Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Cigars, Castro and Cuba
When you drive along the Malecon (the coastline along the north shore of Cuba in Havana) you can get lost simply by looking at the crashing waves and the open water. I saw many Cubans sitting along the barrier separating the city from the Gulf of Mexico and I wondered what they were thinking. Were they thinking, "Is there more for me out there?" Or were they thinking, "How can I make life better for my family?" Perhaps they were simply thinking, "I love my home, my Cuba."

Old Havana. The architecture reflects its rich and often turbulent history yet somehow retains an air of dignity despite crumbling facades. Baroque-, colonial-, Art Deco-inspired buildings paint a picture of Cuba's past. There are old cars everywhere. Classic American Cars -- 1950s Chevys, Old Ford pickup trucks. Havana is like a movie set yet for Cubans this is real life. While tourism is a major industry for Cuba, its relationship with the outside world is anything but welcoming. After the Revolution in 1959, Cuba's cocooned society has had limited access to life outside the Caribbean nation. But that hasn't stopped the throngs of visitors coming into Cuba -- if anything out of sheer curiosity. When they get here, though, they find there is a little bit of everything; beautiful beaches or keys and a capital city filled with history and culture.

One of Cuba's most famous exports is cigars. Connoisseurs say it is the distinct flavor of these cigars that makes them different. The tropical climate of Cuba certainly has a hand in the flavor that emanates from cured leaves that have grown from tobacco seeds that are planted in the country's western province of Pinar Del Rio. The length of the fermentation process also determines the quality as well as the price. The longer the leaves are fermented (i.e. two to five years) the higher the quality. Then about 20 minutes away from Old Havana is Habanos' restricted Cohiba factory. There, expert hand rollers taught me how the various cigars are made. While I won't go into detail into the actual process, I'll simply say it takes a lot of practise, skill, coordination and patience. It has been said that it could take up to a year of training to become an expert hand roller.

The Cohiba is perhaps the best known and is the leader of the Habanos pack, the company that produces 27 varieties of cigars. Habanos is one of those examples of how the Cuban government has had to open up their market to foreign investors in order to recover and rebuild financially. Fifty percent of Habanos is owned by the state and the other 50 percent by the Spanish-French tobacco firm Altadis. While it is illegal for the United States to import cigars, that hasn't stopped its many fans and famous consumers coveting the Cohiba. Jack Nicholson is rarely without a cigar in his hands. I've heard Montecristos, Romeo y Julietas , and Cohibas are among his favorites.

While cigars are among Cuba's more famous exports, what I fell in love with were the people. They possess a warmth and spirit that despite their hardships, and they have many, they have a genuine joy of life. Someone told me that, "Sure, there are problems, but there are also solutions." It's a way of thinking for Cubans. A regular visitor to Cuba told me that while Cubans may not be able to afford expensive watches, they have the time to share with you. At the Rum Museum in Cuba where I had my first salsa lesson, I drank in the music and the sensual movement of dance. This is how Cubans express themselves and have fun. For them, finding the fun and life in everything is how they survive. When the average Cuban earns up to $20 a month and restrictions placed on how they communicate (Internet and TV are state-controlled), embracing their roots is what puts a smile on their faces. By dancing, eating and drinking their famous mojitos, Cubans find meaning to their life when material objects elude them.

