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Out of the Humidor

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02
Dear Marvin,

You hit the problem on the spot. I am a member of United Airlines's frequent flyer program. The quality of service on board their planes and on the ground has declined sharply over the past few years. I very often get the feeling that the airlines are annoyed when a passenger boards. My suggestion to business travelers is this: eat at the airport before boarding the plane, take a sleeping pill once you are on board, and hope that the plane leaves quickly. Don't forget that you often will be virtually stripsearched before boarding the plane. About 20 years ago air travel was a pleasure. Today, it is a nuisance. No wonder private air travel is so popular. It is time the airlines start thinking about who is paying them.

Daniel Steiner

Zurich, Switzerland

 

Dear Marvin,

I would like to commend your magazine on a wonderful job of "shedding a new light" on air travel in the year 2002. I have been in the travel industry for eight years, and have nothing but negative experiences with the airlines, be it on the consumer, retail or wholesale end of this business. It was mentioned that the vacation traveler has a better chance of getting a better rate because he/she is flexible. This is true only in cases where the passenger doesn't have any of the following obstacles: a job, a family, and is what one would describe as footloose and fancy-free. However that person probably wouldn't have the money to travel anyway.

Working in the industry, I will tell you I do not understand why the general public, not just the businessman, tolerates the treatment "dished out" to them by the airlines. After September 11 the airlines received government grants. Yet they proceeded to lay off employees shortly after receiving those grants. Then they raised ticket prices, and after that they decided they were no longer going to pay commissions to travel agents.

My only question is, How long will this be tolerated by the government? An entire industry is at stake. Shouldn't that be enough to make someone look into these corporations? Personally I feel it would be wonderful if all businessmen would no longer fly commercial airlines. That might wake the airlines up.

I have one last thing to say after my rather longwinded monologue. Thank you. Hopefully someone in the business world will stand up and make the airlines take notice of all of us, too.

Ursula A. Schreiber

Carlstadt, New Jersey

 

Dear Marvin,

As a long time Cigar Aficionado subscriber and flight attendant for a major US-based airline, whose favorite layover is Amsterdam with a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 and a glass of Port, I read with interest your article "Air Sick" in the August 2002 issue. First off, it is agreed that after working for three airlines in as many years that most of the management I have seen is not good. I will also be the first one to agree that the seats are too tight, service (as in food and amenities) is reduced, and the general flying experience can be annoying to a complete pain.

Air travel will never be the same again. Security is a joke, and federalizing people who couldn't do the job before 9/11 won't help. Do we all really think that a pair of cuticle clippers and a nail file are going to bring down a plane now? I highly doubt it. I get as tired as anyone else getting "cavity searched" at security especially when I have on a uniform and airline ID that required an FBI background check. I agree changes needed to be made and still do, but some of the directions we are going aren't the answer.

The main reason for irritating flying experiences is the good old buck. Flying is not for the affluent anymore. Anybody from Ma and Pa Kettle to movie stars fly commercial. It all comes down to saving money. Do you think I get tired of passengers complaining about all of the problems? I do! But when you pay $99 for a coast-to-coast supersaver fare, what can you really expect?

Don't get me wrong, as there is no excuse for rude flight attendants. I love my job. I am just trying to do my job and support my family like everybody else. Sometimes it is hard to cope with so many rude and disrespectful passengers that treat us like a bunch of cafeteria workers in the sky. Many adults seem to never have learned the words "thank you" or "please," and their children can be worse. It pains me to see how the next generation is growing up! It all comes down to respect for all!

As for your story about the passenger that thought he shouldn't have to turn his cell phone off when told there are reasons for this -- among the other directives we are giving you -- they are federal air regulations that all flight attendants are mandated to enforce. We are not police officers and it should be common courtesy to do as we ask. I don't think anybody should get grief for doing their job!

If you are on my flight, I can promise you respect and the best service I can give you with what I have to work with. Engage me in a conversation. Just understand I am not the CEO, I don't make the rules, and I can't change the big things. I will be happy to help you with anything I can control, however.

Unfortunately, air travel is a commodity now (as you stated) and is all about the money. Unless we go back to the "Golden Days," it probably won't get much better!

