Page last updated at 14:47 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Cuba: The smoker's paradise

Smoking may be going out of fashion in many countries, but in Havana, Matt Frei finds Cuba's love affair with the cigar continues.

Photo of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar in 1959
Fidel Castro was for years a keen smoker

The United States famously takes a very fundamentalist attitude to smoking in public.

Want to light up in a restaurant or a bar in Manhattan? Forget it.

How about a stealthy cigarette on the pavement outside our office in Washington? No way.

They will call the cops. The people who do smoke are forced to huddle in underground garages and behind garbage bins as if they were doing crack cocaine.

For a very casual and occasional smoker like me the ostracism has been enough to make me quit for good. Until, that is, I went to Havana.

Smoking passion

Can you imagine my surprise when I saw the cleaning woman in my hotel room, vacuuming the carpet with a huge cigar protruding from her lips?

I do not think they distinguish between smoking and non-smoking rooms in Cuba.

Woman smoking cigar
A product endorsement from Cuban cigars' marketing director, Ana Lopez

The security guard hovering at the front door was chomping on something the tobacco industry proudly refers to as a "Wide Churchill".

Cuba smokes with a vengeance. Perhaps it is another way of thumbing its nose at Uncle Sam.

It is certainly another item on the long list of idiosyncrasies.

From the vintage Buicks and Chevys rattling along the pot-holed streets like miracles of recycling, to the crumbling colonial facades, to the earnest posters calling for perpetual revolution, courtesy of the Castro brothers.

Exploding cigar

Lucky for cigars, Fidel Castro smoked them with relish. They were his official vice of choice.

Even today as an octogenarian retiree, he apparently still likes the occasional puff.

When he was younger Castro used to smoke as many as six cigars a day. He was so reliably hooked on them that the CIA even had the brilliant idea of blowing one of them up.

That was assassination attempt 105, I think, out of the 638 which the Cuban intelligence proudly lists.

For his part Castro took the threat seriously and recruited four of Cuba's best cigar rollers to work undercover in a former palace that had once belonged to a sugar cane baron.

Here they rolled the Commandante's daily supply in secret, safe from the tampering of the CIA. This is now the Cohiba cigar factory, producing perhaps the world's finest and most expensive brand.

Cigar festival

Our visit to Havana happened to coincide with the annual cigar festival. This has to be one of the strangest trade fairs on the planet.

For a whole week some of the world's most ostentatious capitalists descend on one of the world's last bastions of genuine communism, to smoke themselves to near death.

They serve five courses and a different cigar with each one of them

The highlight is a gala dinner hosted by Habanos, Cuba's state monopoly cigar manufacturer.

Cigars account for the country's most lucrative export after nickel.

If you are a paying guest, the dinner costs $500 (£350) a head. They serve five courses and a different cigar with each one of them.

The charming young blonde woman I was sitting next to - the head of a well known international distributor - had brought along a packet of cigarettes, for a quick smoke between cigar courses. You do not want to be caught short. Do you?

It was an astonishing collection of guests.

People attending cigar festival in Havana
Cuba's annual cigar festival welcomes visitors from around the world

There was the Japanese toy tycoon with the long ponytail.

The morbidly obese Beijing bigwig who used his monster cigar like a bayonet.

The Russian Mafioso with pitted skin that looked as if someone had stubbed several cigarillos out on his cheeks.

A brace of British lords, who squeezed their Cohibas cigars in deep appreciation of their elasticity, and the posse of very quiet Americans, who had slipped under the US state department's radar.

The waiters - there were hundreds of them - glowered at the assembled crowd who were puffing on something that cost more than they were lucky to earn in a whole month.

The highlight of the evening? An auction of humidors, stuffed with cigars, which fetched $1m or so. The whole evening was the very definition of capitalist excess.

Smoky atmosphere

So why did the authorities broadcast it live on state television? And why did it not kick-off the counter-revolution in a country plagued by genuine poverty and shortages of just about everything?

It appears that national pride in Cuban cigars - still the best in the world - trumps resentment.

Call it another miracle trick of a regime that has already survived the collapse of communism and the illness of Fidel Castro.

Tobacco harvest
Tobacco plantations supply one of Cuba's most important exports

The dinner took place in a conference centre that resembled an airport hangar.

A thousands guests, each supplied with five cigars. Imagine the air.

This was either the passive smoking Olympics or for active smokers just another Friday night out in Havana.

So I joined in - with relish - trying not to lose face with the world champion smoker on my right. After four hours, only three cigars and one cigarette, I had to call it quits.

My lungs demanded it. My brain agreed.

I ran out of the giant hall, past guest and tables that had disappeared behind dense clouds of smoke. A waiter flung open the door, clearly fearing the worst.

I inhaled the night air like a drowning man gasping for breath.

The next morning I sent all my clothes to the hotel laundry, brushed my teeth about four times and began nursing a nicotine hangover that lasted for two solid days.

My big mistake was not to follow Bill Clinton's edict. I smoked and I inhaled.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

BBC World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Reading while rolling Cuban cigars
10 Dec 09 |  Americas
Slow pace of life in Cuba
03 Mar 10 |  World News America
Fidel Castro 'exceptionally well'
25 Feb 10 |  Americas

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific