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Out of the Humidor

| By CA Readers | From Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Dear Marvin,

I was truly amazed at your recent issue of your magazine and to see on the front cover the words: "Cuba; is it time to end the embargo?" What was more amazing was to have my own family's house, that once was a place of human warmth, love, laughter, sorrow and happiness, taken from us only to see it as a bed-and-breakfast catering to tourists.

I am referring to your section on where to stay on page 120. The house I am referring to is the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. That Spanish merchant you mention is Adolfo Ponce de Leon Conde de Villanueva, a direct descendant of Juan Ponce de Leon and my great grandfather. When I saw this I sunk in my chair and cried. It was tragic to see my family's home portrayed as a tourist hot spot while my family had that very "hot spot" ripped from them, only to be thrown like a whirlwind into a foreign and strange land. I am very proud to be an American, mind you. I was born and raised in this country, a product of the revolution, but I take no pride in seeing that, at the expense of countless families like mine and our American freedom, a government like the Cuban government is glorified as a tourist hot spot. Remember it is a tourist hot spot at our expense.

For you to even consider that your issue is not political in nature is both insulting and condescending to the Cuban exile community and myself, a Cuban born in America. You mention very clearly that you hope your issue at least stimulates dialogue between the two nations. Again, the very nature of such an event will never happen, and if you would have put yourselves in the exile community's shoes and truly feel their pain you probably would have reconsidered another Caribbean destination as part of your exposé. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto said it best after bombing Pearl Harbor: "I think we have awakened a sleeping giant." In the exile community you have done just that.

As you know, in journalism, research is the key to a feature story. You both failed in researching the myth behind the taboo that is Cuba, and the [story of the] exile community. To think that my generation longs to go to Cuba is correct, but a Cuba free of Fidel and his band of hoods. Would you visit the same people who took everything away from you and your family and forced you into exile? For us it would be like traveling back in time to Nazi Germany and visiting the people who put your family in restricted neighborhoods before they were forced into exile or sure death if they had remained. You have no idea what your exposé has done to this community that represents about 3 million people throughout the United States. To see in the pages Raul Castro and his band of hoods exemplified throughout--I am sorry to tell you, but you failed in your research. In business, I learned a long time ago to put myself in my clients' shoes. You did not do that. Are we not your clients? Are we not your subscribers?

Our freedom of speech bled and given to us by our Founding Fathers is a true and blessed gift, not to be wielded at a whim without care of the consequences to others. We respect that freedom you and I have a right to have. This is why I am writing you.

The Cuban exile community truly deserves an apology from you because of the nature and content of your exposé. Trust me, it hit too close to home.

Francisco J. Ponce de Leon
Pinecrest, Florida

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Dear Marvin,

Congratulations on the June issue of Cigar Aficionado that, as you said, is about Cuba and the Cuban people. But it is also about politics--mean and wrong U.S. politics.

The U.S. policy towards Cuba has failed to achieve any of its objectives and, after almost 40 years and nine American presidents, has proven to be an irrational, archaic and ineffective policy of the cold war era that never bore fruit.

The U.S. policy toward Cuba has been hijacked for the self-serving, Miami-based Cuban-American interests that have in mind only their narrow parochial agenda and not the legitimate U.S. interests. That is the reason that, while America has relations with countries that had shed American blood and had been its sworn enemies--such as Vietnam, Iran, Russia, Korea and China--Cuba is an exception to that pragmatic approach.

Last October, for the seventh year in a row, the United Nations called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, that it is hurting the most vulnerable sector of the Cuban population--the sick, the elderly, the women and children. The vote was 157 to 2, with the United States and Israel casting the only negative votes. That decision underlines the unanimous world reaction--including the Vatican's--against an American legislation whose "extra-territorial effects" Washington's friends and adversaries alike resent and oppose because it violates their sovereignty.

Cuba had been always a close trading partner for the United States and after the 38-year embargo, it has become a [potentially] huge market for American goods and services. But Canada, Mexico and European countries have been filling the gap left by America's absence, and the American companies are losing their share of important sectors of the Cuban economy. Because of this blockade, we can't travel to Cuba, we can't sell to Cuba, we can't invest in Cuba. Who benefits from a policy like that? For sure, not the American companies that are losing millions of dollars, and not the American workers that are losing thousands of jobs.

A few months ago, a bipartisan American group of 22 U.S. senators, three former secretaries of state and many prominent former government officials urged the White House to undertake a comprehensive review of the U.S. policy towards Cuba. It was a golden opportunity that President Clinton let pass. I'm glad that Cigar Aficionado is now taking a leading role in that debate, and I'm sure that the Congress will move again very soon in that direction. America can't enter the third millennium with an obsolete foreign policy of the 1950s.|

Carlos M. Hirsch
Bethesda, Maryland

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Dear Marvin,

Your June 1999 issue of Cigar Aficionado raises several questions regarding the Cuban embargo debate. First in my mind is: how correct is Jesse Helms regarding the ownership of businesses and payments of the Cuban people? If Senator Helms is correct, Dwayne Andreas's argument that a rising tide lifts all boats would not withstand scrutiny. It would not matter to the Cuban people how much additional money American industry brought in if it was withheld by the government. It would appear that Senator Helms's statement is correct, as Senator Dodd also alluded to it in his argument to end the embargo.

Second, is the United States the only country on the face of the earth that manufactures medicines, food products, clothing? If we and Israel are the only two countries enforcing the embargo, why is Cuba not able to purchase the required goods and services from countries that are not honoring the embargo?