M. Murphy

Salt Lake City, Utah

 

Dear Marvin,

I don't believe you guys at Cigar Aficionado complaining about the airline service, food, schedules, fares and compartment seating. I would think that you of all people, in as competitive a market as the publishing business is, could relate to what is going on in the airline business.

I recently needed to go from Little Rock to Seattle, but had to return from Oklahoma City. The one-way ticket from Seattle to Little Rock was astronomical, as was the one-way ticket from Oklahoma City to Seattle. I booked a round-trip ticket from Seattle to Little Rock, making sure the return trip was after the next Saturday night, and did the same thing from Oklahoma City to Seattle. I disposed of the portions of the tickets I did not use, but if I was a business traveler who could arrange the reverse route at another time, I could have used the back sides of both of those tickets. Now, airlines don't like this, and if you try to do it through a travel agent they won't do it for you, so one simply has to do it yourself on the Internet. The travel agent I talked to said it was illegal, but it's not -- it's simply against airline policy. For them, it is illegal. I can understand the travel agents' problem, in that they would get cut off by the airlines, but the airlines are in the process of cutting the agents off, anyway. Airlines have been watching out for these back-to-back arrangements, so the smart traveler will simply book with separate airlines.

My wife is traveling to Italy from Seattle in October, round trip for $50. She has taken two trips to Europe in the last two years, and is taking advantage of the frequent flyer programs that are in place. I think it's great that she can do that…capitalism at work! Viva capitalism!

I run my own business. If you need to be at home for your son's soccer game, time with mom doing gardening, time to go to church on Sunday morning, make the time. Don't let business get in the way of the important stuff. If that means moving the meeting to Monday, move the meeting. Charter a jet and go on Friday afternoon.

Kevin Brackett

Seattle, Washington

 

Dear Marvin,

Much of what Scott Ritter [August 2002] says is no doubt true. The United States has many qualities; one of them is a lack of understanding of international politics. It is not too surprising that our politicians are so myopic in this domain; we as a people are, too, and they reflect us, broadly speaking. The problem is that we live in a dangerous world and miscalculations have potentially terrible consequences.

Mr. Ritter's premise is that American unilateralist thinking doesn't understand the shades of gray in the world. We cannot take on the whole world, and why indeed would we want to? America's interest lies in good relations, not bad relations, and a little subtlety and knowledge of history could well move us in that direction. This was the premise of America's relations with the world from the time of our founding.

This said, I believe Mr. Ritter's view is suspect when it comes to Saddam Hussein. Saddam is a dictator in the mold of Stalin, Mao and Hitler. He will impose any suffering on his people for his aggrandizement; he makes monstrous miscalculations which bring only catastrophe to the Iraqis; he uses any means to quell dissent in his own country; and he has used weapons in his own country which most nations have forsworn. Basically, he's mad. Mr. Ritter doesn't confront that issue. And, that's the problem.

Does it require us to go to war with Iraq? No! I agree with Mr. Ritter that this will bring more harm than good. But, it does require a very different policy. We don't seem to understand the extent to which the Palestinian situation in Israel plays in this. If it were resolved, Saddam would be a pariah. With it festering, Saddam is a "brother" in the cause. If we want to get rid of Saddam -- and we should -- then we'll act in good faith, in our own interest and not according to the dictates of Israel, to exert all our influence for a solution in Palestine.

Claude Roessiger

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

 

Dear Marvin:

The biggest problem with Gordon Mott's article on Scott Ritter, "Patriot or a Traitor" was the premise that Scott Ritter is some kind of expert on Iraqi affairs. Next time, why not just cruise down Park Avenue, go into a bar, and interview some guy on a bar stool?

Who is Scott Ritter -- a former Marine officer who served in the Gulf War and was a UN weapons inspector in Iraq who wrote a book on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? So he spent time in Iraq and helped to destroy several thousand weapons, weapons facilities and/or equipment for making them and he's an instant expert on Iraq, Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi economy and the Middle East? Surely there are several dozen, if not hundreds of educators, State Department analysts, foreign service professionals and intelligence agency personnel who actually know what they are talking about and would have provided a more sensible argument than a guy who now contradicts his own book.

My problem with this article is not necessarily what Ritter argues: I agree that the United States needs to give a substantial amount of thought and analysis before it interferes any further in the Middle East. The problem is relying on Scott Ritter to comment on this significant element of U.S. foreign policy.

