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.