Perhaps, though, the one thing I left Cuba with was a feeling of apprehensive hope. As the world debates over what a post-Castro Cuba will look like, Cubans themselves say they fear being left in the open for bidders. They say they don't want changes to their country's political regime to come at a price. Nor do they want American or Venezuelan influence in their politics. The one thing they told me that would make them happy is if their economic condition would improve so that life wouldn't be such a struggle. If that was to happen then perhaps Cubans themselves would be able to enjoy all the luxuries this Caribbean island nation has to offer and not just serve them up to the tourists.
Posted By Monita: Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Great show with the most beautiful anchor on CNN.
Posted By Anonymous Alan,Zagreb,Croatia : 7:25 PM, March 21, 2007
It's very important for a country like Cuba and its people to have something as iconic as the cigars and the island lifestyle they enjoy, despite the typical attention the west gives this small country. I like cigars and I look forward to smoking my first Cohiba.
Posted By Anonymous Adeyemi, Lagos, Nigeria : 8:55 PM, March 21, 2007
It was a great work by Monita -- my favorite anchor on CNN -- but she forgot talk about the wonderful Cuban music. Thanks.
Posted By Anonymous Octavio. M�xico DF : 5:33 PM, March 22, 2007
Hi Monita,
I watched your Art of Life programand you're good at salsa dancing!
Posted By Anonymous Nazmil, Colombo, Sri Lanka : 1:05 PM, March 24, 2007
Hi Monita, I realy liked your blog on Cuba. Thanks Monita.
Posted By Anonymous Kirk, London, Lee. : 1:21 AM, March 25, 2007
The home-based restaurants in Cuba aren't allowed to serve beef or fish. What's behind that law?
Posted By Anonymous frank mckeown, sydney, australia : 4:30 AM, March 25, 2007
Hey Monita, just saw your program on Cuba. As someone with a love for travel and diverse cultures I could tell it is a great place to be.
Isn't it ironic how adversity brings out in a people a natural zest for life and an appreciation of those things that really matter The truly simple and the natural? I hope Cubans never lose that.
Posted By Anonymous Enyi, Manchester, England. : 8:25 AM, March 25, 2007
I just watched your show and it was great! I live near Tokyo, Japan, and there is a lot of interest here in Latin culture and, particularly, Cuba. Dance is especially popular, with salsa lessons available at various restaurants and clubs during off hours, but also live music and, as featured in your show, cigars to a minor extent. (There is a Japan Cuban Cigar Education Association, believe it or not!) I have read about how cigars are made, and recently made the acquaintance of a Japanese lady who sponsors annual cigarmaking research trips to Cuba. Having been there myself, you and your crew did an excellent job showing how cigars are made, from field to fermentation to factory. Thanks so much, Monita. I really hope to make it to Cuba soon, and hope the post-Castro era is positive for the people without disrupting their culture.
Posted By Anonymous Michael Carlton, Tokyo Japan : 3:13 PM, March 25, 2007
Hi Monita!
I watched your program for the first time and enjoyed it a lot. I love salsa and we can practise it here in Brazil, though it isn't so popular. I liked the way you showed Cuba for the world. There are lots of interesting views apart from Fidel. I'd like to visit Cuba and learn more about salsa and the beautiful people who live there.
Posted By Anonymous Janayna, Bras�lia/BRAZIL : 3:38 PM, March 25, 2007
Bravo, Monita. I enjoyed your take on Cuba in Art of Life. The music you featured on the show was wonderful. Any chance of letting us know who was playing the intro? Any further trips planned? If so any chance of taking me with you?

A very winter-weary European.
Posted By Anonymous Daniel Medina Copenhagen Denmark : 10:56 PM, March 25, 2007
Hi Monita,
Thanks for bringing me an insight into the Cuban cigar industry. Your feature story was very insightful, more so because I've just started to appreciate cigar smoking. Every cigar is a work of art and although some say it's an expensive indulgence, life is short!
Posted By Anonymous Eric Koh, Singapore : 4:50 AM, March 26, 2007
Your program on Cuba was captivating. Thank you for showing both the beauty/richness and struggles of the Cuban lifestyle.
Posted By Anonymous teresa, Spain : 12:12 PM, March 26, 2007
Hey, Cuba sounds like an interesting place. A nation of revolutionaries -- Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, what a country. It's constantly ignored and defied the SuperCop of the world, the USA. I heard they have free education and healthcare facilities for all. You could have shown these also in your show.
Posted By Anonymous Diptarko Das ,Bangalore,India. : 2:51 PM, March 26, 2007
Aloha, Monita!

I love your view from Cuba, it looks such a nice, pure part of this world!
They're not so rich on the outside, but they have so much inside!
Less is more or more is less!
viva la vida con allegria
Keep your lovely, positive energy and your smile.
I love all your shows!
Posted By Anonymous djambolucky,Kigali,Rwanda : 4:24 PM, March 26, 2007
It was a rare journey through one of the least known societies of the world. Cubans are indeed rich in spirit. Thank you very much Monita.
Posted By Anonymous Rajeev � Mumbai - India : 4:55 PM, March 26, 2007
I enjoyed your program on Cuba. It's amazing to see such a poor country like Cuba, yet it is culturally rich.
Keep the good work you are are doing.

I am from the Caribbean island of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. I would really like you to come to my country and observe or participate my country's carnival. It is the second best to Brazil's carnival.
Before the actual two days of the parade of bands, the week before they are many fetes (parties).

Emily Permanand
Posted By Anonymous Emily Permanand (Trinidad & Tobago) : 5:55 PM, March 26, 2007
What a great program! Through your program I understand and love Cuba much more!
Posted By Anonymous Nguyen Thanh Trung, Hanoi, Vietnam : 6:12 PM, March 26, 2007
I have just viewed "Cigars, Castro and Cuba." Great show. Cuba looks like such a beautiful and warm place. Nothing at all like I imagined. Great presentation. Last but not least I want to say keep up the good work.
Posted By Anonymous Kelvin Lievin, Nord-pas-de- Calais FRANCE : 7:04 PM, March 26, 2007
Monita is an amazing host. Cuba's beautiful culture, people and warmth has definitely caught my attention and I'd love to visit that place sometime.
Posted By Anonymous Kavita Kamat, Goa, India : 6:29 PM, March 28, 2007
I was fortunate to have the TV on when your program was aired. It's like watching a movie and reading the book afterwards. Recently, I watched a movie on Fidel Castro's life. It's a wonder how such lofty ideas went so wrong. Cuban's are strong people who have proved to the world that one can still smile and "live life" in the midst of adversity.

Thumbs up, Monita!
Posted By Anonymous JydaGirl,lagos,nigeria : 9:29 AM, March 29, 2007
Monita, your smile and humor light up my day (or night, I should say). Keep up the good work and keep smiling!
Posted By Anonymous Bill, Mato Grosso, Brazil : 8:55 AM, March 30, 2007
Hi Monita,
Your presentation is outstanding whether it is news coverage or a great show like Art of Life. I have been to Cuba and loved the country, people, music and mojitos. I tell all my friends to visit a country where you can find people full of life, even though the U.S. has tough sanctions.
Congrats on covering a great country. Any plans to cover any story in Australia? Good luck!

Posted By Anonymous Paul Singh, Sydney, NSW, Australia : 1:27 PM, March 30, 2007
Hi Monita,

I am writing this after reading your profile in The Hindu. Nice to know that you also blog.

I haven't watched your programs yet but have seen the promos of Eye on India.

The other blog I regularly visit is Anderson Cooper 360.

The question you pose below "Who Are you" is very pertinent and you have put your kind of experience in a poignant way. Well, I am a Nepali and whenever I travel abroad, I am also bombarded with this query. Initially, I let people guess and they invariably came up with "you are an Indian" answer. It -- like your experience -- has to do with my complexion: wheatish fair.

Keep moving, keep informing.

All the best!
Posted By Anonymous Deepak Adhikari, Kathmandu, Nepal : 6:55 AM, March 31, 2007
Viva Cuba, viva Monita. I havn't seen the show but I have been to Cuba. I love that magical place that has become so special because of Fidel's rejection of Americas's capitalism. Viva Cuba libre.
Posted By Anonymous Maki, wellington, New Zealand : 3:54 PM, April 01, 2007
Hi Monita,
A lesson or two to be learnt from the very spirit to live exuded by the Cubans shown on your show, Art of Life. You have captured the very essence of life -- energy -- to live in this fast-paced life. On one hand we have people who whine and grumble about the everyday existence while on the other we have these Cubans who live their life to the fullest despite their poverty and everyday struggle. Kudos to you in trying a step or two in salsa and hand rolling a cigar.
Posted By Anonymous SriVidya, Toronto, Canada : 7:54 PM, April 02, 2007
In my eyes, you are the most wonderful anchor on CNN.
Posted By Anonymous wen, china,peking : 12:52 AM, April 10, 2007
You portray Cuba as such wonderful and enjoyable place that I makes one wonder why so many people have died trying to get out of there. I believe your show is about travelling so you should have shown something about the raft trips so many have undergo trying to reach the shores of that other country where people is so cold and isolated. They must be all crazy or maybe they want to have the same freedom you have and not just some more food and clothes as your final comments suggest.
Posted By Anonymous Pedro Conde Toronto Canada : 5:10 PM, April 11, 2007
Hello Monita,

My heritage being Cuban/Spanish, any article on Cuba is always of interest to me. My grandparents meet in Havana, both being immigrants from Galicia in Spain. My father and his family left Havana in the 1930's, landing initially in Miami, Fl.

Not growing up with my parents after the age of seven, my heritage has been a mystery to me for years. Then in early 2001, I spent a week in Southern California researching archives for the stories that my mother wrote for the Rialto Record for her 'Dear Cass' column in the early 1960's. While there, I attended a dinner/lecture at the University of Redlands. The guest speaker, who had traveled many times to Cuba, with clearance by the US Dept of Treasury, revealed much about present day Cuba that so few ever hear about. They are highly respected in medical research; the Dept of Defense has termed Cuba to no longer be a military threat to the USA; our government has been 'interfering' in their politics for over 100 years and the list goes on and on.

Having recently viewed several documentaries about Cuba under Batista and Castro, my views of their government and lifestyle are further sympathetic to the Cuban people.

When Fidel went into the hospital in late summer 2006, my local news reporter called me to get my impressions of this, What would I think of a Cuba without Fidel Castro as their President?

My response then and today is still the same. Should the Cuban citizens decide to move to a more open society and government, they should do it of their own free will, without any influence from the United States. Any form of democracy that would ever come to the Cuban people should be determined by its present residents, not by the long standing community of Cuban exiles in the US. The Cuban people should determine their own destiny, not what anyone in the United States believes that it should or should not become.

In closing, the long standing sanctions by the US against Cuba, are even further without merit and should have been rescinded way too many years ago. Old, outdated politics seen to die a very slow death in the US. While we attempt to address the immigration issue(about 30 years too late), we should dump this outdated policy with regards to Cuba, as well.

Monita, this having been the first article that I have read of yours, I look forward to many more in the future.

Warmest Regards, Carlos Conde
Posted By Anonymous Carlos Conde, Kenosha, WI : 5:59 PM, April 11, 2007
Hi Monita,

I've just returned from Cuba and oh, how I agree with you. It is one of the most amazing places I have ever been, the people are amazingly warm and nice, always with a smile on their face.

Trully inspiring.
Posted By Blogger Rainbow : 2:16 PM, July 31, 2007
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Posted By Anonymous <a href="">OnlinePharmacy</a> : 9:47 AM, October 26, 2007
CNN anchor Monita Rajpal blogs about her experiences filming the "Art of Life" show.

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