I knew that the rules were not being seriously enforced when I arrived on the Spanish airline, Iberia, at José Martí Airport in Havana and about a dozen Italians and Spaniards lit up cigarettes and cigars as they waited in the baggage claim area. Plenty of no-smoking signs were posted, but nobody paid attention to them.
I got into a taxi and asked the driver if he minded if I smoked (something I never have done since first coming to the island in 1992), and he said no. I fired up a Ramon Allones Belicoso and rolled down the window.
"So what about the new no-smoking laws?" I asked in my bad Spanish.
He laughed. "Those laws are a lot like other things here in Cuba," he said. "It's all music. It doesn't matter."
Of course, it does matter and the law does exist. President Fidel Castro wants to reduce the Cubans' appetite for the hundreds of millions of cigarettes they smoke each year. I have heard that slightly more than 50 percent of the 11 million inhabitants of the island smoke. That's a lot of tobacco. The antismoking law prohibits people from smoking in public places such as hospitals, theaters, schools and offices, and bans sales of smokes to children under 16 years of age and at stores less than 100 yards from schools. Most hotels and restaurants now have designated smoking areas, regulations that are definitely being enforced.
I was told to move to the smoking section at the coffee bar in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba Hotel, even though my cigar was not even lit. And later, an old lady told me off for smoking a cigar while I was sitting on a bench in the shade next to the pool. I pretended not to hear her.
Apparently, the new rules were relaxed temporarily for this week's Festival del Habano, the annual cigar orgy organized by the world distributors of Cuban cigars, Habanos S.A. About 1,000 cigar lovers from all over the world are in Havana, smoking, drinking and carrying on in the city until late in the night. The event includes cocktail parties, dinners, seminars, and cigar factory and plantation visits, and ends with a gala dinner on Friday night. Sources tell me that a new cigar will be introduced that night: the Partagas Serie P No. 2, a torpedo smoke from the illustrious brand that will soon be introduced in the world market. An auction of special humidors for Cuban charity, which normally raises close to $1 million, will also take place that evening. Castro used to attend the event, but he hasn't been seen there for the last two years.
Other sources say that the government may relax the laws for another two months as it evaluates their effect on Cuba's tourism industry -- the most important source of revenue for the island's economy. Last year, about 2.1 million tourists came to Cuba, a large percentage of whom like to smoke cigars. Sales of cigars to visitors total about 10 million units a year, which creates estimated revenues of about $50 million to $75 million.
"This is crazy," said one cigar shop manager in Havana. "First they increase prices and now they say people can't smoke. What's next? Loco."
One source with connections in the government said that the country's minister of domestic trade didn't even know about the new law. The official first heard about it when it was published a few weeks ago in an official gazette. Habanos officials apparently didn't hear about the law until international press reports starting filtering through and reporters called them for comment. The officials later held a press conference to assure festival attendees that they could smoke their hearts out in Havana for the festival.
And so we are. And there are many great cigars available in shops throughout Havana, from the Cohiba Sublimes Edicíon Limitada 2004 to the Partagas Serie D No. 4 Reserva. The latter, a new smoke made with aged filler and wrapper, will soon be released in very limited quantities. One fell into my hands yesterday -- thanks to a friendly Cuban -- as well as a Bolivar Gold Medal, so stay tuned for my first impression as well as insights into the tobacco harvest and factories.
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