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The Dictator and the Dentist

| By William Weiss | From Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

I practiced oral surgery for 34 years and, while it was a fascinating and fulfilling profession, it wasn't often that you found yourself in the middle of a potential international incident. Yet that is exactly what happened to me almost 25 years ago when I had a brief brush with fame (well, in this case, more like infamy) over the dental chair. As a bonus to the experience, cigars were in the mix.

The year was 1974 and General Anastasio Somoza Debayle was beginning his second five-year term as president of Nicaragua. Since 1937, the Central American country had been controlled by members of the Somoza family (his father as dictator and his brother as president). By most accounts, the Somoza reign was one of corruption, plunder and political suppression. At the time, I was chairman of oral maxillofacial surgery/dentistry at Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital, in Philadelphia. Somoza had been invited by the president and chief executive officer of Hahnemann to undergo a comprehensive medical and dental evaluation. So our paths were destined to cross.

The invitation had been forwarded with the intention of attracting the rich and famous of Central and South America to the institution for health care. At that time most of the "imported" Latin American patients went to Miami. Hahnemann's strategy was to use the satisfactory experience of Somoza--the center's first native Latin American patient--as an example to others.

Because of his position and reputation, Somoza arrived at the hospital with his own security force of six men. In addition, the U.S. government assigned a Secret Service detail of eight men for his protection. They checked out all areas prior to the general's appointments and accompanied him everywhere he went. The initial diagnostic process and treatment plan took two days.

As part of his treatment Somoza needed restorative and periodontal care, including filling teeth and constructing a crown. The dental center's location apart from the main hospital meant that he would have to traverse 200 feet of open space. This presented a logistical problem to the security force, as potential assassins might lurk in the buildings surrounding the area. Initially, the Secret Service agent in charge refused to allow Somoza to go outside the confines of the hospital building, as his detail was insufficient in number to adequately sweep the area. The general was furious, so a compromise was accepted by all. The plan required Somoza to be moved under the cover of darkness. This, however, meant the staff would have to treat him at night.

In my position as department chairman, I was obliged to be present at his visits to the dental center to supervise care. Given the tenor of the times and Somoza's reputation, other department chairmen had refused to see him. But I reasoned that it was my duty to offer him treatment regardless of his background.

Our necessary proximity allowed me to become closely acquainted with Somoza. He was a friendly but, not surprisingly, autocratic individual. I found him to be bright, literate and charming, eager to draw you into conversation. He shared stories of his life experiences and the beauty of his country. He noticed my Air Force commission on the wall, and that sparked much conversation. He was extremely proud of his son who was training with the U.S. military in Texas. (Somoza himself, as a graduate of West Point, also trained with the U.S. military, and preferred to be addressed as General.) He was also proud of his accomplishments in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, especially its restoration after a terrible earthquake. Another point of pride was Nicaraguan cigars. He loved cigars and smoked Joya de Nicaragua ("the Jewel of Nicaragua"). The cigars he carried were specially made for him and each wrapper was embossed with his name in gold, printed as: Gral. Anatasio Somoza D.

While at Hahnemann, he occupied a suite on the top floor. He stayed in one room, and the other room served as a communications center. The rooms were close to the exit stairway that was secured with a one-way lock that opened out only. Temporary phone lines were installed to allow direct contact with Nicaragua.

On Sunday, the day of discharge, the treating doctors were invited to a dinner party at La Panitiere, a five-star restaurant in Center City, Philadelphia. The invitations were extended by Hahnemann's CEO. I declined the invitation due to a conflict. My wife and I were entertaining 30 guests at a pool party at our home. At 5 p.m. our phone rang and Hahnemann's CEO insisted that we attend, saying that the general had "commanded" it. If we did not come to Center City, I would insult Somoza, he said, which would reflect negatively on the institution. What could I do but acquiesce? Our party continued without us, with my next-door neighbors kindly consenting to take over as hosts.

After a shower and quick change, we arrived at the restaurant, my wife furious with me because her hair was still wet. We entered the restaurant about an hour after the festivities had begun, through a ring of security guards and Secret Service agents, and were brought directly to Somoza. The CEO introduced my wife to the general and explained to him that she was an active member of the board of trustees at Hahnemann. We were invited to sit at his table. After dessert, Somoza presented me a box of Joya de Nicaragua cigars embossed with his name, stating that these were a token of his friendship and appreciation.

I presently have 19 of the original 25 cigars. I smoked several cigars myself. Another was consumed by a trustee at Hahnemann, who had dinner at my home soon after. I told him of the experience; he asked to see the cigars and promptly lit one up. Still another one was taken by a neighborhood child. It went to school--for show and tell. Regrettably, as so often happens with great cigars, that one was lost to history--possibly smoked by some lucky teacher.

Cigars bring joy, comfort and relaxation to the smoker. However, they can also serve as a celebration or even as a memento. My "Somoza cigars" were an enduring gift in that I preserved rather than smoked them. If I had not saved them, I doubt that I would recall these events in such great detail.

Subsequently Somoza was overthrown by Nicaragua's Sandinista movement, in 1979, and assassinated in 1980, while in exile in Paraguay. I retired from oral surgery 10 years later. The cigars, the largesse of an infamous man, sit in my humidor to remind me of the only time I operated on a man whose face was on a postage stamp.

William Weiss lives in Pennsylvania and Florida.