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A depiction of a person can be seen in the figure above. It is an image of a person who is standing in the center of the screen. Their arms are outstretched and their face is looking skyward.
The background is filled with a bright blue hue and the individual is surrounded by a yellow aura.
We had really come to Havana with the intention of smoking cigars, but instead we found ourselves wandering through the Museum of the Revolution.
The former presidential palace now contains relics from the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, with guards reading and tourists passing by displays of aged documents and garments stained with blood.
Interspersed throughout the socialist saga, in both Spanish and English, are souvenir stores offering books, flags, DVDs and T-shirts. Despite the lack of goods in Cuba, there is a surprising amount of merchandise available for sale.
When it comes to smoking, the museum in Havana is one of the few places that enforces a ban, but the revolution was permitido fumar.
As we paid our respects to Che (many photos suggest his Montecristos may have been the cause of his demise had it not been for the CIA), we had to acknowledge that most of the reasons we had given for visiting Cuba, even to ourselves, were false.
We had claimed to be interested in how a New World leaf, once regarded by Renaissance Europeans as “negro stuff,” could become a universal symbol of wealth when rolled into tiny torpedoes.
We wanted to know how this capitalist icon was faring on the fiftieth anniversary of the revolutionary state that created it. We thought this could be a great opportunity to exploit an irony – something we told our editors, friends, and traveling companions.
Of course, there were plenty of other reasons to go to Cuba- the leftist pilgrimage, the sense of rebellion, the crumbling elegance, and the fact that anything that happened in Cuba was likely to stay there, unlike in Vegas
. Plus, the possibility that Obama might lift the travel ban was looming.
But really, all we wanted was a smoke- a luxurious bath in the fog fromcigars from across the world without having to break any laws, or break the bank, or break up with partners who were saying cancer, cancer or complaining about the stench. But why was it proving so difficult?
Captured in 1998, this photograph taken by Andrew Moore and courtesy of Yancey Richardson Gallery, shows hitchhikers along the Malecon in Havana with the El Moro monument in the backdrop.
Smoking cigars was everywhere. In Old Havana, the Ambos Mundos hotel, gift shops, and even on the street. But the one place you wouldn’t find Cubans puffing away on one was in their mouths.
This made the experience of smoking one here feel as out of place as it would be back home where they are seen as a symbol of wealth and luxury. We had expected that smoking Cuban cigars in Cuba would help us let go of the stigma and simply enjoy the cigar.
Yet, every time we lit up, we could feel the judgment of being perceived as a tourist with a fanny pack and Hawaiian shirt. This was not our intention in coming here.
When Fidel’s Twenty-sixth of July Movement took control of the Havana Hilton in January 1959, the barbudos were famously seen wearing beards and smoking cigars.
While they were planning to nationalize the marble beneath their feet, their choice of the pricey Montecristos, Partagas, and Bauzas, as well as the Cohiba brand they later created, sparked questions of anachronism, ironic appropriation, and nationalism.
Cuba’s connection to tobacco is part of their national identity. There is evidence that the plant came to the island between the third and second millennia BCE from South America, where the Mayans were known to cultivate it.
The Tainos taught Christopher Columbus how to smoke the cohibas and it wasn’t until the Spanish began to monopolize the trade in the late nineteenth century that Cuban cigars became internationally renowned.
The revolution, in reclaiming the cigar from the imperialists, also reclaimed a part of Cuban mythology.
Fidelistas manipulated the myth for their own gains. In 1961, Che Guevara wrote that no other plant or industry in Cuba is as closely tied to the country’s revolutionary struggles as tobacco and cigar making.
That same year, Castro took many privately owned vegas (tobacco farms) and gave them to the state. Cigar production was then centrally managed to gain foreign currency for the nation’s socialist policies.
Due to these circumstances, many iconic cigar makers left Cuba with smuggled Cuban tobacco seeds and relocated to other areas of the Caribbean and Central America.
There, they began to set up vegas and factories to continue manufacturing cigars with the same brand names they had used in their homeland.
Nowadays, cigars with these Cuban brand names are made in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Florida, along with their production in Cuba.
The emigre producers, which are often owned by corporations like General Cigar Company and Imperial Tobacco, possess expertise, access to technology, and capital.
The American cigar press has been known to give higher ratings to their products compared to those from Cuba.
However, this could be attributed to the fact that the press gains it’s revenue from advertisements bought by these very same emigre producers as Cuban ads, like Cuban cigars, are disallowed under the embargo.
The contraband status of Cuban cigars in the US increases their appeal, making the experience of smoking them that much more special. The cost of Cuban cigars is significantly higher than other brands, making them a sort of ‘Swiss bank account’ for smokers.
JFK’s embargo on Cuban imports in 1962 is an example of just how coveted Cuban cigars were, with some sources saying he had his press secretary buy up all the H. Upmann Petit Corona cigars in the Washington area before the order was signed.
