Papa Hemingway in Cuba: First Hollywood Movie Shot in Cuba since 1959

Why a Stalinist regime rolled out the red carpet for a Hollywood production crew.

The mainstream media is absolutely agog over the movie-making “milestone” mentioned in this column’s title. Here’s some of the reaction:

“That the movie was made at all during the economic embargo was a feat of diplomacy, financial and otherwise,” (Helen Verongos, the New York Times.)

“Production values and on-location filming enhance the period flavor of ‘Papa: Hemingway in Cuba.’ The scenes inside the Hemingways’ home were filmed at the real Finca La Vigia, which has been restored as a museum.” (Joe Leydon, Variety.)

“Getting it (the movie) made against the backdrop of the U.S. embargo against Cuba required years of dedicated effort by director Bob Yari.” (Eliza Berman, Time.)

For the benefit of the agog, let’s flesh out this column’s title a bit and see if just maybe these ultra-educated critics can wrap their brains around the hows and whys of this earth-shaking “milestone.” To wit:

A KGB-founded and mentored totalitarian regime whose founder boasted, “propaganda is the vital heart of our struggle,” who the CIA pegs with “creating the most effective propaganda empire in the Western Hemisphere,”  whose KGB- mentored  secret police meticulously vet every single visa applicant—especially academics, journalists and filmmakers –this very regime SOMEHOW permitted a Hollywood production crew on its sovereign soil!

Furthermore, the Stalinist regime’s military and secret police own the nation’s tourism facilities almost lock, stock and barrel. Ernest Hemingway’s haunts from El Floridita bar to the Ernest Hemingway Marina to his former home Finca Vigia itself rank among the Stalinist nation’s top tourist attractions.

…….And oh ….Almost forgot: Recently declassified Soviet documents also reveal how the subject of the film served as an eager (but bumbling) KGB agent.

Is this milestone beginning to make a little sense, movie critics? Any inkling about why Cuba’s Stalinist authorities _migh_t have rolled out the red carpet for these movie producers? Here’s another hint: in 1960 the movie’s main character, this former KGB agent, also wrote:

“Castro’s revolution is very pure and beautiful. I’m encouraged by it. The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time.’

It’s all due to the Castro regime’s “mellowing” and “allowing more artistic freedom” owing exclusively to President Obama’s “engagement,” right? At least that’s the implication from most reviewers so far.

Never mind that –as we’ve often discussed hereabouts—Obama’s  loopholing of one of the most phenomenally successful foreign policy ventures in recent U.S. history (the Cuba “embargo”) has actually yielded the most relentlessly humiliating debacle in recent U.S. diplomatic history.

In fact, almost unanimously, the critics—while hailing the movie as a work of shrewd and enlightened diplomacy—also pan the movie as work of art. From the UK Guardian over to the Rolling Stone and the very New York Times most film critics slam the movie as a total mess. “Hollywood’s Havana Horror” is how the UK Guardian titles its review.

The story centers on a friendship between a Miami –based newspaper reporter who visits and “hangs” with his hero Hemingway during “Papa’s” last few years living in Cuba.

As it turned out, in the actual mechanics of operating as a KGB spy “Papa” proved a hideous flop. But hey!  It’s the thought that counts!  That Ernest Hemingway eagerly sought to serve the most murderous organization in modern history (Stalin and Beria’s Secret police during the waning hours of The Great Terror)—this remarkable volunteerism would certainly seem to merit recognition –especially from places like Hollywood and the New York Times.

Alas, not only does the movie omit any mention of Hemingway’s services for the KGB as agent Argo, but it also omits what could have provided the movie with some of its most dramatic scenes. I refer to Papa Hemingway as honored guest and charmed spectator during many of Che Guevara’s firing squad murder marathons, while gulping his especially- made-for-the-celebratory-occasion Daiquiris.

Hemingway knew full well what was going on behind the scenes of Castro and Che’s “pure and beautiful” revolution. Accounts of  “Papa” Hemingway’s eager presence at many of the Katyn-like massacres of untried Cubans comes courtesy of Hemingway’s own friend, the late George Plimpton (not exactly an “embittered right-wing Cuban exile”)  who  worked as editor of the Paris Review, (not exactly a “Mc Carthyite  scandal sheet.”)

In 1958 George Plimpton interviewed Hemingway in Cuba for one of the Paris Review’s most famous pieces. They became friends and the following year Hemingway again invited Plimpton down to his Finca Vigia just outside Havana. An editor at The Paris Review during the 1990’s, while relating how this high-brow publication passed on serializing the manuscript that became Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, reveals “Papa’s” unwitting role in the rejection.

 “I took the paper-clipped excerpt upstairs to the Boss (Plimpton),” writes James Scott Linville, “and said I had something strange and good. As I started to tell him about it, his smile faded. I stopped my pitch and said, “Boss, what’s the matter?”

“James, I’m sorry.” Linville recalls Plimpton replying. A sad look came over him, and he said, “Years ago, after we’d done the interview, Papa invited me down again to Cuba. It was right after the revolution. “There’s something you should see,” Hemingway told Plimpton while preparing a shaker of drinks for the outing.

“They got in the car with a few others and drove some way out of town.” Continues Linville (who is recalling Plimpton’s account.) “They got out, set up chairs and took out the drinks, as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon, a truck arrived. This, explained George, was what they’d been waiting for. It came, as Hemingway knew (italics mine), the same time each day. It stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In the back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners.

“The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck, and lined them up. Then they shot them. They put the bodies back into the truck.”

And so it started. Within a few years 16,000 men and boys (some of them U.S. citizens) would fill mass graves after scenes like the ones that so charmed Papa Hemingway with his thermos of specially-prepared Daiquiris. The figure for the Castroite murder tally is not difficult to find. Simply open “The Black Book of Communism,” written by French scholars and published in English by Harvard University Press (neither exactly an outpost of “embittered right-wing Cuban exiles.”)

“The facts and figures are irrefutable. No one will any longer be able to claim ignorance or uncertainty about the criminal nature of Communism,” wrote the New York Times (no less!) about “The Black Book of Communism.”

Some Cuban women also figure into the Castroite murder tally. On Christmas Eve 1961, for instance, a young Cuban woman named Juana Diaz Figueroa spat in the face of the executioners who were binding and gagging her. They’d found her guilty of feeding and hiding “bandits” (Che Guevara’s term for Cuban rednecks who took up arms to fight his theft of their land to create Stalinist kolkhozes.) When the blast from that firing squad demolished her face and torso Juana was six months pregnant.

Pure and beautiful indeed.