminent loss of his cherished home in Cuba would have been very unsettling. From Bonsal’s warning, it is also difficult to know the severity of the “consequences” that might have come as a response to Hemingway’s acts of “treason.” A letter of reprimand, loss of citizenship, a fine, imprisonment, or something much more sinister?
On his next visit, Phil told them that he had been recalled, and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba had officially been broken. He was leaving the next day. They tried to be cheerful, saying it was just temporary, that it would pass. Before leaving, however, Phil softly reminded Ernest of the warning he had made on his previous visit. From her unique vantage point as Hemingway’s “last secretary,” Valerie Danby-Smith witnessed these scenes firsthand: “He felt now more than ever that Ernest would have to make an open choice between his country and his home—loudly and clearly, so that the world would know where he stood. We all embraced, promising to meet again before too long, believing things could only improve. While we waved to Phil from the steps as he left, I noted the sadness in Ernest’s eyes. None of us would see Phil again.” It was time for Ernest to “review his narrowing options. The noose was tightening.”
Although Ernest prided himself on being loyal to his own country, a good American—as a longtime resident of the island, he had also forged deep bonds with Cuban people, family and friends, to whom he was unable to remain indifferent at a time when they were finally attaining what he felt was their “decent moment in history.” Consequently, Hemingway did not abandon his residence or speak out against Fidel Castro, but instead invited him and Che Guevara to go fishing. The annual Hemingway Marlin Fishing Tournament, scheduled for May 16, would attract sports enthusiasts from across the world during one of the first international events since the Cuban Revolution. Disregarding Ambassador Bonsal’s disturbing warning, Hemingway fraternized with the young revolutionaries and allowed reporters to photograph him by Castro’s side.
Deep-sea fishing is a skill learned with years of practice. Fidel was not a fisherman, but he would enjoy a stroke of beginner’s luck: following the rules and not cheating, he managed to hook two marlins the first day and another the second. Watching through their binoculars from the Pilar as Fidel fished and Che read Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, Mary and Ernest could hardly believe their eyes when Fidel brought the two marlins in and stopped his assistant from gaffing them until Fidel could grasp the leader himself (rather than the line—just as the rules specified).
Despite his busy schedule during the fragile first months of the revolution, Fidel would make a point of attending the competition all week. When asked if he planned to continue until the end of the contest, Fidel responded that the competition was organized by the National Institute of Tourism, so he participated to show his support and to promote tourism on the island: “The tournaments are very good, very well organized and many foreign fishermen have come to the international competition. I don’t presume to be a great fisherman, but I was invited and told that Hemingway would take part as well, I believe tomorrow, and as you know, he has always defended Cuba and the Revolution. He is a writer whose presence here is of great satisfaction for us.”
Fidel managed to win numerous individual prizes. Moreover, the comandante met one of his heroes eye to eye at the awards ceremony: Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel Prize winner, who had been gallant enough to support his cause. Castro took the silver trophy cup, which the writer presented him that evening at the dock.
“I am a novice at fishing,” said Fidel, unexpectedly shy in the company of the white-bearded writer, looking thinner than in any picture he had ever seen.
“You are a lucky novice,” Hemingway replied. “I congratulate you, Comandante. On the other hand, I am rarely as fortunate. I never have any luck during competitions. In general, I am very unlucky!”
They chuckled. Afterward, Hemingway and Castro conversed for about thirty minutes somewhat separated from the rest of the crowd.
“He said he’d read The Bell in Spanish and used its ideas in the Sierra Maestra,” Ernest mumbled uneasily to his wife on the way home, possibly doubting Castro’s sincerity after meeting him in person. Having optimistically proclaimed his support for Castro in public, Hemingway now perhaps found himself over his head in Cuban politics and uncertain how the revolution and his role in it would turn out.
Andrew Feldman spent two years conducting research in residence at the Hemingway Museum and Library in Havana, Cuba. He has taught at Tulane University, Dillard University, and the University of Maryland. He lives with his wife in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Excerpted from Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba, by Andrew Feldman, published by Melville House.