The revolutionary nation of Cuba has adopted a symbol usually associated with the wealthiest people in the world.
However, the United States has banned it due to its communist origin, which only serves to increase its value on the free market, which goes against the purpose of the embargo. This brings up a strange contrast between the two nations’ ideologies surrounding the habanero.
We wanted to find out what the Cuban people thought about this paradox, and thought the best way to do so would be to talk with them over a smoke.
When we encountered an American couple, Pat and Mike, in the airport while en route to Havana, they appeared to be very cheerful and relaxed. They seemed to consider their trip to Cuba as a great opportunity to buy a high-end Nikon and have fun.
Later, when we ran into them in the Museum of the Revolution’s gift shop, they were having a great time and Pat had even bought a book called The CIA Against Che. A shop clerk shushed us, which made us quite uncomfortable.
As the museum guards were ushering visitors out, we saw them again. We were tempted to ask them to join us for cocktails, however, we did not.
Pat and Mike veered off in one direction while we took another, walking down a tight avenue of charmingly-hued dwellings with grand mahogany doors. Tiny balconies were accessible from the second story windows of French design.
The houses resembled those you could find in New Orleans or Charleston. Every so often, one of the mammoth American automobiles from the 1950s, emblematic of Havana, drove by; besides that, the street was empty.
It was not as warm as we would have wished in the late afternoon, with a gust of wind blowing some garbage around. Then, the rain started coming down. A feeling of animosity pervaded the atmosphere.
We voiced our doubt that they were a couple.
He has a boyish look with freckles, while she appears more mature and womanly with her swarthy complexion.
There is a tendency for individuals with disparate characteristics to be drawn to one another.
It is not the case that they are opposing forces.
“Well, that does not necessarily imply that they are not engaging in sexual intercourse.”
As we made our way across an intersection, we had reached the boundary of a poorer area. The architecture, in the same stately design as the ones we had come across, were deteriorating. In some places, a villa was lacking a wall, while a palazzo had no windows.
But with the decay, came an abundance of life. An array of men drinking beer, couples canoodling, and kids being playful filled the streets.
We could hear some lively tunes coming from a nearby establishment. In the entrance was a mountainous bouncer, who could have thrown out anyone who weighed less than three hundred pounds without batting an eye.
We cautiously went around him and into a cozy interior; the walls were a salmon-colored hue, the floor was a pale green, and the evening light was radiating through the large windows.
The only free table was left and as we were about to take it, the musicians finished their performance. The barman then switched on the TV above the bar and increased the volume to watch a concert video.
We were surrounded by a blend of tourists and locals. We got beers and soon after, a cigar vendor with a limp came up to us and began to pitch his products. His expression changed from one of a salesman to another.
He flashed a cigar box, offering, “You need tobacco? I’ve got tobacco.” It was done so fast it looked suspicious.
When he saw that we were already set, he scurried away, but came back shortly with a lighter to sell as soon as he noticed us having issues with lighting up–due to the cold weather, the windows and doors were wide open and the wind kept blowing out our matches.
We made our way to the back of the bar and were able to light our smokes there.
We started to appreciate the acceptance of the atmosphere. We reclined, drank, inhaled, exhaled, and exhaled with contentment, observing the people around us and feeling a break from our normal lives.
The cigars were ordinary, but being able to smoke them in public without feeling judged or uncomfortable was a luxury. Suddenly, a glass shattered and a busboy raced through the entrance with a broom and dustpan.
A couple of women kept their gaze trained on the door where a sign said that single people were not allowed.
We queried the doorman concerning the placard. He gave us a vague answer. He was confident that it was the ideal option.
We expressed our gratitude to him, ostensibly for his response, but really for not crushing our heads with his powerful grip.
We questioned whether the rule was meant to target prostitutes.
We responded with, “But why not just put a sign up saying NO SOLICITING?”
It could be that is the case.
“But why limit it to couples–if you’re not from around here, you should be able to enter by yourself.”
We investigated the people in the area. There were not many who were in pairs. Those solo did not appear to be from around here, and those in groups were not necessarily Cuban.
That is, it was uncertain if they were Cuban and if they were, they no longer had the appearance of being a local.
Or even if they were from the area, they seemed to have been brought in to create a certain atmosphere, one that would not be too much of a tourist attraction to people like us. But how did we know this?
The issue with smoking is it encourages contemplation, yet we had arrived at a point where we were able to smoke but could not think, or our reflections were especially unproductive.
The unidentified group, the cigar merchant, the sign forbidding individuals–we acknowledged we couldn’t make sense of what we were watching. A great deal of our time in Havana ended up being this way, to give us insights of unawareness.
We inhaled until there was no more to draw on, and then headed back home.
At the Cuban cigar factory, it is said that tobacco and revolution come together because of the reading session tradition.