Rob Pfaff

Reisterstown, Maryland

 

Dear Marvin,

What I read in "The Cuban Trade Embargo Paradox" by Wayne S. Smith [June 2002] really angered me. It's great to hear that the United States's stance regarding Cuba is softening; I also agree that the time for lifting the trade embargo has come. But rather than taking time to offer my opinion about that, there is something else that concerns, even alarms, me. The fact that President Bush is ignoring the voices of so many people calling for rekindling relations with Cuba for his own political gain absolutely incenses me. I cannot think of a greater abuse of political power than this: to play with the financial well-being of a nation, and then blurt rhetoric about wanting democracy in Cuba, all for the completely selfish reason that he wants himself and his brother to be reelected. That's utterly condemnable!

I realize that this is likely to be an unpopular opinion, but I believe such behavior calls into question any act he has taken since assuming the Oval Office. Can we the voters truly believe that President Bush has the welfare of our country in mind? Can we honestly believe that he sees the American people as his "boss"? I personally fear for our country's future when the goal of those making policy for the United States is simply to do whatever it takes to be reelected, and not to act in the best interest of our country or respond to our wishes as voters. Call me idealistic, but what are we coming to?

Patrick T.

Denver, Colorado

 

Dear Marvin,

Wayne Smith's article strikes me as something that might have been written by a public relations firm hired by Fidel Castro. Making an unrepentant Stalinist regime seem even faintly sympathetic is a tall order, but that doesn't appear to have fazed Smith. The word "airbrush" comes to mind, with others I shall refrain from using.

He dismisses the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Curiously, he never mentions what caused it: the wholesale, uncompensated confiscation of U.S. property by the Castro regime. Maybe Smith feels the United States is not entitled to retaliate for being robbed. He says the embargo has failed to bring democracy to Cuba, but so has favored nation status, free trade and travel in the case of China. He opposes pressuring Cuba to make reforms for the embargo to be lifted, though a similar tactic used by the European community worked to make Spain and Portugal adopt democracy after lengthy dictatorships. Cuba should be treated as South Africa was until it ended apartheid. But hypocrisy reigns.

Besides trashing the embargo, Smith maligns Cuban Americans with apparent relish. The fact that their motivation, Cuba's freedom, is unassailable does not appear to matter much. His contempt for "those people in Miami" (Clinton's scornful phrase) seems palpable, but I assure him it pales next to their contempt for him -- an outsider who presumes to pontificate on something he has not suffered and cannot possibly feel or understand. No amount of academic sojourns in Cuba (with the regime's blessings, naturally) justifies such arrogance.

Then there's the attempt to downplay, or whitewash, Castro's rabid, lifelong hatred of the United States and his regime's potential threat. Smith calls Castro "conciliatory" and "graceful." Indeed. One might think he was referring to the Dalai Lama, as opposed to an egomaniac who's stopped at nothing to keep absolute power, who's been condemned by his daughter and sister, who urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear attack against the United States during the 1962 Missile Crisis, who admitted ordering the killing of unarmed American citizens flying over international waters in 1996, and who, while in Iran in May of 2001, was party to the boast that Iran and Cuba could bring America to its knees. That's barely the tip of the iceberg. If Castro's been "behaving" since 9/11, it's only self-preservation. He's weaker than ever, now that there's no Soviet Union to finance and protect him, and he's not about to let what happened to the Taliban regime happen to his. He knows Bush is not Carter, and he's an expert liar. As one of countless examples, when he first took power he fervently swore he was no communist, only to say later that he had always been one.

As for Smith's assurance that Cuba, according to prior Pentagon reports, is no threat to U.S. security, I merely point to the article in your June issue about the high-ranking analyst at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency who was recently unmasked as a spy for Castro. This woman, who was considered the "go-to person on Cuba" at the DIA, was active for years, and part of her mission was surely to disinform to make Castro's regime appear as harmless as possible. It would appear Wayne Smith's goal was similar.

Laura Gómez Quevedo

Orlando, Florida

 

Dear Marvin,

I read Wayne Smith's article on the embargo against Cuba and to my amazement I feel the same way. I was born in 1971 and raised in Cuba till 1980. I came over on the Mariel boatlift with my mom, which was the turning point in my life. My first view of the United States, at the age of eight, was a U.S. Navy MP with an M-16 rifle. I was transported by a corrections bus to Krome Detention Center, Immigration Corrections Facility, in Florida, where we spent two days being processed. Those are not pleasant memories of the country, which I've now come to love and cherish.

Now 30 years old, I agree that the embargo should end. I also believe that Eli*n Gonz*lez needed to go back to Cuba with his father. The United States is not a family court, but it is a fair and understanding country with a constitution that has been tested and retested. We the people have been able to keep it together for almost 226 years. The embargo hurts the Cuban people, not Fidel Castro or his regime. My father used to work with Fidel Castro and Celia S*nchez. He died in 1980. Trust me on this, I have been able to notice the differences between a communist and democratic country.

I am very proud of being a U.S. citizen since 1988, and also to be part of the best country in the world. We have been hurt and September 11, 2001, was not the first time. We are able to be strong and rise above it all. Stop the embargo and move forward.

Rick Emiliano Lopez

Laguna Niguel, California

 

Dear Marvin,

For years, I've enjoyed reading about Cuba in Cigar Aficionado. Normally, I am impressed by the depth of the authors' understanding; so I was dismayed by the coverage of "The Cuban Spy Connection" in your June issue.

The tenor of the article and the inclusion of a quarter-page photo of Castro reviewing Iranian troops inflate the significance of Ana Belen Montes' actions. Making the association between Castro and those Islamic fundamentalists is misleading, to say the least.

In his 43 years in power, Castro has never attempted terrorist attacks against the United States, and there is no reason to assume he would share "delicate" information with other countries. Besides, there is little to no chance that Montes would be privy to information regarding countries other than Cuba, since it is DIA policy to contain information to only those persons who have a "need to know." She was never in a position to gain privileged knowledge regarding our preparations to attack Afghanistan. The implication that Montes would have that knowledge and that she would share it with other countries borders on libel.

Van A. Harp says the case demonstrates that Cuba is still targeting our national defense information. Ironically, the most damaging information Montes is reported to have divulged to Cuba related to U.S. agents deployed to spy on Cuba -- all of whom are alive and well.

Montes participated in a 1997 assessment of Cuba's military capacity. The Pentagon felt the assessment underestimated Cuba's threat to the United States. This is the Pentagon's reason for existing -- to inflate estimations of other countries' strength and cajole Congress and the public into increasing the Pentagon's budget. The fact that the State Department considers Cuba to be a supporter of terrorism is an indictment without conviction against Cuba or Montes' relations with Cuba; nor should the Bush Administration's investigations of Cuba's alleged links to terrorists be construed as evidence of such links.

Montes acted on her beliefs, not out of pecuniary gain. Her motive appears to have been an educated disagreement with official U.S. policy vis-à-vis Cuba. In that sense, we have imprisoned a dissident who was never in a position to threaten our national security. We have imprisoned an American who was so ashamed of America's hostility towards Cuba that she tried to rectify it by telling Castro that we were spying on him. If there were real justice, Montes would be exiled to Cuba, the nation to which she apparently pledges allegiance.

The Bush Administration refuses to discuss policy changes until Cuba holds free elections (like the one that put Bush in the White House), releases all political prisoners (like Montes), and adopts a fully democratic system (like our government, which maintains a hostile stance towards Cuba despite popular and congressional support for lifting the trade embargo). Let's not buy into the domestic terror message being broadcast by our own government, and let's not dignify it by publishing it. Your readers know better.

Chris Dolejs

Austin, Texas

 

Dear Marvin,

I just got done reading the April 2002 issue cover to cover and loved it! I especially enjoyed the articles about New York's emergency crews. Gordon Mott wrote an excellent article titled "Remembering America's Heroes" and I really enjoyed reading about the rich New York history of the police, fire and EMS departments (the articles by David Savona, Jack Bettridge and Shandana Durrani, respectively). However, I cannot help but wonder what goes through the minds of the D.C. emergency crews or the Pennsylvania crews, all of which had the same emotions and acts of heroism as New York. They just lost fewer residents. Although New York is worthy of all the attention and gratitude towards their emergency crews, I get upset that the others appear to be ignored.