Third, are we merely to ignore the millions of dollars of American property taken over by Castro and then sold to third parties with no compensation given to its rightful owners?

Mr. Andreas asked if U.S. companies would look the other way when finding a problem. In the words of a popular Beatles song, "I am certain that it happens all the time." Some multinational companies don't care what governments do to their own people as long as they can turn a profit.

Castro has made no effort for any meaningful changes in Cuba. Without some justification, the United States has no reason to change its mind regarding the original purpose of the embargo. Why should we lift it now? Surely the ability to purchase cigars cannot justify keeping people in bondage?

Norman J. Stringfield
Jacksonville, Florida

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Dear Marvin,

The arrival of Cigar Aficionado's special issue on Cuba was a wonderful surprise. It arrived Saturday morning as we were on our way out to the children's soccer games.

Saturday turned to Sunday and I was having a gathering of family for my aunt's 70th birthday. I was playing hostess but offered the magazine to my uncle--I thought perhaps there'd be pictures he'd enjoy. One by one, throughout the evening, I saw my elder family members page through and comment on one memory or another that the photos evoked. They didn't get the chance to read the articles but took pleasure in seeing what they had once been a part of. (I will pass the issue along to them once I'm finished with it.) My siblings expressed their hopes that one day they might walk on the beaches of Varadero with our parents to show the way.

Monday I read the magazine from cover to cover. As I read the articles I found myself wishing that I could have been along on these discoveries. It must be wonderful to see all this beauty and culture not just with your eyes but being able to use all your senses to take it all in.

The articles and the issue as a whole gave me a sense of Cuba that I had not been privy to. It is a remote part of my life, for now.

I very much wish to someday visit my birthplace. I wish I could see what my parents and grandparents carry in their hearts and minds, what they loved--what they left behind in their pursuit of freedom. It is unimaginable to me how they could of made the decision to leave Cuba.

But at the same time I could not imagine my life without the freedoms that their struggles gave us and that I often take for granted.

I envy those who travel there without scars and see only the natural beauty of the country and the warmth of the people. They go to Cuba without the conflict of guilt.

I am very grateful to your magazine because it is through your eyes that we glimpse at the beauty of Cuba. If only Cuba could have escaped the wounds of its politics. I wonder what it would have been like today.

As a Cuban American, I hope that someday soon the Cuban exiles will accept what happened and heal. That Castro will take some responsibility for his part in the decay of the Cuba that was. His ways haven't really been the solutions he promised at all--merely another set of problems. I hope he truly finds a way to help the people enjoy the privileges we Americans take for granted sometimes.

Most importantly, I hope with the help of people like yourself, that we--Americans, Cuban Americans, Cuban exiles and native Cubans--all see a clear picture of what Cuba should and could be.

Thank you for having such affection for a place and its people. From your conviction it does seem true that seeing something for yourself once is better than being told about it a 1,000 times. Here's hoping!

My siblings and I affectionately refer to someone who is very Cuban in their ways as being Cubaniche ("Cuba-neech"). You are officially knighted!

Maria Menendez Marchassalla
Douglaston, New York

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Dear Mr. Shanken:

Congratulations on your June 1999 issue, "Cuba: Is it time to end the embargo?" It was a balanced presentation of the sharply divergent views that have shaped our policy toward Cuba over the years.

In April, I spent five days in Cuba where I spoke with a wide range of people, from Fidel Castro to taxi drivers. I came away convinced that our policy is outdated and self-defeating, and that Senator Chris Dodd's reasons for ending the embargo make sense. That is not to say that we should stop pressing Cuba on human rights, or that Cuba would quickly become a free market democracy. Castro seemed to be in fine health, and his repressive policies are not going to change regardless of what we do. But neither should our own government dictate where Americans can travel (there are no restrictions on our citizens' travel to North Korea), nor limit American companies from selling food and medicines--especially after allowing such sales to Sudan, Libya and Iran. (The White House spokesman rightly said that "food should not be used as a tool of foreign policy.")

Cuban officials shamelessly blame the United States for everything wrong in Cuba, including hardships caused by their own policies. The average Cuban, cut off from most independent sources of information, has little reason to think otherwise, and there is no doubt that the embargo makes their lives worse. Cuba is changing slowly--too slowly to satisfy most Cubans--but it is time to devise a post-Cold War policy that puts our national interests first.

A good place to start would be to end the restrictions on the right of Americans to travel there. The restrictions are beneath the dignity of a free and powerful nation. Let the doors open.

Patrick Leahy
United States Senator Washington, D.C.

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Dear Marvin,

This is in response to the letter by Larry Deyab (February 1999). Mr. Deyab begins by informing us about the degradation in quality premium (i.e., Cuban) smokes, and also, the upward spiral of prices for said cigars. I will defer to Mr. Deyab's expertise. However, Mr. Deyab, you lost all credibility when you resorted to name calling, referring to people in cigar bars as "young idiots...who barely even know which end to light." I assure you, sir, that I am no idiot. I like the atmosphere of a cigar bar; the company and aromas are very relaxing.

I like to consider myself a "serious" cigar smoker. Not because I have been smoking a long time, about five years, nor because I smoke a lot, about once a week. I am serious about cigars because, when I light up--and I do know which end to light--I am lighting a quality cigar, even though it's not a Cuban.

How do I know this? Simple research. Be it word of mouth from a friend, or better yet, the Tasting section in Cigar Aficionado. This allows me to decide what to try. If I like it, I'll keep buying it. If it doesn't work for me, then I discard it and move on. Without this section, I would be out there wasting good money on bad smokes until I found the better ones.

J. Kurt Klug
Beaumont, Texas