Cigar Aficionado

Random Cuba Reports

The scandal surrounding Manuel Garcia, the former marketing guru at Habanos S.A., continues to percolate. The week before Dave and I traveled to Cuba, The Economist published a story about his alleged crimes. The powers that be at Habanos knew all about the story, but universally panned it as pure speculation on the big points, and downright wrong on some details.

The story reported that Garcia had been arrested by Cuban State Security, along with 10 other employees of Habanos, for managing to smuggle 45 million cigars out of Cuba into the gray market of Europe.

We, of course, did a little math. Forty five million cigars equals about 1.8 million boxes of cigars, which at an average price of $200 (a conservative estimate) works out to nearly $360 million. We scoffed at that idea, and the Habanos executives as well as some officials from Altadis, the Spanish partner of Habanos, were incredulous.

Their comments ranged from not possible to not even remotely possible. Those dismissals flew in the face of Cubans who say anything is possible there, but, in fact, it is inconceivable that a clandestine cabal could have arranged for the secret export over a five-year period of that many finished cigars, directly from the factories. Just not possible, especially given the fact that cigars are a guaranteed source of foreign revenue for the government. Furthermore, the story inaccurately reported the number of people arrested; it's only five people, not 10.

So, where is the truth? No one knows. It is serious, and it has shaken Habanos S.A. to the core of what it thinks it is. It is a company that most people would consider hugely understaffed. They work long hours, and they all multitask, for salaries that we could consider low at best. But they also are quick to say that it is business as usual at the company, with good people replacing Garcia so that there has been no disruption in their business.

For now, we wait along with the Cubans for the final word. Until Cuban State Security finishes its investigation, there is no proof of anything, not even a listing of the alleged illegal activities that Garcia may eventually be charged with. It's a mystery. We may never know.

"Straight from the factory..."

On the streets of Havana, not just near the Partagas factory, young men accost foreigners with a clear offer: "You want some cigars?" For several days, I ignored them, waving them off with a no, a dismissive "Gracias, pero no." We'd written too many times that buying a cigar on the street in Havana offered about the same chances of getting a real cigar as getting a genuine Rolex for $25 on the streets in Manhattan.

Finally, after about the umpteenth time, I stopped, turned and said, "Sure, what have you got?" The answer was, "Montecristos. 40 CUCs. The real thing. Straight from the factory. Whatever size you want. No. 2s, As. Anything."

I listened politely. And, finally, I said, "Let me introduce myself. I'm the editor of Cigar Aficionado. I don't really need cigars."

One young man, clearly the leader of this corner cigar klatch, said, "Oh, you are the one who always says our cigars are fake. It's not true, they are real. We get them right from the factory." I tried to argue, saying I wouldn't be surprised if the tobacco was real, or at least good quality, but don't tell me they are real Montecristos. I know better. "No señor, they are real, I swear."

I left them, walking away even as they kept talking, trying to persuade me that their cigars were as good as any I could buy anywhere in Havana. Later in the day, as I was finishing up my tour of Habana Vieja, I walked past the same group that I had chatted with earlier in the day, maybe with one additional member, who didn't recognize me. He yelled out, "You want some cigars?"

One of the others in the group, who I had bantered with earlier in the day, said, "No, let him be. He's the king of cigars." I walked on with a smile on my face.

Private Restaurants

There's not much visible evidence of the changes that are occurring as the result of the new government regulations regarding the creation of private businesses. Foreign visitors, like me, don't spend a lot of time outside of the tourist areas in Habana Vieja, and certainly not a lot of time in the neighborhoods outside of Vedado and Miramar. So, the search for new restaurants or café takes place in areas where many establishments, some government, some private, already exist.

But there are some obvious changes. Three of the restaurants we ate at, Atelier, Moralejo and Café Laurent, didn't exist when we were there in December. Some of these new eateries were staffed by people from some of the better-known government restaurants, and we were told they had jumped at the chance to start up their own operations. From what I could glean in conversations with the owners, and a couple of chefs, there's a pretty active effort going on to convince accomplished chefs and waiters to defect to these start-ups. I'll be reviewing all these new places later in the year.

Of course, the rapidity of these changes means it is going to be hard to stay up to date. There is no Zagat's guide to Havana. For that matter, there's no central clearinghouse of information about where to find these private restaurants, or paladars, as they are known in Spanish. It really is word of mouth among a pretty wide underground of ex-pats, hotel concierges and the in-crowd in Havana that has access to foreign currency so they can afford to eat in the restaurants that mostly cater to foreigners. You'll have to be clever and persistent to get all the latest information.

It may be impossible. As I was walking down a street in Habana Vieja, near the Plaza de Armas, I looked up into an apartment building entrance framed by wrought iron bars on the windows facing the stairs that led inside to a small courtyard. Taped to the bars was a small, white piece of notepaper with a handwritten sign: Cafeteria. I didn't venture inside, but it was clearly new. That may be the best advice, however, to anyone walking the streets. Be a little adventuresome. Who knows what you'll find.

"This is in response to Marc Chirtoaca. I was in Cuba recently and paid $260.00 CUC for a box of Robustos. Cheers " —September 14, 2011 21:28 PM
"When the USoA Cuban embargo ends I believe lots of those fakes will find their way into our streets. Post embargo one will still have to go to, most likely, to off shore tobacconists for the a good Cuban product." —August 11, 2011 09:42 AM
"brent hopson, i very much appreciate anything on cuban cigars, bars and automobiles. but some straight forward suggestions and prices on all of them would be great. I live next to canada so cubans are @ my reach. There only 2 in windsor certified by government and fakes abound. labels and wrappers usually tell me but they r getting better." —July 31, 2011 18:30 PM
"To Mike Barker — King George, VA, USA, I could tell u that in cozumel u got only 2 or 3 certified dealer on the main street La casa del habano where i'm actually working and hope to see u when u are coming back to cozumel No name bar as well is a certified dealer but the price are higher over there and u will not have same choice as La casa del habano." —July 9, 2011 16:46 PM
"14 years old......cigars? maybe the bubble gum ones. Is that the age in Canada? What kind of beer do you drink?" —June 14, 2011 00:17 AM
"Fake or counterfeit cigars are usually terrible. Some might be "smokable"; regardless, they are not even in the same solar system as the real deal. The blend, if at all, is way out-of-whack. Think of counterfeit Margaux or Petrus. It really does not compare, nor compute. And ultimately you're being duped, even at quarter-price or less. Cigars are unique is so much as the average person in the "west" can buy the best cigars available, except from many Americans and Habanos, unless travelling abroad. Genrally, the average person cannot afford the finest wine, Champagne, Caviar, etc. Cigars are unique in this sense, at least for the time being . . . your mileage may vary. " —June 5, 2011 03:38 AM
"A feature comparing various fakes would be interesting. For example, walk the mile-long stretch of Cozumel's tourist stop, by a Cohiba from each of the 20 or 30 cigar shops you pass, and then do an article. Buy one to tear apart, and two or three at each place to smoke. Some may not be fakes. Some may be indistinguishable from the real thing. Or not." —May 25, 2011 14:53 PM
"Gordon Mott aka "King of cigars" I hate the thought of anyone supporting these people selling fake cigars, but.......... Next time they try to sell you one of those "straight from the factory" fake cigars, could you buy one and then get the real thing and compare the two. I would like to hear from you, a real cigar aficionado on how good or how bad they are. Great blog Gordon George" —May 24, 2011 20:29 PM