This is thought to have begun back in 1865 at the El Figaro factory, where a single worker would read aloud to the other rollers, who would then make up his quota.
This practice left its footprints in the cigar industry, giving rise to the brands Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo, named after the famous works of literature by Shakespeare and Dumas.
In the Museum of Tobacco in Havana, a wooden case is carved with the saying “Labor omnia vinci” and contains labels from long gone brands, which were inspired by the readings of their workers, such as Antonio y Cleopatra, Shakespeare, Byron, and Webster.
This gives us the amusing image of someone reading the dictionary to the cigar makers, which makes us want to try a panatela.
On our first day in Havana, Ramon, our fifteen year old guide, informed us with a distressed countenance that the factories were shut for the tobacco gathering.
He often appeared anguished when speaking with us–his intellectual sadness would have caused us to assume he was a dissident from Eastern Europe, had we encountered him in New York.
His English was remarkable, and when we used an expression he wasn’t familiar with, he would question us about it and use it himself at the earliest opportunity.
Ramon informed us that instead of going to the factory, we would be taken to the Hotel Conde de Villanueva and that it would be even better. He said that there would be a cigar roller present and we remarked that this could be seen in any US city.
He assured us that the individual rolling the cigars was an expert. We told him we got it, but were unsure if we actually did.
Upon entering the Conde, it felt as if we were visiting the Man himself. We expected to be greeted by a don in a white suit, Panama hat, and tinted eyeglasses. The atmosphere was hushed, suggesting that secrecy was of the utmost importance.
But what was the secret? Ramon’s voice lowered as we stepped into the hacienda courtyard, with its fountain, lush tropical plants, and intricate Mediterranean tilework, and a peacock strolling around.
We quickly snapped a shot of the peacock, just in case it decided to show off its tail.
Ramon informed us that Habaguanex, a state-owned hotel operator, established the Conde in the late 1990s to serve cigar aficionados. We were astonished to learn that cigar tourists even existed, and assumed that we were being classed as one.
We were going to object, however, we were close to midday and had still not lit up a cigar. We accompanied Ramon up a mahogany stairway and across an internal balcony to the imposing wooden door of the cigar bar.
The bar was dimly lit and cozy, much like a cigar box in itself. The cigar roller had a distinguished look, with a long mustache, dark hair slicked back and a burgundy sport coat.
We were given a lecture on the details of tobacco production, such as the location of the leaves on the plant, the sunlight position, harvesting, curing, blending, rolling and capping. Though we struggled to remember his words, the lecture was timed with his actions.
We were presented with two Habanero cigars at the end, and all we could think to ask was “How are your hands not stained yellow?”
He made a snorting sound and then told us to go to the sitting-room to appreciate his present. “It’s only cigarettes that can do that,” he added.
We took a seat on a small loveseat. A man with a torch lighter then came in, and we began to smoke. Coffee was served, then brandy. Ramon sat up in an armchair and politely declined both. He said that he just drank cappuccinos and the Conde had no milk, nor did he smoke.
We wanted to be concerned for him, but were too taken with our own pleasure. This was not the right moment for pity. The tobacco, coffee, and brandy, with their roasted tastes, were too delightful. We lifted our glasses to Prometheus, who had been forgotten lately.
The atmosphere felt as if it was made for a sharing of secrets. O., the president-elect, was on the television in the background. We attempted to have a discussion about politics with Ramon, however, we did not manage to make much headway.
When he did not wish to talk, he would lower his eyelids and look away. We then changed the subject to religion, which was a more suitable topic for this situation.
The Don re-activated the espresso maker in anticipation of his next customers. We questioned his estimation of the cigars crafted in other nations since the revolution.
He emphatically stated, “No way are they Cuban! Even if they used the Cuban seeds, it’s impossible to replicate that special Cuban microclimate. It’s like smoking hay!”
We inquired whether there had been any non-Cuban cigars that he had sampled and enjoyed. Immediately, he placed the cigar-manufacturing countries in order of preference.
Cuba is the top priority, followed by no one in the second spot. Tied in third place are the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, with Indonesia taking fourth.
His focus then changed to the two older Germans who had just appeared in the doorway of the sitting-room. We made room for them on the love seat and the man was given his cigar, which he studied as if it were a miniature missile.
His wife, who was not smoking, showed signs of slight aggravation. Their guide, a Cuban woman who was good-looking, sat next to them and shifted her facial expression into a smile.
He flourished a petite blowtorch in his hand, while the German puffed away with steadfastness characteristic of their people.
He declared to us, “I don’t smoke cigars,” while taking a puff, “however, I reasoned that while in Cuba I should give it a try.”
We started to feel less enthusiastic. We were watching a show with cigars. It was pleasing in a mindless way, but it wasn’t doing anything to challenge the legend of the habanero. Instead, it was constructing that myth on the broken down system of socialism.
Before the initial act was done, we were already getting restless in our seats.
The hotel courtyard, which was in a state of tranquility, resembled a Cigar Aficionado photo session. Not even the peacock displayed its tail feathers.
As we stepped out of the cigar sanctum and onto the street, we noticed a wizened old man, smoking a Churchill in the entrance to a building, with a woman who had a sharp eye sitting beside him.
As we were walking by, she yelled in English, “You can get your photograph taken with him!” At that moment, we realized who her companion was – the elderly gentleman puffing on a cigar featured on the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba.
It was clear to us that all tourist industries showcase their local identity, with customs, cuisine, scenery, and other local characteristics packaged up for sale.
Cuba, however, stands in a unique position; it is both a tropical paradise that has long been a destination for colonialist pleasure-seekers, and a nation founded on socialist principles.
It appears that the Cuban government is taking advantage of this duality to offer tourists a colonial-style experience to benefit its citizens and their socialist values.
It wasn’t always the case that tourism was a part of Cuba’s economy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba experienced the ” peri odo especial“, and as a result of the subsidies and imports no longer being available, the country’s economy suffered.
With half of its arable land allocated to sugar, Cuba was unable to feed itself – the only thing keeping people from starving was rationing. The Cuban government thus decided to capitalize on its least developed asset – tourism.
As a result, the number of visitors to the nation rose from 270,000 in 1989 to 2.2 million in 2006, a large number for a population of 11 million. By 2003, even with the American travel ban, tourism was responsible for 50% of the foreign currency coming into Cuba.
The Cuban government developed strategies to retain the classless society in light of the tourist influx. Tourists are typically found at all-inclusive beach resorts, where euros are the accepted currency, and seem unaware of the differences between Cuba and other Caribbean getaways.
The state keeps tourists under close control, using special convertible pesos known as CUCs, instead of the local currency, moneda nacional. Hotels must be at least 51 percent state-owned, and Cubans were only recently allowed to be guests.
Private homes, or casas particulares, that rent rooms to foreigners must follow specific regulations, and all visitors must be reported within 24 hours.
Tourists are also encouraged to use the official government agency, Infotur, and to travel around the country on luxury coaches, with tickets sold for CUCs. There are even special medical clinics for foreigners.
These measures serve to protect Cuba’s socialist society from being negatively impacted by tourists.
We had no complaints about the situation. Plus, the regulations were often disregarded and disregarded. What confused us was the display of pre-Castro colonialist state that the government was willing to show.
We wanted to light up cigars, but not in a neocolonial cigar lounge. It seemed that the tourism officials were ignorant to the fact that a lot of people who were not going to resorts had come to experience socialism.
On Sunday we had an idea. We decided to attend a b eisbol match. We were looking forward to a laid-back experience with a beer and a cigarette. We had read that the stadiums were full of cigar-factory personnel.
It seemed like the perfect place to participate in some form of cultural exchange: our sport, their tobacco?
No difficulty arose when we located the special ticket window for non-natives at Estadio Latinoamericano. Before we knew it, we had made it in time for the playing of the national anthem.
Bayamesans, march to combat!
For your country looks proudly upon you.
Have no fear of a glorious death
For dying for the homeland is living.
We had made it to our destination and were now surrounded by the hundreds of people. Even though the crowd was large, not one lit cigar could be spotted. In fact, the only smoking that was done was with cigarettes, but that was done away from us.
Our seats, located in the foreigners section, were directly behind home plate, which was great aside from the dark net, rising from the backstop to the top tier. We asked a food vendor for some cervezas and she asked for the money upfront before she left.
In a short amount of time, we realized why the stadium was so vacant. We had mistakenly come to watch the wrong squad. Just as New York City has two teams, Havana also has two, Industriales being the equivalent of the Yankees.
The other is so similar to the Mets that they even share the same name. We were there to observe the Mets, yet the Industriales logo painted on a building overlooking left field made it difficult to forget the team they were competing against.
The individual seated behind us, a Cuban-baseball enthusiast from Philadelphia, declared that they were not proficient pitchers, but on occasion they could hit, but not run the bases well.
Gazing at a mesh for a long time could give the illusion of a crisscross pattern on one’s eyeballs. When we informed the blogger of our intention to relocate, he informed us that it was not allowed.
We queried if we should proceed to that area.
He replied saying that he was merely repeating what he had been told.
By the time the Mets had gone through three pitchers, they were trailing by four runs, so we thought about our potential strategies.
We suggested advancing the third baseline.
We responded with the suggestion to take a relaxed attitude.
What is your opinion on the matter?
The vendor returned without our drinks, but then pointed us towards a doorway. A man was waiting for us, who handed us two cans of beer hidden in paper and then quickly left.
We quickly tucked the outlawed beverages under our clothing and hurried back to our seats to watch the Mets continue to suffer.
By the seventh inning, the game had concluded. As the Mets’ player was thrown out on an attempted steal of third base, we had to avert our gaze. There, near the third base line, Pat and Mike were found in the middle of a cluster of Cuban kids.
We questioned why they were allowed to occupy that seat.
It appears they just purchased standard tickets.
One might wonder how they managed it, as they would have had to masquerade as Cubans.
It appears that she has Cuban features.
It is not the case that they are able to converse in Spanish.
Mike aimed the video recorder at the children, who then expressed themselves through singing, dancing, and posing for the camera.
The spectators are not paying attention to the game.
This game is not enjoyable to watch.
If it hadn’t been for your insistence on buying beers, we could have gone to that place.
“You don’t seem to be consuming your drink. May I have it?”
I’m reserving it for a future time.
You are preserving room in your bladder.
It is time to vacate this place.
We ventured to the tobacco-producing municipality of Pinar del Rio, which is located to the west of Havana.
This agricultural area features rolling hills, limestone rock outcroppings, and reddish soil. In 1962, the United States identified the presence of SS-4 nuclear missiles installed by the Soviets.
In rural Cuba, there is a renowned support for the revolution. The Twenty-sixth of July Movement provided healthcare, education, electricity, and hurricane defense for small farmers.
In addition, foreign owners were kicked out of the country and vast estates were appropriated and either put into collective ownership or given to tenant farmers.
Now, small farmers are permitted to own up to 40.3 hectares and are required to sell four fifths of their produce to the government at set prices, with the rest being used for themselves or offered in privatised farmers’ markets.
If Cuban farmers were allowed to raise what they wanted and sell it at market rate, it’s probable that Pinar’s farmers would opt for tobacco. Nevertheless, the state is the only one that buys tobacco, and they pay a much lower price than its hard-currency worth.
Growing tobacco is a way of providing help to the state rather than an approach to make a profit. This is why we wanted to meet some of the farmers, presuming that they would appreciate cigars for their own merit, rather than as a measure of prestige.
Antonio7 showed us a raffia-wrapped pack of his own-rolled Creole cigars, then pointed to the four pockets on his blue work shirt which held them.
He had the look of Laurence Olivier in the role of a whiskey priest, and he informed us that he smokes twenty cigars a day, but only halfway.
He pulled the cigar from his mouth and gestured at an imaginary line through the middle, explaining that most of the nicotine is found in the second half.
We expressed our understanding, though internally we were questioning his sanity as the cigars were so delightful that we could only imagine discarding the second half by force of will.
He repeated, “Twenty cigars a day, and I am seventy years old,” and then removed his cap to show off his black and still-thick hair. Antonio’s turkey, Nazareño, took the chance to peck some malanga–a root similar to taro–from his hand.
The bird was remarkable, with brown and white stripes, a white head and a chest that was large and round. As it was feeding time, Antonio was encircled by a cacophony of poultry, where Nazareño was the king and Antonio the divine.
During our three days in Viñales, a tourist destination in the province of Pinar del Rio, we had the opportunity to observe the chickens in the streets, in the backyard of our rented accommodation and even on our dinner plates.
Viñales was a place we enjoyed more than its chickens. The town was encircled by limestone cliffs and the center had a European square that was pleasing to the eye.
The locals were friendly and the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution made sure there were signs everywhere that read “VIVA EL SOCIALISMO” or “UNIDOS POR LA PATRIA”. When we inquired about tobacco farmers, we were pointed to Antonio by the locals.
When we finished our cigars, we inquired if we could return. Antonio’s cigars were remarkable, and he had a certain air of courtesy and refinement about him–he was a true gentleman. Not a manor farmer, but the genuine article.
His cigars were the real McCoy–no labels, no box, no band, simply some brown leaves wrapped up in another leaf. If you wanted to get right down to the bare basics of cigar smoking, here they were: a plant, a farmer, and a match.
The construction of Cuban cigars is similar to the tobacco plants they come from. The outside layer is usually taken from the bottommost leaf on the plant. The tiny, uppermost leaves, which possess the most powerful flavor, are used for the filler.
To aid with an even burn, larger leaves from the middle of the plant are also included.
The process of growing tobacco starts in seed-beds and the best plants are then replanted in the fields. They are taken care of for the 40 days it takes them to reach full height, with any insects and weeds removed and fertilizers added.
The leaves are picked starting from the bottom of the plant, bunched together and hung in a drying barn to turn them from green to brown.
After that, they are taken down and placed in long piles to ferment, with moisture and warmth added to promote the release of harmful gasses and the preservation of the flavor-producing elements.
The fermentation process continues for at least 6 weeks, with the piles being regularly rearranged.
Two days prior, during a stroll in the Palmarito region, an area close to Viñales with dirt roads and vegetation consisting of malanga, pineapple, sweet potatoes, corn, and beans, and with farmers utilizing Brahman oxen to work the tobacco fields.
We had the chance to meet Rene, the initial tobacco farmer we encountered.
Rene did not appear to us like a grower of tobacco. Not a weathered laborer of the soil, he was a slender, affable youth with beaming eyes and a face as soft as a choirboy.
At age fifteen, he had relinquished school nine years beforehand to assume the responsibility of managing the farm when his parents became ill. His siblings had all gone to the city.
As we strolled around the field, we noticed a layer of powder on some of the foliage.
We queried about pesticide and Rene responded with a shake of his head. He made it clear that organic fertilizer was the only thing Cuban tobacco farmers ever used. He demonstrated by pretending to pluck a bug off a leaf and led us further.
The sight of the large machete he had retrieved from the shed discouraged any persistent question we had.
Rene hacked the crowns off coconuts, filled them with rum and honey, and provided us with a straw for each. We collected on a bench in the shed’s entrance hall and watched as he unfurled a cluster of cured tobacco leaves, joined us, and began rolling cigars.
He tied the smoking ends in neat bows, cut the lighting ends utilizing his machete, then presented them. The cigar exuded aromas we had smelled along the pathways: dirt, grass, and even a trace of pork.
We posed the question of how many cigars Rene had smoked that day, and he replied with four or five. He then went on to mention that his father smoked ten a day, along with a fifth of rum and a woman.
We responded with a joke that his father lived like a banker and we could tell he appreciated it. This Cuban had a strong connection to his homeland and smoked his own cigars purely for enjoyment.
As the rain started to fall outside and the colors of the fields deepened, we settled into the shed and appreciated a brief moment of peace away from spectacle and business.
Once the cigar smoking was complete, Rene ventured into the shed’s back room and returned with a cluster of cigars wrapped in a palm leaf and a bag of coffee beans.
He informed us that the cigar bundle would cost twenty CUCs, which was half of what could be found in stores. Additionally, if we also purchased the coffee, we would receive a special discount.
The following day we paid a visit to Alejandro Robaina. Robaina owns a farm in the Vuelta Abajo region, which is known for cultivating the much-sought-after Cuban tobacco.
His particular crop is shade tobacco, which is grown in tents to create large, flexible leaves that are ideal for cigar wrappers.10 This process is less efficient and requires more skill than the typical method of harvesting for centralized processing.
In a recent interview with Cigar Aficionado, Robaina explained that he proposed this new system to Fidel Castro. “I told Fidel I didn’t like cooperatives or state farms,” he stated, “and that the best way to grow tobacco was through family production.
He wanted me to join a cooperative and I told him no, I would not do it, and that I would remain working with my family. Eventually, he understood, and a lot of the land is now in the hands of small farmers.”
In 1997, the Cuban government ran a tobacco-farming competition, which Robaina won. As part of the prize, he was allowed to name a new cigar brand.
Other leading brands at the time had names that paid homage to Cuba’s national pride and popular origins, such as Cohiba (Taino word for “tobacco”) and Trinidad (after a city). Instead of a typical name, Robaina chose to name his brand after his family farm, Vegas Robaina.11
The only way to visit Vegas Robaina is through official channels, a situation which highlights the authorities’ desire to both promote and regulate tourism. This hasn’t stopped the determined, who make the journey to the farm, located 20 km down a rural road, a sort of pilgrimage.
Word had it that we should look for Carlos, who is the son-in-law of the owner.
The road was covered with muck, and we drove past an archway with the Robaina insignia. We stopped near a single mimosa tree situated halfway up the driveway. A brown pig was snuffling in the grass around the tobacco barns.
We got out of the car and were greeted with a smell of hay and dung, like a farm. An old farmhand was puffing away on a cigar while a little person stood there and watched us with interest. Neither of them said anything, so we took a path around a white clapboard house.
The back patio looked out on a neat rose garden. A loud television was playing inside, so we knocked on the door but got no response. We found it was open, so we cautiously opened it and saw an elderly man in jeans and a flannel shirt sitting in an armchair facing the TV.
He was skinny and frail, and his face was wrinkled like a dried and cured tobacco leaf.
We expressed our regret for intruding and inquired about Carlos. The man got up, not hearing us, and studied us with dark, intense eyes. He stretched out his hand. When he did, we noticed the wall behind him was decorated with several images of his younger self.
We greeted Señor Robaina and exchanged handshakes.
He inquired of us in a gentle Spanish, typical of older individuals, “Are you from France?”
We had no words to express what we felt, so we exclaimed, ” Norteamericano!”
I have a sibling who lives in Hialeah; salutations to the people of America!
Robaina had a cigar taken out of his shirt pocket and was presented with it. It looked like something extraordinary was going to take place. Subsequently, a younger man came through an inside room and embraced Robaina.
He gave us a scrutinizing look and declared, “I’m always on his side,” as he put Alejandro back in his seat and held him in the sound prison of the telenovela.
Carlos, in early middle age and slightly overweight, spoke English with a robotic cadence, having a Hubert Selby Jr. phrasebook as his guide.
He ushered us onto the porch, where a table was already set with magazines that had Alejandro as their cover star. “What do you make of your new president?”, Carlos asked as we flipped through the pages.
We responded with, “What is your opinion?”
He vocalized that there were alterations occurring in a firm tone, seemingly more certain than optimistic.
After searching through enough magazines for him, he guided us down the lane and into a large white cloth tent he referred to as a tapado. It was like a Hamptons wedding with the tobacco plants standing around like guests.
One worker was walking down the rows, occasionally picking a leaf. The plants were so robust, it was as if they were alive. When the light shone through the white tent, it was evident that the color of tobacco was the same as that of money.
Carlos imparted to us a wealth of information about growing tobacco – from the selection of seedlings to the days it takes to mature and the harvesting procedure.
We were already well-versed in those facts, but it was the new shade of tobacco that we discussed. When the topic of the tobacco around Viñales came up, Carlos waved it away.
He likened it to smoking hay.
Mention was made of tobacco grown in locations other than Cuba.
He expressed his disdain, stating “That’s utter nonsense.”
A group of Italians barged into the tent without any invitation. They were in a rush, and asked Carlos if somebody else working on the farm could guide them. Carlos refused their request without hesitation.
He warned us to keep a close eye on them as he saw them walk away, commenting that it was a battle every day. Not referring to the Italians, he was alluding to the farmworker who had attempted to get some extra money from Carlos.
We started to understand why Ramon had canceled our cigar factory tour in Havana; it became clear that he was also a freelance guide.
As the tour concluded, Carlos directed us to a patio dining area and mentioned it could be a place for aficionados to gather. It was informal at the moment, but he had big ideas. He spoke of maybe having a cigar bar, restaurant, and VIP lounge.
Carlos proclaimed, “Things are changing!” His eyes gazed across Vegas Robaina, as if he was envisioning a hotel or casino, and we could almost make out the neon in his pupils.
We requested a visit from Señor Robaina and compensated Carlos for his time.
Carlos apologized and stated that the person they were looking for was asleep.
We made our way back to the cab that was waiting for us. Meanwhile, the TV was blaring from the house.
As we drove down the driveway of the plantation, the dwarf raced out of the gatehouse and waved us down. He was trying to sell us Robainas, offering us a special price of half of what we would pay in stores.
Antonio’s words were flowing so quickly, we wished we had someone with us who was fluent in Spanish. We had strolled around Viñales and managed to persuade the French couple to accompany us, telling them Antonio would be captivating. So, the three of us returned to him.
Antonio stated that he has the love of God. As the sun set over his pasture, birds gathered around him near a dilapidated barn while his wife looked at us from the house. He proclaimed that people from all around the globe come to visit him just as we did, because it is God’s will.
He spoke of how they even have pictures of him in France, Italy, and Israel, and he said he was unaware of why. The French couple seemed unconvinced.
Remembering the rum we had brought, we took it out of our knapsack and offered it to Antonio. He drank a large amount, not touching the liquid with his lips.
He declared to the Frenchman, “I’m not a person who drinks alcohol, I’m a person of faith.” He went on to explain, “That’s why I was called upon in the field the other day.
It’s because the Lord loves me and desires it.” He gave the bottle back to us and we handed it off to the French couple.
Antonio proclaimed that tobacco was a product of Satan and that smoking was diabolical. He went on to say that despite this, Christ would forgive him. He continued to drink the rum that had passed from the French to us and spoke about alcohol, which he also deemed diabolical.
He declared himself to be the final true servant of God in the last corner of the Earth and expressed his belief that everything should be done in moderation, as he held up his lit cigar.
The Frenchman was attempting to interpret, yet he was lagging far behind.
Antonio informed us that his father used to chew tobacco as it was a method of purification.
The French man declared that “chewing tobacco is an antiseptic for my father.”
His significant other exclaimed to him in French, “That’s Spanish!” and then added, “You’re not translating!”
The French man expressed regret and remarked that he found the individual quite dull, comparing them to a television guide.
We swiftly gave Antonio the rum, who in turn drank some and offered it to his girlfriend. After initially declining, she accepted it. When Antonio realized his wife had stationed herself in the back entrance of their residence, he gave the bottle back to us.
He declared, “I request only one CUC for my cigars when I’m selling to Europeans, although I’m aware they can cost fifty dollars over there. I may be poorer than the poorest, but I’m wealthy in spirit, having a more affluent spiritual life than others.
I’d rather receive love from people than possess a vast bank account.” With a wink at the French woman, he handed out cigars. We paused the chat while we lit them, the French girl having difficulty with hers, so we assisted her.
Raising his finger to the heavens, Antonio proclaimed his servitude to both God and Fidel, his eyes blazing with conviction.
He proclaimed that we need to offer up prayers for those who rule us, as it is Christ who has enabled them to do so.
The Frenchman extended his hand for the bottle of rum. “Honestly, I think this is a load of nonsense,” he exclaimed.
His significant other stated, “We don’t have faith in a higher power.” She took a drag off of her cigar. “I won’t be petitioning to any deity on behalf of Sarko.”
As Antonio stood smoking in the darkening driveway, decrying it as the work of Satan, we perceived the many contradictions associated with cigars.
It was ironic that the town of Viñales, whose motto is NATURALEZA Y REVOLUCIÓN, has become a tourist destination of free-market commerce.
Furthermore, the Francisco Donatien cigar factory in Pinar del Rio employed women who rolled cigars beneath a portrait of Fidel, separated from the tourists by glass walls. It was ironic that, while tobacco is a national plant of Cuba, the best quality is exported.
Lastly, it is ironic that Senator John F. Kennedy had held clandestine White House talks before his presidency, during which he championed Castro as another Simon Bolivar and advocated for supporting his cause.
People have suggested that, if not for the embargo, the Cuban government would have to face up to its own shortcomings instead of blaming the US. Likewise, it has been argued that, without Elian Gonzalez and the Bush Administration, Florida would have gone to Gore in 2000.
The ironic truth is that the American right and Cuban left rely on each other in a manner similar to Tom and Jerry – the cat and mouse need each other.
It is unfortunate that what could have been a simple cigar has become a symbol of historical complexities that refuse to be extinguished.
The darkness of night had descended upon us and Antonio’s wife had gone into his bright white house. Our group of people drew near to one another. A cloud of conversation surrounded our huddle.
The French couple were debating Antonio’s idea of the divine legitimacy of kings and rulers. With his wife now gone, Antonio had become free to drink from his rum bottle, speaking in a peaceful way above their voices.
All of the languages blended together in our ears, the persuasively certain Spanish, the conniving French, and the chickens’ evening song.
As the debate between the others was occurring, we softly uttered that the cigar was superb.
I must admit that I truly relished this cigar.
Are you aware of which direction is north?
We questioned “North?” and shrugged it off, as long as they keep debating, it doesn’t really matter.
–Strand, Ginger and Wallenstein, James
In 1955, a revolutionary force, comprising Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara, took shape in Mexico.
In 1956, the group set sail from Veracruz aboard a yacht named Grandma, after an American grandmother, and landed between Manzanillo and Santiago de Cuba.
When they were attacked by the Cuban air force, only twelve of the guerrillas managed to regroup in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. After a span of two years, the group managed to oust the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and entered Havana in a triumphant manner.
Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike depicted shareholders scheming the downfall of workers in a smoky environment, meanwhile Depression-era cartoons featured robber barons and the 1970s version of American Gothic mocked farm subsidies.
Fast-forward to the present day, lampoons of AIG execs with bonus-filled pockets are still commonplace, and the big cigar continues to be the instant icon to depict ill-gotten wealth.
Pat and Mike were not the names of the two individuals.
Jose Marti, Cuba’s national hero, referred to cigar factories in his homeland as “lyceums”; during the day, the hands that roll the tobacco leaves are the same that raise the teaching books in the evenings.
Ramón Labañino, one of the Cuban Five, lent his name to the pseudonym of the person in question.
Challenge yourself to run, Cuban people! / Your nation proudly looks upon you. / Have no fear of a heroic death / For dying for the homeland is to experience life.
Using a pseudonym, Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez is a member of the Cuban Five.
The specific name of the turkey was employed.
Gonzalez, of the Cuban Five, bears the same name as Rene.
It is believed that the development of Shade tobacco took place close to the beginning of the 1900s in Connecticut. Farmers cultivated it as a means of protecting Sumatran seedlings, usually grown in dimly lit areas, from being damaged by intense sunlight. Roughly 50 percent of the premium cigars sold in the US have Connecticut shade wrappers. Additionally, Shade tobacco is also cultivated in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
The brands Partagas and H. Upmann were named after their founders, who were in fact businessmen; Don Jaime Partagas ran a factory and Herman Upmann was a banker from Germany.
The effects of climate change are wide-ranging and far-reaching, impacting both humans and the environment. Its impacts can be felt throughout the world in many different ways, such as higher temperatures, harsher storms, rising sea levels, and changes in weather patterns.
These effects can lead to health problems, economic losses, and disruption of ecosystems. To mitigate the effects of climate change, we must take steps to reduce carbon emissions and increase global awareness and understanding of the issue.
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