Video: Politics play in battle to save Hemingway's house

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/3/2006 7:49:32 PM ET 2006-12-04T00:49:32

Hidden behind a white concrete wall, high on a hill overlooking the Cuban capital, is a living monument to the literary achievement of one of America's most famous writers.

For 21 years, from 1939 to 1960, Ernest Hemingway lived and worked at the home known as "Finca Vigia" or "Lookout Farm," which was converted into a museum and is now being restored.

"This little piece of Cuban land was his home, his homeland, too," says Gladys Rodriguez, a former curator of the property.

Standing before his black Royal typewriter in a simple bedroom here, which he converted into a messy office, Hemingway finished one masterpiece, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and fully wrote another one set in Cuba, "The Old Man and the Sea." That latter work, known around the world, was turned into several movies, and earned Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

Restoration work
Since last year, Cuban workers have been restoring the Hemingway home, after decades of tropical storms, humidity, and termites did a lot of damage. They are also repairing his storied fishing boat, the Pilar, which is also displayed here, and are preserving thousands of historic manuscripts, documents and books.

Despite the political differences between their governments, Cuban and American preservation experts are working together, but find themselves limited and frustrated by lingering political roadblocks.

While Americans are allowed to share resources and to collaborate on the restoration of printed materials and photos, they can only offer technical assistance for the repair of the house and the boat. Americans are specifically prohibited from sending any money or materials for that phase of the project.

The Bush Administration has ruled that such monetary and material assistance would violate the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, and would support the Cuban government by helping it to promote tourism and attract foreign currency.

Cuban restoration workers say they need American supplies and material to properly finish the project, and scoff at the notion the Cuban government will make money as a result of such U.S. help. They argue that any money collected from tourists will be poured back into the restoration effort, and say the value of saving Hemingway's legacy is of equal value to both countries.

"Hemingway is a cultural bridge between both our people," says Gladys Rodriguez. "It's not political, no I never think in that way. It's a cultural thing only."

Isbel Ferreiro, a Cuban preservation specialist, adds that Finca Vigia is an important destination for local school children.

"In our system of education," she says, "Hemingway is included."

American support
Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the U.S. placed Finca Vigia on it's list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, for the first time designating a building outside the country.

Jenny Phillips, who heads the Hemingway Preservation Foundation in Concord, Mass., argues the efforts to restore Hemingway's home in Cuba are purely cultural in nature, not political.

"We need to rise above the politics and passions of the moment and focus on the timeless value of this literary shrine," she says.

Phillips is the granddaughter of the late Maxwell Perkins, the New York editor credited with discovering Hemingway and helping to shape his career. She says the Foundation will re-apply for a license next year to continue the restoration work in Cuba, and hopes the U.S. government will loosen its restrictions on what American supporters can do there.

Frozen in time
Much of Finca Vigia today is the way Hemingway left it 46 years ago. Covering the walls are paintings, huge posters and his hunting trophies from around the world, including the head of an African Cape Buffalo.

His Zenith radio and phonograph still work, and the record collection is filled with classical music, operas and American standards. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is particularly well-worn.

In the front of the house is the simple room where he crafted his master works, and the Cubans have kept his typewriter in mint condition. Nearby is the bathroom where Hemingway would write on the walls each day, recording the date and his weight.  The last entry is July 24, 1960. Hemingway weighed 190 pounds then.

A year later, the legendary writer would die by his own hand in Idaho, leaving behind much of his legacy in Cuba — a memory too important, Cuban and American preservationists say — to be dulled by political conflict.

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