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Mooching Cubans

Requesting Free Havanas Takes Stealth, Diplomacy and a Healthy Lack of Shame
Leslie Gelb
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

(continued from page 1)

After an hour or so talk about the Middle East peace negotiations and how the conference would advance the cause, I trundled off to the awaiting limousine, with Ahmed close behind, the tray of cigars spread across his arms. I sat in the car, and he laid them gently on my lap.

"You're not going to keep them all, all those Cubans for yourself," said the American ambassador who had accompanied me.

"No," I said. "A third is for you, payment for your silent part in my seduction of the potentate; it's the price I must pay for not being able to afford the price of Cubans myself."

Mooching Cuban cigars is a fate forced upon me by my weakness for smoking four or five cigars a day, and the sheer cost of that uplifting habit, especially when it comes to affording the tasteful and aromatic Cuban varieties. To satisfy such habits, one needs either money or art. In shame, but not too much shame, I have turned to art: the art of mooching Cuban cigars.

Even as I write this piece, I'm smoking something that tastes and smells suspiciously like a Cuban. But I can't tell for sure because the little brown thing has no band. Someone must have removed it to spare me from any illegal act. Someone always does.

Someone up there has been looking after my penchant for Cuban cigars since that day in late 1981, when the forces of the dark side began to touch my palate. A few years before, when I was assistant secretary of state for politics/military affairs in the Carter administration, I caught pneumonia on an arms control jaunt to Moscow, which forced me to give up cigarettes. When I rejoined The New York Times in 1981, I found that I could not commit a clever word to the computer screen without something smoking in my mouth. So, I started to smoke the only cigar familiar to me, the cigar of old New York Yankee radio broadcasts--White Owls.

This cigar era began for me when then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig was orating often and pungently about the war in Nicaragua, and forever threatening to end the war by "going to the source," meaning to Cuba. I was writing articles about this conflagration, and for my sins, got a telephone call from a Cuban diplomat who wanted to visit with me to find out what Al really had on his mind.

When he arrived, I was still sweating away on an article, and the Cuban diplomat had to sit in my office inhaling all that good White Owl aroma. He coughed and wheezed, and afterward, while we chatted, inquired what it was I might be smoking.

Two weeks later, Al Haig renewed his war dance and the Cuban telephoned again, came by and suffered through yet another White Owl. I escorted him to the elevator and as we bid adieu, he reached his hand through the closing doors and presented me with a thick manila envelope.

Secret documents, thought I, racing back to my office. I ripped open the packet to discover a box of something called Cohiba Lanceros. I smoked one immediately, and greedily. I got very sick. The second one was better. By the third, I was in love. I can't tell you why, precisely. The taste, I guess, was like a fine lobster or a filet mignon.

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Comments   5 comment(s) January 24, 2012 2:56am ET

Thanks that was a real fun read

Don Wozniak — Joliet, Illinois, United States,  —  April 12, 2012 12:58pm ET


So, do you have any of those Cubans? By the way, have I told you how, not only are yours (Cubans)so much better than mine, but how fascinating your articles are? So well written, you sir are a genius.

David Savona April 12, 2012 3:52pm ET

One of my favorite articles from our archives.

Kenny Daniels May 20, 2012 9:42pm ET

I was in Canada a few hears ago and was able to purchase some cuban cigars. Tasty but not quite what I was told about.(?) I enjoy oliva or cao more. Explain please why this was or could be?

David Savona May 21, 2012 11:03am ET

People have different tastes Kenny, so your favorites might be Oliva or CAO cigars while this article's author (and many cigar aficionados) loves Cubans.

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