As a volunteer firefighter for Frenchtown, Montana, I want to personally extend a thank you to all police, fire and EMS crews out there. We all felt some connection to our fallen brethren. My hat is off to all of you! I also want to take a moment to thank the "real" emergency crews out there, those who leave the kitchen table, stop playing with their children, or roll out of bed at 2 a.m. still needing to go to work in the morning. I'm referring to our nation's volunteer emergency crews.

Don't get me wrong, I do not want to take away from our nation's paid professional emergency crews. They are worth every penny and then some. With that said, I would like to point out the sacrifice of the volunteers, who work without pay because they love what they do. They don't get paid to cut you out of your car or to enter your burning building, but they do it for the same reason as the
professionals -- because it's what needs to be done.

I would like to thank all the wives and the husbands of both the paid and the volunteer firefighters who watch their loved ones walk out their door. All those children and wives and husbands who no longer get to see their loved ones leave for work because they never made it back from a call. You are my real heroes.

Robert Potter

Frenchtown, Montana

 

Dear Marvin,

I find it strange the antismoking community is fighting so hard to stop a health issue, yet at the same time, other more damaging health issues are glossed over. The number of people who die each year from smoking is less than the number of people who die from obesity or other eating-related issues (like heart disease or diabetes caused by overeating or eating poorly). Smoking gets knocked and legislated against, yet obesity is glorified in some ads and people talk about not discriminating against "large" people. For some reason, one health issue is singled out as if it's the only evil. Overeating affects half the population -- more than smoking. Poor eating is targeted to children of all ages (look at ads from McDonald's, Wendy's, sugarcoated cereals, etc.). Smoking is disdained in restaurants and bars, while "discriminating" against someone who requires two seats is considered wrong. Both cost the public money. Both are health issues -- and personal choices. If we look at other issues that affect our health, why not target driving? Or eating food that contains pesticides?

We have a two-faced attitude in this country about health issues. Some are ignored and some are fought. All are personal choices. I'm not an evangelist -- I quit smoking cigarettes 20 years ago because of my health, but still enjoy my cigars. I don't like sitting in a restaurant around smokers while I am eating, but I enjoy a cigar after dinner in a separate area. I lost 43 pounds a year ago -- also because of my health. I still enjoy eating -- I did not go on a diet to lose the weight -- but watch it so that I stay healthier. I'm by no means perfect, but it really irritates me when I see an ad on TV trashing smoking followed by an ad for larger women stating that they are beautiful (they may be, but I wouldn't glorify it).

Someone has to call the antismoking evangelists on it -- either drop it or target every health issue to be fair. Stop the litigation against tobacco companies. It's like suing McDonald's because their food isn't very healthy or suing farmers who use pesticides or DuPont for producing them. Once people are educated about the risks, it's up to them. Life isn't risk-free. We can make our own choices and take responsibility for them as well -- rather than shifting blame.

Gary Rush

Barrington, Illinois

 

Dear Marvin,

I am an avid reader and an owner of Berkshire-Hathaway stock who shares your sentiments for Warren Buffet; he is one of my investment heroes. In fact, in your criticism of stock options, it should be noted that at the public companies where Mr. Buffet has made significant investments, options are used extensively for corporate benefits. These investments include Coca-Cola, American Express, Gillette, H&R Block and Wells Fargo. I don't think these companies have repriced options. There are risks to repricing options and the practice involves a six-month waiting period and a forfeiture of previously granted options. Companies cannot simply reprice whenever and however they wish. The Securities and Exchange Commission has strict accounting and disclosure terms that must be met in order to reprice.

Enron's shareholders were the victims of dishonesty and fraud. Enron's stock option plan didn't take the company down. You are critical of CEOs, stating these people may cruise along and boards will reprice options. Show me some examples of repricing options and the lack of pressure put on these executives to perform.

The statement about "credibility of our entire capitalist economy" is viewed that all corporate decisions are made with the stock price in mind. Well, there is a balance between short-term thinking for quarterly earnings and long-term strategic planning, but to say our capitalist society is in jeopardy is a long way from reality. Look around the world. You guys have been to Cuba. Think they would benefit from stock option plans tied to good, short-term decisions and long-term planning?

Last, CEOs' option grants typically vest over five years and have a 10-year life. Most of the big bonuses and huge grants were a product of their labor over many years. The public sees the numbers when these CEOs cash in and think by clicking their heels the cash appeared.

Stuart Smith

Nashville, Tennessee

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