Out of the Humidor
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98
(continued from page 3)
I couldn't believe it! We were on vacation in Cuba and I didn't have a cigar. At that point my lofty ideals were set aside and I began to draw on my previous experience in searching out cigars on the black market. After finding a driver with limited English, my wife and I and a newly found friend, who was also interested in cigars, left the hotel property and soon found ourselves on a dirt road in a settlement of homes carved out of the forest. It was dusk and we were well off the beaten track in a settlement of very modest Cuban homes, among goats, chickens, pigs and other livestock. Had I been in any other country except Cuba, I would undoubtedly have been considering changes that I could have made to my will, but over the years I had learned to feel very comfortable and secure anywhere in Cuba.
Our driver pulled into the backyard of one of the homes and had a fairly lengthy conversation in Spanish with the owner. We were directed to a nearby home just down the road, which seemed to be uninhabited. The resident of the first home walked behind the car and we were instructed to stay in the vehicle as there was supposedly a "bad" dog, which was a threat to our safety. Through our interpreter, whose English was very limited, I found that I could not purchase Romeo y Julietas, but I could buy a box of Montecristo No. 2s for $32. With the acquisition of the cigars, our vacation suddenly was turned around. We were back at the hotel by 6 p.m., in time for a wonderful meal, followed by a fine cigar. Word had spread that I had "made a buy" and other guests of the hotel dropped by our table to inspect the merchandise.
Four days later we were in Santiago de Cuba, a city on the southeast coast. When we arrived at a small cigar factory, I was amazed as we left the tour bus at the number of people on the street selling boxes of black-market $25 Montecristo No. 4s. I was even more surprised as we walked through the factory when a young lad at one of the work stations reached under his table and offered me a box of Cohibas for $30. I opted instead to buy cigars at the authorized store where, unfortunately, the selection was not as great as from black-market sources. I purchased three boxes: Partagas, Sancho Panzas and El Rey del Mundos, for a total cost of $220. This was the most I had paid for Cuban cigars, but at least I was relatively certain that they were not fakes.
My last acquisition, on the following day, was a box of black-market Romeo y Julieta Churchills, which are among the best cigars that I have smoked in my limited experience. My goal is to be immediately able to spot fakes and poor-quality cigars, but this may take some time.
I never cease to be mystified by the Cuban cigar black market. Sales are never made in the open; rather, they are made by such means as using deserted offices at the hotel and by passing cigars wrapped in beach towels. On one occasion, we (my wife wouldn't let me go alone) were required to walk down a deserted road on a rainy night, past hotel security guards, to meet two hotel employees who rode up on bicycles, right on schedule. The mysterious part of the transaction is that if I can find people who sell cigars on the black market, why can't the Cuban officials also find and prosecute them? I have been told by hotel employees that they would lose their jobs if they were caught, but I don't necessarily believe them. Perhaps in the future, someone from your magazine will shed light on this mystery.
I can't close without expressing concern with the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. It is unfortunate that two wonderful peoples are not able to share cultures (and cigars). When one looks at U.S. world trading partners, there is really no logic to the exclusion of Cuba. The Cuban people do not deserve the hardships they endure as the result of these trade barriers. Neither should U.S. citizens be deprived of access to the miles of pristine beaches and vacation retreats, and the wonderful friendship of the Cuban people.
Someday, the barriers will come down and I may have to fight for a spot on the beach and pay more for my Cuban vacation (and cigars), but I will not complain.
Ivan A. McKaguee
Editor's note: For the prices you paid for your black-market smokes, it's a pretty sure bet that your "Montecristos"and "Romeo y Julietas" are fakes. Buying black-market cigars is always a dubious proposition, especially when the prices seem too good to be true. But if you enjoyed them, a buck a cigar is a pretty good deal.
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