An international co-production about Ernest Hemingway's life in Cuba has become the first full-length feature with a Hollywood cast and crew to be shot on the island since the 1959 revolution. Could it be the key to breaking down the US economic embargo against Cuba?
By
Matthew Clayfield

19 Jun 2014 - 11:53 AM  UPDATED 20 Jun 2014 - 10:11 AM

An international co-production about Ernest Hemingway's life in Cuba has become the first full-length feature with a Hollywood cast and crew to be shot on the island since the 1959 revolution. Bob Yari's Papa finished shooting in Havana last month and tells the story of Hemingway's friendship with the American journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc in the lead-up to that seismic event.

The Canadian-Cuban-American production was allowed to shoot on the island under a special licence from the US Treasury Department exempting it from most of the infamous trade embargo restrictions that have been in place for more than fifty years and that have forced films like The Godfather, Part II, Havana and Che to shoot sequences set in the country in neighbouring ones.

It is unsurprising that it was a film about Hemingway that should have been afforded this special privilege. 

It is unsurprising that it was a film about Hemingway that should have been afforded this special privilege. Cuba's cottage Hemingway industry has long played an important role in bringing the US and Cuba closer together. The restoration of the writer's San Francisco de Paula home, Finca Vigía, where he lived from 1939 to 1960, has taken years of co-operation between various Cuban and American organisations, both struggling against the dictates of their respective governments.

The results of their labours thus far—the preservation and digitisation of literally thousands of the writer's papers—symbolise both what is possible when the countries relax their policies towards one another and, perhaps more importantly, what is at stake when they fail to do so. We would have neither the Hemingway Letters Project, which has already published two of an anticipated seventeen volumes of the writers' correspondence, nor the alternate ending to For Whom the Bell Tolls, had the countries been content to leave the papers to rot in the property's basement with a single dehumidifier to offset the process.

That almost everybody on either side of the congressional aisle is in favour of doing away with the embargo, and has been for some time, is common knowledge 

These achievements follow a number of positive steps that have been taken by the US in relation to Cuba over the course of the Obama administration's tenure: the relaxation of travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans with family on the island, the easing of restrictions on academic exchanges, the restoration of people-to-people educational travel, and so on. But the economic embargo remains in place as ever. Even Papa was forced to accept a cap on the production's spending in Cuba in order to win its licence—the amount spent in the country has not been disclosed, no doubt to avoid raising the ire of the Cuban-American Republicans in Florida and New Jersey for whom the embargo's continued existence often appears to be the only reason for their own—while also applying as a documentary, rather than as a drama. This is an exception, the message appears to be. Don't expect it to become the rule.
 
This is a shame. That almost everybody on either side of the congressional aisle is in favour of doing away with the embargo, and has been for some time, is common knowledge. More than half the US population—and 63 per cent of Florida's—is similarly in favour of normalising relations with the island. It isn't difficult to see why. To the extent that the ostensible strategic purpose of the embargo is to weaken the Cuban government, it remains as counterproductive as it is supposedly counter-revolutionary. Indeed, if anything, it allows the Castros to strengthen their position by blaming their own economic failures on the behemoth to the north. The embargo has become a legislative relic that hasn't worked, but that no one can quite bring themselves to repeal for fear of losing face.
 
As the case of the Finca Vigía demonstrates, increased contact between Americans and Cubans can only help to facilitate the flow of ideas and information—including those about democracy and human rights—between the two countries. Are we really to believe that the embargo's supporters would rather leave Cubans' perceptions of the US to the boring moustachioed fellow on state-run television who drones on for several hours each day about "imperialismo norteamericano"? To subtitled re-runs of bad crime dramas and Fidel's increasingly sporadic two-page rants in Granma? What sort of message does the US send about its professed ideals of freedom and liberty—about the "pro-democracy environment" on its own shores, to borrow a phrase from the Republicans—when it so readily denies its citizens the right to travel wheresoever they please, to work or otherwise? This is the embargo's real contribution to Cuban democracy: a failure to lead by example that has set the cause back by decades. The Hemingway industry's gains notwithstanding, Hollywood looks set to continue casting other countries in the role of the island for some time yet.

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent.