So Pope Francis, having delivered himself of the usual Jesuit diatribe against capitalism and warned us all about rising global temperatures, has arrived in Cuba. That unhappy island inhabits a time-space warp that was formed in the 1960s, a world where the political slogans and the automobiles are relics of a failed tyranny, which offers pretty girls for rent to tourists with hard currency, and which continues to peddle its once superb cigars to the unwary.
Yes, I’m going to warn you about Cuban cigars. Back in Camelot days, Cuba produced the world’s best cigars. JFK smoked them, as did his press secretary, Pierre Salinger. It was said at the time that the president instructed Salinger to obtain a huge stash of cigars from the vuelta abajo in order to beat the imposition of the embargo. I always believed that story, and I’ve got a footnote for it. Years later, when Salinger was working as a reporter for ABC News in Paris, we had lunch one day and he showed me his personal supply of his personal Cuban cigars: they had a “Pierre Salinger” band (as I recall, they were Churchills from Partagas).
Americans have been forbidden to import Cuban cigars ever since, but this is apparently about to end as one of the elements of Obama’s deal with the Castros. When I heard the pope was headed for Havana, I wondered if the Castros were planning to give him a box of “Francis” cigars. And I also wondered if anyone had briefed him on the current state of Cuban cigars. Which is, let us say, not what it once was.
I spend a fair amount of time in Europe, where there is no Cuban embargo, and thus you can buy all the Cuban cigars you want. I’ve had some, but for the most part I’ve given them up. The Dominicans and Nicaraguans are much better cigars nowadays. The great Cuban cigar makers brought tobacco seed with them when they fled Castro’s tyranny, and over the course of the past half-century they have gotten better and better. More important, they have good quality control, whereas the Cubans don’t.
In keeping with Communism’s bottom line–“they pretend to pay and we pretend to work”– Cuban cigars for many years have been totally unpredictable. Sometimes you get a masterpiece (same seeds, same soil, same sun as fifty years ago), but then the very next box of the very same brand and size will be unsmokable. And, also in keeping with the essence of Communist rule, there’s a big black market, both on the island and internationally, involving both “real” Cubans and imitations. I’ve had friends give me boxes bearing the logo of the legendary Montecristo #2, the big torpedo that German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard used to smoke, only to find they were awful. In all likelihood they were total phonies, some junk tobacco packed and banded to look like the real thing.
To me, the story of Cuban cigars is a good metaphor for the failure of Communist tyranny, and I think it’s shameful that the first Jesuit pope in history apparently intends to talk mostly about the weather instead of freedom. Sometimes the Jesuits are too clever for our own good. But there is no excuse for Francis’ lecturing us about the sins of capitalism and largely ignoring the dreadful rule of the Castros.
When he comes to Washington, if I have the chance, I’ll give him a fine cigar made by free Cubans in Little Havana.