In Pursuit of the Wild Cohiba
All we really wanted was a smoke. Yet here we were in Havana, the traditional capital of cigars, not puffing on habaneros but marching through the Museum of the Revolution. The once-ornate chambers in the former presidential palace are now occupied by scenes from the Twenty-sixth of July Movement’s glory days; guards sit reading as tourists file past dim glass cases containing faded manifestos and bloodstained martyrs’ garments.1 The museum interrupts its chronicle of socialist triumph—in both Spanish and English—with periodic detours through gift shops tendering books, flags, DVDs, and T-shirts. For a country where there’s almost nothing to buy, Cuba has a lot on sale.
The museum is one of the few places in Havana where a smoking ban is enforced, but the revolution, it’s pretty clear, was permitido fumar. As we saluted Che (dozens of photos suggested that his Montecristos might have done him in had the CIA not beaten them to it), we had to admit that most of the reasons we’d given for coming to Cuba, including to ourselves, were bullshit. We’d declared that we wanted to look into how a New World leaf regarded by Renaissance Europeans as “negro stuff” could, when rolled into pocket-size torpedoes, become a universal status symbol. We wondered how this capitalist icon was holding up on the fiftieth anniversary of the revolutionary state that produced it. Here was an exploitable irony—or so we told editors, friends, and companions by way of excuse. There were plenty of other reasons to visit Cuba: the lefty pilgrimage, the easy feeling of subversion, the crumbling elegance, and, of course, the escape, since what happens in Cuba is more likely to stay put than what happens in Vegas. Not to mention the prospect that Obama might any day lift the travel ban and make it less fun to go. But really what we wanted was a smoke—an exquisite bath in the fog from the world’s iconic cigar without having to break the law, break the bank, or break up with lovers bleating cancer, cancer or braying about stinking up the house. Why was it turning out to be so hard?
It’s not that there weren’t plenty of cigars around. They were in the mouths of Che-T-shirted hippie-wannabes in old Havana and between the stubby fingers of sussurant Russians at the Ambos Mundos hotel, where Hemingway is supposed to have knocked back fourteen daiquiris a day. They were on offer in gift shops and, sketchily, on the street. Where they weren’t was in the mouths of Cubans, which made us feel as incongruous smoking them here as at home, where cigars are up there on the conspicuous-consumption meter with Lamborghinis, caviar, and six-thousand-square-foot houses with built-in Bose sound. We had hoped that smoking Cuban cigars in Cuba would allow us to lose the image and the baggage and enjoy a smoke for itself. But every time we lit up we felt as if we were sprouting fanny packs, Hawaiian shirts, and Bermuda shorts. This wasn’t why we had come at all.
The revolutionaries of Fidel’s Twenty-sixth of July Movement rolled into history sporting beards and smoking cigars. Occupying the lobby of the Havana Hilton in January 1959, the barbudos, as they came to be known, puffed on Western culture’s most compact emblem of personal wealth2 while planning to nationalize the marble beneath their feet. It would have been one thing if they’d smoked cheap Creole stogies, but Che’s Montecristos were top-shelf, and Fidel’s taste, even before he created Cuba’s premium brand, Cohiba, ran to pricey Partagas and Bauza. Was this anachronism, ironic appropriation, nationalism—or all of these at once?
Tobacco is an essential part of Cuba’s identity. That the island’s soil and climate are ideally suited to the perfection of the tobacco leaf is national dogma. The plant’s origins on the island are prehistorical; we know that it arrived between the third and second millennia BCE from South America, where it was cultivated by the ancient Mayans. The Tainos, Cuba’s native people, showed Christopher Columbus how to roll and smoke what they called cohibas. The Spanish first spurned tobacco, then changed their minds. They monopolized the trade for almost a century, funneling all Cuban tobacco back to the Crown. By the mid-nineteenth century, when great Cuban brands like Partagas and Upmann were established, the habanero was known all over Europe, and Cuban cigars had become the iconic smoke. In reclaiming the cigar from the imperialists, the revolution reclaimed a part of Cuba’s national myth.
The Fidelistas bent that myth to their purposes. “Like no other plant,” wrote Che Guevara in 1961, “like no other Cuban industry, the history of Cuba’s revolutionary struggle is linked to the history of tobacco and cigar makers.” That year, Castro transferred large portions of privately owned vegas, or tobacco farms, to the state. Production of cigars was centralized and controlled to raise hard currency for the socialist safety net.
Under these conditions, many renowned cigar makers fled with smuggled Cuban seeds to other parts of the Caribbean and to Central America, where they established vegas and factories that produced cigars under the same brand names they had used in Cuba. Today, cigars with these originally Cuban brand names are made in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Florida, even as those same brands are still produced in Cuba. The émigré producers have expertise, access to technology, and capital; many are owned by multinational corporations such as General Cigar Company and Imperial Tobacco. The American cigar press frequently ranks their products higher than those of the nation they left. Then again, revenues for the American cigar press come from ads bought by those very émigré producers; Cuban ads, like Cuban cigars, are banned under the embargo.
This is another reason to smoke Cubans in Cuba. In the US, the cigar’s contraband status lends it cachet that heightens the taste: when you break a law to experience something, you are invested in enjoying it. Cuban cigars are typically much more expensive than comparable brands from other countries, and a humidor full of habaneros is a smoker’s Swiss bank account. JFK himself set the precedent: In 1962, he banned US trade with Cuba. But before he put pen to paper, the famous exaggeration goes, he had his press secretary scoop up every H. Upmann Petit Corona in Washington.
Revolutionary Cuba embraces an icon of the world’s captains of capital. The United States outlaws that icon because it’s commie-made, raising its price on the free market and increasing its value to the very state the embargo is meant to undermine. So the nations seesaw their supposedly opposing ideologies on the famed habanero. Perhaps, we thought, we could find a Cuban who’d tell us what Cubans made of these paradoxes, preferably over a smoke.
Instead we found an American couple we had met in the airport en route to Havana. We called them Pat and Mike.3 They were too cheerful, too easygoing. Coming to Cuba didn’t seem in the least complicated for them. Cuba was fun, happening, the very reason to buy a high-end Nikon. When we ran into them again in one of the Museum of the Revolution’s gift shops, they were having a blast—the casa particular where they were staying had “great food, and great conversation.” Pat bought a book called The CIA Against Che. As we talked, the shop clerk shushed us. This irked us, and somewhere in the next room, slogging past display cases about pre-revolution squalor, we must have decided to blame our embarrassment on Pat and Mike. Promptly at 4:55, as the museum guards herded visitors down the marble stairs, we ran into them again. We might have asked them to join us for cocktails, but we didn’t.
Pat and Mike headed one way and we headed another, down a narrow street of pastel-colored houses with imposing mahogany doors. Second-story French windows opened onto tiny balconies. They looked like houses you might see in New Orleans or Charleston. Every now and then, one of the enormous American 1950s cars that are Havana’s trademark cruised by; except for them, we had the street to ourselves.
The late-afternoon air was chillier than we’d have liked; a breeze came up and scattered a few pieces of trash. It began to drizzle. Enmity was in the air.
“I’m not sure they’re a couple,” we said.
“He’s boyish and freckled. She’s swarthy and womanly.”
“They’re not opposites.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean they’re not fucking.”
We crossed an intersection that was the frontier of a poorer neighborhood. The buildings, in the same style and of the same original grandeur as those we’d passed, were crumbling. Here a villa was missing a wall, there a palazzo had no windows. But dilapidation brought street life with it. Paunchy men drank beer, young lovers tugged at each other’s buttons, little boys roughhoused.
We heard live music coming from a corner bar. In the doorway stood a giant of a bouncer who could have bounced anyone under three hundred pounds while looking the other way. We stepped delicately around him and into a wooded interior: salmon-colored walls, damp green tiles, evening light through full-length windows. One free table remained. As we were taking it, the musicians who were playing ended their set. The barman turned on the TV above the bar and raised the sound for a concert video.
The crowd looked like a mix of tourists and locals. We ordered beers. A cigar hawker limped over to us, his face cycling through a salesman’s repertoire.
“You need tobacco? I’ve got tobacco,” he said, flashing a cigar box. He did it so quickly that it seemed surreptitious. When we showed him that we were already equipped, he retreated, only to return with a lighter for sale when he saw us having trouble lighting up—despite the chill, the windows and doors were open and the breeze kept extinguishing our lit matches. We took our smokes and matches to the back of the bar and lit them there.
We began to enjoy the inclusivity of the scene. We sat back, sipped, swallowed, puffed, blew, and sighed, beholding the human pageant we felt momentarily excused from. The cigars were nothing special, but to be able to smoke them in public without feeling like one kind of asshole or another was. Someone broke a glass and a busboy burst through a pair of swinging doors with a broom and dustpan. A pair of women kept their eyes on the doorway, where a sign declared SINGLES PROHIBITED.
We asked the bouncer about the sign. His reply was evasive. It was for the best, he assured us.
We smiled and thanked him, ostensibly for his answer, but really for not crushing our skulls between his thumb and forefinger.
“Maybe the rule’s directed against hookers,” we said.
“But then why don’t they just put up a NO SOLICITING sign?” we replied.
“Maybe that’s what that is.”
