Requesting Free Havanas Takes Stealth, Diplomacy and a Healthy Lack of Shame
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96
He was smoking one cigarette after another. I knew my chance would come. He would make some remark, give me some opening, as the wind swept in from the desert across the palatial grounds.
"I apologize for this cough," the potentate said finally, interrupting our conversation about the international conference that my organization was soon to hold in his country.
"Please, no apology necessary," I answered casually. "I used to smoke three packs a day, and I've promised myself a return to cigarettes when I'm 75. But meantime, I've developed a love affair with cigars--Cuban cigars."
The trap was set.
"Ahmed, bring the cigars," the potentate broke in.
Ahmed appeared on the run with a two-foot-long tray of cigars, all sizes and shapes, and all Cuban: Cohibas, Montecristos and special brands, all hecho en Cuba, all made in heaven.
Then came step two in a master plan developed over several years of benefiting from the hospitality of Arab leaders and diplomats, of South American businessmen and officials. I peered into the tray, looking from left to right and right to left, and peered and peered. One must be patient.
"You do not like the selection?" inquired the generous host, predictably generous.
"The trouble is, I can't choose. I like them all," I said, springing the trap, my shame utterly under control.
"Take one for now, then take them all," he smiled knowingly, all too aware, yet happy in his gift.
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.
Satisfying this new love was not as easy as writing about foreign policy or conducting diplomacy. Because Cuban cigars aren't exactly legal in America, they're either hard to locate or too expensive. All of which led me to contemplate the art of mooching, an art more complicated than diplomacy. In diplomacy, you give nothing and you get nothing. In mooching, you've got to give nothing and get something.
Cuban diplomats, eager to put their best foot forward, are often prone to cigar generosity. Last year at a meeting, I introduced a senior Cuban official to those assembled and expressed my hope for better relations between our two countries "for the sake of peace and for my dedication to the very emblem of peace, Cuban cigars." The box arrived the next day. This seemed to me a far more moral approach than President Kennedy salting away thousands of Cuban cigars before he declared the embargo.
Perhaps my most satisfying mooch was perpetrated on a senior Iraqi diplomat. There we were, eyeball to eyeball, in the residence of another Iraqi official stationed at the United Nations. The senior guy's Cubans were just sitting on the end table next to him, doing nothing, not being offered. So I pulled out one of my Dominicans and offered it to the Iraqi.
"No--have one of mine," he said.
"Thanks a lot," I said. "I really love these Montecristos."
"Take another for the road, as you say," he said.
This is not exactly a motherlode of Cubans to procure from an Arab diplomat. They're generally much more generous. But we are, after all, in sort of a state of war with Iraq, and two were better than one, or none. Anyway, as you can see, there is almost nothing I wouldn't do for peace.
To help the peace process anywhere, one must establish personal ties, you understand, to get to know each other as human beings. In particular, diplomats and businessmen usually want to probe for your weaknesses, and I'm only too eager to reveal mine. Once they realize that as a human being you're practically prostrate for Cuban cigars, they invariably like to take advantage and give you several, or a box.
At times, however, you have to play to vanity, the your-Cuban-cigars-are-better-than-mine approach. The strategy has worked on several occasions for me with American business leaders. Once I discover he's a smoker, I say, "I've got some fresh Cohibas." And he says, "No, I'll send you over some of mine. They're specially made."
All art is flawed, ultimately. My downfall is that I talk too much about how I mooch Cubans. I'm always recounting some epic about some Arab sheik's generosity in response to my line about "They're all so good I can't choose." The listeners sit there, ready to pounce, slobbering for their share of the spoils. "That's a great story," they chirp. "Say, do you happen to have any of those Cubans on you?"
Leslie Gelb is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York City.
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