November 25 2010
When I am asked for my definition of a perfect travel destination, I usually nominate Cuba. It is not so much facilities – or, more to the point, the lack thereof – that I am talking about; rather, the emotions it evokes. I have been visiting this bastion of Caribbean socialism for a decade and a half and I am always excited to go there and invariably delighted to leave.
My recent visit was no exception. While the whiff of a vanished and decadent age of mobsters, molls, Montecristos and Mojitos exerts a powerful hold over my imagination, I also find myself feeling guilty about enjoying myself on my fact-finding tours of the cigar factories, given that Cubans themselves enjoy very few of the liberties and the comforts that we in the developed world never think about.
It is a pity, as Cuba is a proper country. Elsewhere in the Caribbean I feel that I am… well, in the Caribbean, with its resort connotations of drinks with paper umbrellas and hammocks slung between palm trees. But when I am in Cuba I feel as though I am a visitor in a bona fide Latin or Central American country, a place with a layered history of Spanish imperialism, North American meddling, kleptocrat despotism and socialist revolution.
Cuba is a country of paradoxes; the well-rehearsed irony of how cigars are made under a socialist regime and tend to be enjoyed under capitalism is not lost on me. However, as I say, you do not need to be a capitalist to enjoy cigars – though it probably helps. Besides, Cuba itself operates two financial systems: there is the centrally planned economy that came into being after what is still referred to as “the triumph of the Revolution”, and there is a brisk and lively form of capitalism that thrives at a more, how shall one say, informal, individual level.
On my first visit in 1995, during the “special period”, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba crippled by shortages and Havana in darkness, I purchased a couple of boxes of cigars from an enterprising young man called Nelson who was clearly delighted to have found what I believe is known as a “mark” in me. In fact so pleased was he with my purchases that he offered me a “chica”. Strangely enough, my airport phrasebook of tourist Spanish did not contain a ready translation for “Thank you very much, but I do not really require any female companionship this evening”, but I eventually made myself understood, at which point he smiled and from what I could gather he was attempting to offer me some sort of customer loyalty bonus, much as one might collect Nectar points (although personally I would have preferred Air Miles).
In the end I made my point by quoting from Kipling’s 1880s poem The Betrothed about a man who has to decide between giving up cigars and breaking off his engagement. It is perhaps not the Laureate of the Pax Britannica’s finest moment, but it is a favourite of cigar-smoking misogynists the world over; typical is the quatrain:
“For Maggie has written a letter that gives me my choice between The wee little whimpering Love and the great god Nick o’Teen. And I have been servant of Love for barely a twelve-month clear, But I have been Priest of Partagas a matter of seven year.”
Happily I was able to remember snatches of it, which I declaimed in the frank and manly manner of Alan Bates’s rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes in the 1970 film of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between
By the time I reached the poem’s most famous line “And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke”, Nelson had taken the hint, along with my dollars, and cleared off into the power-cut-darkened night.