“I wanted to study Cuban cigars, Cuban rum and Hemingway, in that order,” Forest Park National Bank President Jerry Vainisi said of his eight-day trip to Cuba in January. “I also wanted to see Cuba in its unspoiled state before it opens up to tourism.” Vainisi found the cigars pricey, $15-20 dollars apiece, with others costing upwards of $200, but “they were smooth, with no bitter aftertaste.”

Vainisi and fellow-banker Don Offermann were part of a contingent of 10 who visited the island. Offermann, who has a Ph.D in English and is a former superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School, had a particular interest in Cuba’s connection to Ernest Hemingway. As Vainisi put it, “Don had a childlike enthusiasm for Hemingway.”

Offermann brought a treasured gift to the Cuban people, who revere the author from Oak Park. “I presented Hemingway’s high school writings,” he said, “to the head of the Hemingway Committee of Cuba.” The collection consisted of 15,000 words. “Three of the short stories showed the nascent Hemingway,” Offermann said.

“Kids come to OPRF from all over the world,” Offermann said. “They’re all familiar with Hemingway. He’s the most widely-read American author because he wrote in simple declarative sentences.”

Like Offermann, several in the group were members of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. They were anxious to see the place where Hemingway kept a home from 1939 to 1960. The organizer of the trip was Scott Schwar, who had obtained the necessary license to guide a study group. In keeping with that spirit, they saw much more than the inside of nightclubs and hotels.

“Americans are not permitted to visit Cuba as tourists,” Offermann explained. “There has to be an educational component to the trip.” In fact he wrote a report about his journey. Their guide, Alicia, was a college graduate who taught English. Among the highlights of the trip were visits to the National Ballet of Cuba and various art museums. They also met with an economic minister and a retired justice from Cuba’s Supreme Court.

When they landed in Havana, however, Offermann was struck most by the sight of “Easter egg”-colored cars from the 1950s. “It made me feel like I was in high school again. My first car was a 1955 Ford.”

Vainisi also got a kick out of the vintage cars, which came in shades of pink, purple, and orange. “I saw more Studebakers and Edsels than I ever saw in the United States,” he said.

Cuba, which is the birthplace of the daiquiri, is known for its rum. The group toured the Legendario Rum Distillery, where they sampled a drink featuring flaming rum and coffee. “Their dark rum is magnificent,” Offermann testified. They especially enjoyed a visit to Hemingway’s favorite bar, El Floridita. Vainisi posed with his arm around a statue positioned at Hemingway’s customary perch. The group also enjoyed dining at Hemingway’s preferred restaurant, La Terraza.

They visited Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, a country house near the fishing village San Francisco de Paula, where he docked his beloved boat, Pilar. That boat later became the setting for his novel The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was an avid angler who held an annual fishing contest in the village. One year, it was won by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro.

“Hemingway had a tower built on the property,” Offermann said, “He planned to use it for writing but never did.” Still, it affords a magnificent view of Havana.

The Cuban people revere Hemingway and lovingly maintain his boat, his bars and his home, which contains a collection of 9,000 books. On the bathroom wall of his house, Hemingway kept track of his weight.

They preserved his room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel exactly as he left it: his typewriter on the desk, his fishing pole on the floor and clothes hanging in the closet. Hemingway hated to leave Cuba but felt it was necessary when Castro rose to power.

Members of the group were very impressed with Cuba and its people. When Castro took office, Cuba had a 35 percent literacy rate. He sent out an army of 100,000 teenagers to teach the populace to read and write. The island now has close to a 100 percent literacy rate. Cuba also has the most doctors per capita of any country and the finest medical care to be found in Latin America. They boast 100 percent employment (though many of the jobs are part-time) and provide housing, food and education free to the people. The standard of living remains low, though, as most houses lack hot running water.

Higher education is also free. Students can choose between college and vocational school. In the latter, they learn carpentry, stained glass-making and other skills needed to restore the island’s magnificent architecture. Old Havana is so well-preserved, Vainisi said he felt like he was in Europe.

The Cuban economy has always struggled but was dealt a crippling blow when the USSR collapsed. The Soviets provided a sizable subsidy that had allowed Cuba to survive the U.S. embargo. At the time of the revolution, Cuba’s principal product was sugar. When the price of sugar dropped, the cane fields were abandoned. It is estimated that a third of the country is fallow. Raul Castro instituted Cuba’s first entrepreneurial project, allowing people to buy this land and own their own farms.

“The spirit of the people is anything but depressed,” Offermann said.

Vainisi was struck by the fact that Cuba’s churches don’t allow services. “But the pope is visiting Cuba next month,” he noted, explaining that the pontiff is attempting to heal the wound from Pius XII who had aligned himself with Bautista.

Still, there was no escaping the fact that Cuba has a totalitarian regime. “We met with an economist,” Vainisi said. “He was very guarded and cloaked any criticism of the government.” Cuba doesn’t give its citizens access to the Internet. “There’s no chance of a Facebook revolution,” he said. “There’s two English-speaking TV stations CNN and ESPN. Cubans are restricted from travel unless they’re working abroad as an engineer or doctor.”

They were also reminded of Cuban politics, when the President of Iran passed within 10 feet of them. “He was there to receive an honorary degree from the University of Havana,” Offermann explained.

“The Cuban peso is equivalent to the U.S. dollar but it’s not internationally traded,” Vainisi added. “Forty pesos a month is standard pay. Sixty pesos is the highest salary, but you have a card that entitles you to food, and housing is provided.” The bankers brought euros to Cuba instead of dollars and, no they didn’t visit any banks.

Baseball is big in Cuba. Vainisi watched it played by “kids with sticks hitting tin cans on dusty fields.”

Aside from all the education the bankers absorbed, they found Cuban music, cuisine and culture to be delightful. “My favorite was the Tropicana Night Club,” Vainisi recalled. “It was started in 1939 and is the only pre-1959 business allowed to operate. It’s a spectacle of gorgeous females in ‘Carmen Miranda’ hats.” He had a little trepidation about attending the ballet but found it “vigorous, with very athletic moves.”

“We ate in the finest restaurants,” Offermann said. “A typical dish would be black beans and rice with shredded beef or pork. There’s not much fish in their diet.” Cuba imports most of its food.

“Cuban music is Caribbean, but it’s not like Jimmy Buffet or Bob Marley,” Vainisi continued. “It’s very upbeat with horns playing sambas and mambos.”

Cubans call the American embargo the “blockade” and hope it will be lifted one day. In the meantime, Americans are not permitted to bring back purchases from Cuba, not even $15 stogies smuggled in suitcases. That would be seen as “aiding an enemy,” said Vainisi.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.