“But why say ‘couples only’—if you’re a foreigner I’m sure you can walk in alone.”
We surveyed the crowd. Not by any means was everyone part of a couple. No one sitting by themselves seemed to be local, and no one sitting in a group was definitively Cuban. That is, they might have been Cuban but they no longer looked local. Or even if they were local, they looked as if they’d been brought in to contribute to the atmosphere, to keep it from seeming too touristic to people like us. But how did we know?
This is the trouble with smoking: it makes you think, and we seemed to have come to a place where we could smoke but couldn’t think, or where our musings were especially idle. The unplaceable crowd, the cigar hawker, the sign prohibiting singles—we saw that we couldn’t see, that we didn’t know what we were seeing. Much of our time in Havana would turn out to be like this, to offer epiphanies of ignorance.
We puffed till there was nothing to puff on, and went home.
Tobacco and revolution converge at the Cuban cigar factory, or so we understood. This is largely because of the romantic institution of the reading session. Allegedly beginning at the El Figaro factory in 1865, these sessions became a cherished industry tradition: a designated worker reads aloud to the rest of the rollers, who agree to make up his quota.4 The reading session made its mark on cigar history as well: the brands Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo were named by rollers enthusiastic about Shakespeare and Dumas. In the Museum of Tobacco in Havana, a wooden case carved with the motto “Labor omnia vinci” [sic] holds labels from now-defunct brands reflecting the laborers’ literary favorites: Antonio y Cleopatra, Shakespeare, Byron, even Webster. Was someone reading the dictionary aloud to workers? The very thought made us crave a panatela.
But on our first day in Havana, Ramón,15 our guide, told us with a pained expression that the factories were closed for the tobacco harvest. Ramón frequently looked pained when talking to us—he had an intellectual melancholy that would have caused us, had we met him in New York, to guess he was an Eastern European dissident. His English was excellent, and frequently, when we used an expression he didn’t know, he would ask about it and use it himself at the first opportunity.
Ramón told us he was taking us to the Hotel Conde de Villanueva instead of the factory, and he assured us it would be even better. We would get to see a cigar roller at work. We pointed out that this was something we could see in any American city. He assured us this was a master cigar roller. We said we understood, but we weren’t sure we did.
Stepping into the Conde was like a visit to the Man: you expected to be introduced to a don, complete with white suit, Panama hat, and tinted eyeglasses. Quiet—and thus secrecy—seemed to be of the essence. But what was the secret? Ramón’s voice hushed as we entered the hacienda courtyard—a fountain, tropical plants, Mediterranean tilework, a wandering peacock. We pointed our camera at the peacock in case of a tail flourish.
Habaguanex, the state-owned hotel operator, opened the Conde in the late ’90s to cater to cigar tourists, Ramón explained. Cigar tourists? We hadn’t known there was such an animal, and now we were being taken for one. We’d have protested, but it was nearly noon and we hadn’t yet had a cigar. We followed Ramón up a mahogany staircase and across an interior balcony to the grand paneled door of the cigar bar.
The bar was close, dark, and intimate, a little like a cigar box itself. And the master roller was indeed a little donnish, with a long mustache, middle-parted dark hair, and a burgundy sport coat. A white suit would have been overkill. Before we could say Romeo y Julieta, he had seated himself behind his rolling table and taken in hand a bundle of tawny leaves while delivering a lecture on the finer points of tobacco cultivation: the position of the leaves on the plant, the plant’s position to the sun, the harvest, the cure, the blending, the rolling and capping—points which if they weren’t entirely lost on us were taken in only to be expelled like smoke. The lecture was synchronized to his manual performance. At the end he presented us—here the light in the room seemed to grow warmer—with a pair of Havanian beauties. “How come your hands don’t turn yellow?” was all we could think to ask.
“Only cigarettes do that,” he snorted, and dismissed us to the sitting-room to delect his gift.
We settled into a low love seat. A man appeared with a torch lighter and we were a-smoke. Coffee was served, then brandy. Ramón sat upright in an armchair, declining both. He explained that he drank only cappuccinos and the Conde had no milk. Nor did he smoke. We wanted to worry about him but were suddenly too absorbed in our own pleasure. This was no time for sympathy. The tobacco, coffee, and brandy, offering up their roasted flavors, were too good. We raised a glass to Prometheus, unjustly neglected of late.
The clubby feeling seemed suited to an exchange of confidences. President-elect O. appeared on CNN on the flat screen above us. We tried to talk politics with Ramón but didn’t get far. When he didn’t want to speak he lowered his eyelids to half-mast and gazed to one side. We switched from politics to religion, a safer topic here.
The Don returned to fire up the espresso machine for his next clients. We asked for his opinion of the cigars made—since the revolution—in other countries.
“They are not Cuban,” he declared. “Even if they took the Cuban seeds, without the Cuban microclimate, how could they be as good? They are like smoking hay.”
We asked if there were any non-Cuban cigars he had smoked and liked. He promptly ranked the world’s cigar-producing nations.
“In the first place is Cuba. Second is no one. Third, tied, are the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Fourth is Indonesia.”
Then his attention shifted to his new clients, an older German couple, as they appeared in the sitting-room door. We reluctantly made room for them on the love seat, and the man was handed his cigar. He contemplated it as if it were a tiny cruise missile. His wife exuded less-than-effortless patience. She wasn’t smoking. Their guide, an attractive Cuban woman, sat down adjacent to them and adjusted her smile.
The Don flourished the small blowtorch, and the German puffed away with Teutonic determination.
“I don’t smoke zigars,” he told us between puffs, “but I thought, When you are in Cuba, you must.”
Our triumphant feeling began to fade. We were being treated to cigar theater. Like much bourgeois drama, it was mindlessly enjoyable. But it wasn’t punching any holes in the mythology of the habanero. Rather, it was carefully rebuilding that mythology atop the crumbling infrastructure of socialism. The first act wasn’t even over, and we had begun to fidget in our seats.
When we left the cigar sanctum, the hotel courtyard was as still as a set for a Cigar Aficionado photo shoot. The peacock did not flourish its tail. On the street outside, we passed a wizened old man puffing a Churchill in a doorway. An eagle-eyed woman sat next to him.
“You can have your picture taken with him!” she shouted in English as we passed. We recognized her companion then. He was the old guy smoking a cigar on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba.
We were aware that every tourist industry stages its local identity, that customs, cuisines, landscapes, and local color are all for sale. But Cuba faces a dilemma: as a destination, it has two distinct attractions. It is a Caribbean island paradise with a long history of catering to colonialist pleasure-seekers. But it is also a nation of socialists, faithful—if the billboards speak truth—to their principles. What becomes apparent is that the Cuban government aims to offer tourists a taste of colonialism in order to serve its citizens the fruits of socialism.
It wasn’t always so. As a state enterprise, Cuban tourism is fairly new. It began in response to the “período especial” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Soviet sugar subsidies and cheap imports evaporated, Cuba’s economy imploded. Having turned over half its arable land to sugar, Cuba could not even feed itself. Strict rationing was the only reason no one starved. Desperate for hard currency, the Cuban government decided to exploit its most underdeveloped asset: tourism. The number of visitors soared from 270,000 in 1989 to 2.2 million in 2006. That’s a lot for a country of 11 million. By 2003, even without Americans—or with only those flouting the travel ban—tourism was responsible for half the foreign currency coming into Cuba.
Hoping to prevent this influx from destroying its nominally classless society, the Cuban government set out to control the tourist economy. Many tourists visit all-inclusive beach resorts, where euros are the standard currency and the groaning buffet boards and party atmosphere give no sign that Cuba is different from any other Caribbean spring-break spot. Outside these enclaves, the state keeps tourists on a short leash. They spend special convertible pesos—called “CUCs”—instead of actual Cuban pesos, known as moneda nacional. Hotels are at least 51 percent state-owned, and Cubans were, until recently, excluded as guests. Casas particulares, private homes licensed to rent rooms to foreigners, are highly regulated: all visitors must be reported within a day. Tourists are encouraged to use the official government agency, Infotur, and to travel around the country on new luxury coaches, with tickets sold only in CUCs. There are even special medical clinics for foreigners. These measures are aimed at preventing tourists from either burdening or corrupting Cuba’s socialist society.
All this was fine with us. And anyway, the less critical restrictions were loosely enforced and widely defied. What perplexed us was the Graham Greene–esque floor show of pre-Castro colonialism the government was willing to put on. We wanted to smoke cigars, but not in a neocolonial cigar bar. The apparatchiks of tourism seemed unaware that socialism might be a big part of what the non-resort-going class of visitor had come to see.
On Sunday we had a brain wave. We would go to a béisbol game. We’d relax, drink a beer, and have a smoke. A book we’d seen said that baseball games were packed with cigar-factory workers. Where better to engage in the touristic equivalent of fair trade: our game, their leaf?
At the Estadio Latinoamericano, we found the separate ticket window for foreigners without too much trouble. And there we were, just in time for the national anthem:
Al combate, corred, Bayameses!
Que la patria os contempla orgullosa.
No temáis una muerte gloriosa
Que morir por la patria es vivir.6
So far, so good. But where were the people? The crowd numbered in the hundreds, maybe the low ones. And among those hundreds, not a single lit cigar to be seen! A few people dragged on cigarettes. They weren’t anywhere near us. Our seats in the special foreigners section were right behind home plate—nice, except for the dark net rising from the backstop to the top tier. A food vendor came by. We requested cervezas. She asked for the money up front and disappeared.
In half an inning we saw why the place was empty. We had come to see the wrong team. Havana, like New York, has two teams. Industriales is Havana’s answer to the Yankees. The hapless other is so much like the Mets that they share the name. The Mets were our team today, but the Industriales logo painted on a building overlooking left field made it impossible to forget in whose shadow they toiled.
“They can’t pitch,” said the guy behind us, a Cuban-baseball blogger from Philadelphia. “Sometimes they can hit, but they can’t run the bases.”
Stare through a net long enough and you’d think your eyeballs were crosshatched. We told the blogger we were thinking of moving. He said we weren’t allowed.
“What if we just go over there?” we asked.
“I’m just telling you what they told me,” he replied.
On their third pitcher, the Mets were four runs behind. We considered our options.
“Let’s move up the third baseline,” we said.
“Just chill out,” we replied.
“Why don’t you?”
The vendor reappeared without our beers. Instead, she directed us to the entry portal, where a man beckoned us down the stairs, slipped us two beer cans wrapped in paper, and vanished. Shoving the contraband under our shirts, we returned to our seats and watched the damage to the Mets mount.
The game was over by the seventh. As a Mets runner got picked off third, we had to look away. There, up the third baseline, surrounded by a group of Cuban children, sat Pat and Mike.
“How come they get to sit there?” we demanded.
“Probably they just bought regular tickets.”
“How could they? They’d have had to pass for Cuban.”
“She kind of looks Cuban.”
“They don’t even speak Spanish.”
Mike pointed a video recorder at the kids, who sang, danced, and mugged for the camera.
“They’re not even watching the game.”
“The game is unwatchable.”
“We could have moved there if you hadn’t insisted on getting beers.”
“You’re not even drinking yours. Let me have it.”
“I’m saving it for later.”
“You’re just conserving bladder space.”
“It’s time to get out of here.”
We headed for tobacco country—Pinar del Río, to be exact. West of Havana, Pinar is an agricultural region of rolling hills, limestone rock formations, and deep red soil. It’s also where in 1962 the US officially spotted Soviet-installed SS-4 nuclear missile sites.
Rural Cuba is famously pro-revolution. For small farmers, the Twenty-sixth of July Movement brought health care, education, electricity, and protection from periodic harvest-wasting hurricanes. The nationalization of agriculture also meant that absentee foreign owners were expelled, and that large estates were expropriated and either collectivized or distributed to tenant farmers. Today, small farmers can own up to 40.3 hectares. They sell four fifths of their output to the government at fixed prices and keep the rest for themselves or sell it at privatized farmers’ markets. If Cuban farmers were allowed to grow whatever they wanted and sell it at market price, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in Pinar would plant anything but tobacco. Instead, the state is the only buyer of tobacco, and it pays farmers a pittance compared to the crop’s hard-currency value. Growing tobacco is a service to the state rather than a means of profit for farmers. This was why we wanted to meet some of them. We figured that of all people they were the most likely to appreciate cigars for themselves rather than as status symbols.
“I smoke twenty cigars a day,” Antonio7 told us. “Four of these.” He held up a raffia-wrapped pack of his home-rolled Creole cigars, then patted the four pockets on his blue work shirt where he kept them. He fixed us with his penetrating eyes. We thought he looked a bit like Laurence Olivier, if Olivier had played a whiskey priest. “I smoke twenty, but only halfway.” He popped the cigar out of his mouth and indicated a line through the middle. “Most of the nicotine is in the second half.” We nodded sagely but we were thinking, Are you nuts? We, too, were alight, and Antonio’s cigars were so delicious, so redolent of earth, sun, and toast, we could imagine tossing out the second half only in a fit of extreme self-denial.
“Twenty cigars a day,” he repeated. “And I am seventy years old.” He pulled off his cap and leaned forward so that we could admire his hair, which, even in the twilight, we could see was thick and black. Nazareño, Antonio’s turkey,8 seized the moment to peck more malanga—a root similar to taro—from his hand. He was an admirable bird, with brown and white stripes, a white head, and a robustly swelling breast. It was feeding time, and Antonio was surrounded by a squawking congregation of poultry, of which Nazareño was clearly the earthly ruler while Antonio played the part of God. Our three days in Viñales, a farm town turned tourism hub in Pinar del Río, had given us ample opportunity to admire the region’s chickens as they roamed the streets, roosted in the backyard of our casa particular, and turned up on our dinner plate.
We liked Viñales, and not just for its chickens. The town’s valley setting was ringed by dramatic limestone cliffs, and the town itself, centered on a European-style square, was picturesque. The people were friendly, and the especially industrious Committee for the Defense of the Revolution had ensured that no tree lacked a sign proclaiming VIVA EL SOCIALISMO or UNIDOS POR LA PATRIA. We asked around about tobacco farmers, and locals directed us to Antonio.
When we were done smoking, we asked him whether we could come back. Antonio’s cigars were fantastic, and there was something else about him—he was as courtly and suave as a gentleman. He was no gentleman farmer, though, but a real one. His cigars were the real thing, too—no brand, no name, no box, no ring, just some brown leaves rolled up in another leaf. If you wanted to reduce cigar smoking to its essentials, here they were: a plant, a farmer, and a match.
Cuban cigars are structured something like tobacco plants themselves. The wrapper typically comes from the lowest leaf on the plant. The top leaves, the smallest and youngest, have the strongest flavor, and thus compose the filler, to which the larger middle leaves are added to help the cigar burn evenly.
Tobacco plants are begun in seed-beds, with the cream of the crop being replanted in fields outside. They are coddled for the forty days they take to reach full height, insects and weeds removed by hand, and government-supplied fertilizers applied. Leaves are harvested from the bottom of the plant up, stitched together in bunches, and hung in a drying barn, where they turn from green to brown. Then they are removed from their racks and stacked in long, low fermentation piles that are kept moist and warm to promote the evaporation of noxious gases and the retention of the resins and oils that make them flavorful. Fermentation lasts at least six weeks, during which the piles are frequently reassembled.
We learned some of this from René,9 the first tobacco farmer we met. This was two days earlier, on a trek through the Palmarito region, a scenic valley just north of Viñales, crisscrossed with red-dirt paths. Chickens wandered through fields of malanga, pineapples, sweet potatoes, and corn intercropped with beans. Farmers drove pairs of Brahman oxen down rows of lush tobacco.
René did not look to us like a tobacco farmer. No grizzled tiller of the earth, he was a slight, sociable kid with bright eyes and a cheek as smooth as a choirboy’s. He had quit school nine years earlier, at fifteen, to take over working the farm when his parents fell ill. His siblings had all left for the city.
As he showed us his field, we noticed a powdery residue on some of the leaves.
“Pesticide?” we asked. René shook his head. Organic fertilizer, he declared. Cuban tobacco farmers didn’t use pesticide. He crouched and mimed picking an insect off the leaf, then stood up and herded us onward. Any thought we may have had of pursuing the question was banished when we reached a shed and he picked up a sizable machete.
René lopped the tops off coconuts, poured rum and honey into them, popped a straw in each, and presented them to us. We settled ourselves on a wooden bench in the shed’s front room. René produced a bundle of dried tobacco leaves, joined us on the bench, and quickly, unceremoniously, began rolling cigars. He twisted the smoking ends into neat knots, chopped off the lighting ends with his machete, and offered them up. The cigar held flavors we had scented along the paths: earth, grass, even a whiff of pig.
We asked René how many cigars he smoked, and he said four or five daily. His father, he said, smoked ten. Ten cigars, a fifth of rum, and a woman every day, he told us, grinning. We replied that his father lived like a banker. René seemed to like this idea, and as the rum and coconut went down, we liked him. Here was a Cuban with a connection to the land who smoked his own homegrown cigars simply for pleasure. Outside, rain began to fall, pattering on the roof and deepening the colors of the fields. We relaxed against the rough boards of the shed, enjoying a moment untainted by spectacle or commerce.
When the cigars were done, René popped into the shed’s back room. He reemerged with a bundle of cigars in a palm wrapper and a bag of coffee beans. Twenty CUCs a bundle for the smokes, he told us, half what we’d pay in stores. Special discount if we took the coffee too.
The next day we went to see Alejandro Robaina. Robaina has a plantation in the Vuelta Abajo, where Cuba’s most prized tobacco is grown. His is a specialized kind: shade tobacco, raised under tents to produce luxuriously large and stretchy leaves, perfect for use as wrappers.10 Growing tobacco just to make wrappers is less efficient than growing every plant for the same centralized processing, and requires more expertise. In this way, Robaina claims to have changed the Cuban system. In a recent interview in Cigar Aficionado, he laid it out. “I told Fidel I did not like cooperatives or state farms,” he said, “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. At the end he has understood to the point that a lot of the land is now in the hands of small farmers.”
In 1997, Robaina became the first modern Cuban to have a cigar brand named after him. The story goes that the government held a tobacco-farming competition and Robaina won. The prize was to name a new brand. It was expected that Robaina would give his cigars a name like that of other leading brands, names that in one way or another speak to the cigar’s popular origins or to Cuban national pride. Cohiba, the flagship brand introduced after nationalization, takes its name from the Taino word for “tobacco”; Trinidad, another elite brand, is named after one of Cuba’s most picturesque cities; Guantanamera after a paean to the common man by national hero José Martí. Robaina chose to name his brand after his family farm, Vegas Robaina.11
You’re not supposed to be able to tour Vegas Robaina unless you’ve arranged it through the government agency—another case where the authorities seem torn between fostering and controlling tourism. Not that it stops the determined, for whom the trip to the farm, twenty kilometers down obscure dirt roads, is a pilgrimage. We’d heard that we should ask for his son-in-law, Carlos.
The driveway was muddy. We passed a curved gateway emblazoned with the Robaina seal, and stopped beneath a lone mimosa halfway up the drive. A rust-colored pig rooted in the grass outside the tobacco barns. We climbed out of the car. The place smelled of hay and manure, like a farm. A wizened farmhand sitting on a step was deep into his cigar. A dwarf beside him watched us with more interest. Neither of them seemed inclined to speak to us, so we followed a path around a white clapboard house. The back porch faced a neat rose garden. A blasting television drowned out our knocks on the door. It was unlocked, so we slowly opened it. An aged man in jeans and a flannel shirt sat in an easy chair before the TV. He was lean but frail. His face—we are sorry to have to resort to so expected a figure, but a fact is a fact—was as dried, cured, and lined as a fine tobacco leaf.
We apologized for intruding and asked for Carlos. The man rose, unhearing, and fixed us with dark, bright eyes. He held out a hand. When he did, we saw the wall behind him was covered with pictures of his less-wrinkled face.
“Señor Robaina,” we said, and shook his hand.
“Are you French?” he asked us in the courtly Spanish of the elderly.
“If only,” we wanted to say but, lacking the idiom, shouted, “Norteamericano.”
“Americano! I have a sister in Hialeah.”
He pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket and proffered it. Something magical seemed about to happen. Then a younger man appeared from an interior room and put an arm around Robaina.
“I always got his back,” he said, giving us a beady-eyed once-over. He deposited Alejandro back in his chair, resecuring him in the telenovela’s sonic cell.
In contrast to Alejandro’s senior elegance, Carlos was in early middle age and somewhat porcine. He spoke English like a robot equipped with a Hubert Selby Jr. phrasebook. Shooing us outside, he pointed the way to a table on the porch laid out with cigar magazines featuring Alejandro. “What do you think of your new president?” he demanded while we glanced through them.
“What do you think?” we replied.
“Things are changing,” he declared, sounding more determined than hopeful.
Once we had rifled through enough magazines for him, he led us down the lane and into a big white cloth tent he called a tapado. Inside, tobacco plants stood around like guests at a Hamptons wedding. A worker toiled down the rows, occasionally removing a leaf. Robaina’s plants were so robust they seemed to breathe, tall and eerie in their silence. Looking at them in the light of the white tent, we realized that tobacco is exactly the color of money.
Carlos regaled us with the facts of tobacco cultivation, selection of seedlings, days to maturity, method of harvest. The details were now familiar; only the shade was new. We mentioned the tobacco around Viñales, but Carlos dismissed it with a wave.
“It’s like smoking hay,” he said.
We mentioned tobacco grown outside Cuba.
“It’s bullshit,” he said.
Some Italians entered the tent uninvited. They were in a hurry: would Carlos mind if someone else who worked at the farm showed them around? No way, Carlos told them. It was out of the question.
“You have to watch these people every second,” he told us, watching them retreat. “It’s a war. Every day is a war.” By “these people” he didn’t mean the Italians but the farmworker who wanted to serve as their guide, diverting a couple of CUCs from Carlos. We saw why our cigar factory tour in Havana had been cancelled by Ramón. He, too, was a freelance guide.
At the tour’s end, Carlos led the way to an outdoor dining hall. Here, he said, Vegas Robaina could host gatherings of connoisseurs. It was informal now, but more would come of it. A cigar bar, a restaurant, a VIP lounge: Carlos had plans. “Things are changing,” he said again. He gazed across Vegas Robaina as if seeing the future: a hotel perhaps, or a casino. We could almost see the neon reflected in his pupils.
We paid Carlos and asked to see Señor Robaina again.
“Sorry,” Carlos said, “he’s napping.”
We walked back to our waiting taxi. From the house, the television blasted on.
At the bottom of the plantation driveway, a small figure dashed out of a gatehouse and flagged us down. It was the dwarf. He flourished a handful of Robainas. Special deal, he told us. Half what we’d pay in stores.
We returned to Antonio, accompanied by a French couple. Antonio’s speech was so fast and relentless we thought we should have brought someone with better Spanish. We had trolled the streets of Viñales and managed to convince the French couple to join us, promising them Antonio would be fascinating.
“I have the love of god,” Antonio declared. It was suppertime again. The sun was setting at the edge of his pasture, and outside a rickety barn, Anonio’s birds crowded around him. His wife watched us warily from the house. “People from all over the world come to visit me, just like you did, because God wills it. They have pictures of me on their walls; in France, in Italy, in Israel. I don’t know why.” The French couple looked skeptical. Fearing they might turn tail, we remembered the bottle of rum we had brought and took it out of our backpack. We offered it to Antonio. He took a generous swig, pouring it into his mouth without touching it with his lips.
“I’m not a man of alcohol, I’m a man of god,” he said to the French guy. “I know why they asked for me in the field the other day. It’s because God loves me and wanted it.” He returned the bottle to us and we passed it on to the French couple.
“I believe that tobacco comes from Satan,” Antonio declared. “It’s a diabolical thing, smoking. But Christ has mercy and will forgive me.” He drank some more of the rum as it passed from the French people to us. “Alcohol, too, is diabolical. I myself am a servant of God. The last true servant of God in the last corner of Earth. I don’t drink much and I don’t smoke much.” He held up his lit cigar. “All things in moderation.”
The French guy was trying to translate, but he was getting way behind.
“My father chewed tobacco,” Antonio told us, “because it’s also a cleansing thing.”
“Mi padre masticaba tabaco porque es una cosa antiséptica,” the French guy said.
“That’s Spanish!” his girlfriend said to him in French. “You’re not translating!”
“Sorry,” the French guy said. “He’s very boring for me. He’s like TV Guide.”
We quickly passed him the rum. He drank some and gave it to his girlfriend. She demurred, then accepted. The bottle went back to Antonio, but his wife had posted herself in the rear doorway of their house. Seeing her, he returned it to us.
“When I offer cigars to Europeans, I ask only one CUC,” he said. “I know it can cost fifty dollars in Europe, but I don’t care. Although I am poorer than the poorest, I am rich in spirit. I have a richer spiritual life than others. I prefer to see love from other people than to have a big bank account.” He winked at the French woman and handed cigars around. We lost track of the conversation for a while, getting them lit. The French girl had particular trouble with hers, and we helped her out.
Eyes ablaze and finger held apostolically aloft, Antonio declared himself to be the servant of God and also the servant of Fidel.
“We have to pray for our rulers because they rule over us through the will of Christ,” he declared.
The French guy reached for the rum. “Really, I think it’s bullshit,” he said.
His girlfriend added, “We don’t believe in God.” She puffed her cigar. “And I am not going to pray for Sarko.”
Standing in the darkening driveway, smoking and declaring a smoke the work of Satan, Antonio struck us as emblematic of the cigar’s many ironies. There was the irony that Viñales—where the park motto posted just outside town is NATURALEZA Y REVOLUCIÓN—has become a free-market tourist boomtown. There’s the irony that at the Francisco Donatién cigar factory in Pinar del Río, women roll cigars under a poster of Fidel and behind glass walls installed for tourists. There’s the irony that while tobacco is understood to be Cuba’s national plant, the best tobacco is reserved for export. There’s the irony that, in secret White House talks before he became president, Senator John F. Kennedy held up Castro as another Simón Bolívar, and argued for supporting his cause.
Without the embargo, some say, the Cuban government would have to admit its own failures instead of blaming them on imperialist sabotage. Without the embargo, others have pointed out, there wouldn’t have been a George W. Bush administration: without Elian Gonzalez, a six-year-old refugee returned to his Cuban father by President Clinton, Miami-Dade County, and so Florida, would have gone for Gore in 2000. The crowning irony is that the American right and the Cuban left need each other the way Tom needs Jerry. What’s a cat without a mouse to chase, or a mouse without a cat to outsmart? We would have liked a habanero to be just a cigar. But it’s not: it’s a scroll of historical contradictions set alight to smolder and vanish, over and over.
Night had fallen. Antonio’s wife retreated into his glowing white house. We all drew closer together. A fog of language enveloped our huddle. The French couple were arguing against Antonio’s notion of the divine right of kings and dictators. Antonio, now free to slug from the rum bottle, was talking calmly over both of them. It all began to merge in our ears, divinely certitudinous Spanish, conspiratorial French, the chickens’ supper song.
“This cigar is excellent,” we murmured as the others argued.
“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a cigar so much.”
“Do you know which way is north?”
“North?” we said. “Who cares? So long as they never stop arguing.”
—Ginger Strand and James Wallenstein