The check-in line at the Miami International Airport was already stretching out at 11 A.M. for a 3 P.M. flight. Everyone seemed to have two or three pushcarts filled with luggage, boxes of stereo equipment and at least one bag wrapped in fluorescent green plastic wrap, a gaudy attempt at making it a little more difficult for someone to rifle through the contents.
Dave Savona and I had taken an early flight out of New York to ensure we had plenty of time to make our flight, and God forbid, deal with any questions about why two gringos like us were headed to Havana. No need to worry; by the time check-in started at 11:30, the first thing the woman behind the counter said was, ‘You know we have a two-hour delay."
I first went to Cuba in 1995, an exciting trip for Cigar Aficionado with Marvin R. Shanken that covered all the bases: the top cigar shops, the best factories in Havana and a trip to Pinar del Rio. But Cuba had been part of my professional life since the late 1970s, when I was a foreign correspondent covering the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and then the guerrilla civil war in El Salvador. Cuba was always the elephant in the room, the Latin American nexus of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the suspicions about its support, at least psychologically if not materially, for the revolutionary movements in Central America.
We paid attention to the pronouncements coming out of Havana with every bit as much attention as we did the news from the governments in Central America and Washington. Even then, we made more out of the Cohibas in the hands of Sandinista commandants than they probably warranted, but nonetheless, it was a sign of the unadorned admiration for all things Cuban in the post- Anastasio Somoza era in Nicaragua.
In all those years, and in all the intervening years since while I've been an editor at Cigar Aficionado, Cuba has never lost its allure, that combination of mystery and titillation of aplace forbidden to most Americans. I've traveled there three or four times in those years, each time excited by the prospect of spending a few more days on the island nation just 90 miles south of Key West but still years behind the rest of the modern world. Just like in my past life as a foreign correspondent, we wait for word from Havana, about the latest cigar, about the possibility of the trade embargo ending, or about the current state of the Cuban cigar industry. Yes, the world of cigars has moved far beyond the days when Cuban cigars were the only benchmark for a great cigar; today's cigars from Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic compete favorably across the globe with the best Cuba has to offer. But even the most ardent champions of non-Cuban cigars will admit that a great Cuban cigar from the Vuelta Abajo is a gem to be sought out and savored. Most of those admissions are made quietly or completely off the record.
So, as Dave and I head to Havana, it is with all the same excitement and anticipation that I've always had when I start thinking about Cuba. There's always a question about what one is going to find, and what new exciting tidbit of information we will uncover. We'll be letting you know about what we find at every step along the way.