COCKTAILS WITH FIDEL
By Eddie Rivkin
“Cocktails with Fidel” was originally published in 2007, and is a compilation of a decade’s worth of adventures and experiences in Cuba. The old saying goes: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is particularly true in Havana. Some of the important changes are at the very top of the political chain. Fidel Castro, who has been gravely ill a number of times since this was first published, ceded power to his brother and leader of the Cuban Army, General Raul Castro, on February 20, 2008. Fidel has been seen in public just a few times since, choosing instead to publish his works in “Grandma”, the State Newspaper of Cuba. Rumors of his death happen quite frequently and so far, are exaggerated. As the new Cuban President, Raul Castro, by his actions, seems to be much more moderate than Fidel Castro. Since taking over, Raul has loosened travel restrictions to and from Cuba, allowed for the privatization of some wholesale businesses in Cuba for the first time since the revolution, and has made dramatic improvements to communication in Cuba. Though still in its infant stages, the Internet is now available to some of the people in Havana and is continuing to expand yearly. Also, the maximum wage in Cuba has dramatically increased to $15! A MONTH! That’s right – doctors in Cuba are paid $15 a month, up from $4 when this feature was first published. The list of unfortunately “still the same” issues for Cuba includes: overall poverty, shortages of food, unstable energy and a horribly stagnant economy, with cigars and sugar being their only exportable goods. There is also no movement whatsoever in the embargo with the United States. A dispute that started in 1959 and erupted with the Bay of Pigs is still in place, depriving Americans of seeing this amazing country and the Cuban people from having their quality of life elevated from that of a nearly third-world nation. Sadly, a number of the most amazing musicians, original members of Buena Vista Social Club, and people I have been blessed with the opportunity to have met, have passed away. The world has lost Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzales, Pio Leyva, and a few other original members. If any of you fine readers want to have a truly soul-moving experience, I encourage you to rent the movie, Buena Vista Social Club! If all goes according to plans, I’ll celebrate my “golden birthday” in Havana early this year and hope to share an amazing new adventure with all of you.
Every year for seven glorious days and nights in February, Cuban cigar aficionados from around the world gather in Havana for Habanos Festival. They are joined by the owners of every La Casa del Habano, (the authorized cigar franchise of the Cuban Government’s cigar corporation, Cuba Tobacco) as well as captains of industry, celebrities, and superstars from the sporting world. On the last night of the Festival, they all join together for a State Dinner and Reception hosted by Senior Presidente Fidel Castro. Irresistible? You bet!!! I couldn’t sign up fast enough. Off I went, on the adventure of a (cigar smoking, rum drinking, single male) lifetime.
From the moment I landed at José Martí International Airport, I realized that I had left all the comforts of our American lifestyle, and that I was indeed in a communist country. As I looked in every direction, making my way from the plane towards customs, I saw heavily armed soldiers posted and at the ready. Unlike our airports post September 11th, these soldiers were not answering questions, giving directions, or for that matter, giving anything associated with warmth, friendliness or welcome to Havana. Thankfully, my business partner was a 10-time VIP attendee. We were met at the gate by a beautiful Ambassador who whisked us directly to a VIP customs lane. Imagine being a horse loaded into the starting gate at Churchill Downs, except there are no windows. Once secured in my 6’ x 3’ stall waiting to be questioned, I realized the seriousness of the process. Upon presenting my passport and entry visa, (for obvious reasons passports are not stamped), the soldier began with “This is your first time in Havana, Mr. Rivkin,” – not as a question, as a statement of absolute fact. Chilling was an understatement when I realized that every person attempting to enter Cuba is prescreened by the government. Any irregularity in your background and you will be turned away – no questions asked. Thankfully, my lily-white past (and existence) deemed me harmless to the country of Cuba, and I was allowed to enter the promised land for all cigar smokers.
After getting our baggage, I was introduced to Pedro. My partner explained that Pedro handled his affairs in Cuba, in addition to being an officer in the Cuban Secret Service and a former member of the Olympic team in Judo. I was not sure the real reason Pedro was going to accompany us for our time in Havana, but coupled with the fact that Pedro was 6’ 7” 275-pounds with zero body fat, tree trunks for arms and a firm “don’t fuck with me” demeanor, I felt very comfortable.
Before heading off to the villa, we made a brief stop at Pedro’s. Sitting on the couch in Pedro’s modest home was arguably one of the most famous soccer players in the world. His trials and tribulations since retiring from “the beautiful game” are well-known. It was obvious to me that the stories are true. My new friend was sitting on the couch in front of a mountain of cocaine that would make Scarface jealous, with a bottle of rum and watching soccer on DirecTV. Yes, the dish was smuggled in. Yes, the card was obviously altered, and yes, it is illegal to have it in Castro’s Cuba. It was obvious to me that Pedro was very well-connected indeed, based on the possessions he had and the guest he was entertaining. Pedro spoke no English and with my Spanish limited to ordering in a Mexican restaurant, my partner translated that Pedro wanted to show me his hospitality by taking us to a very special place. In no way was I going to insult Pedro by turning down his (still unknown, but uniquely gracious) offer, so we headed off to what appeared to be a sports training complex. I was told it was the Olympic Training Facility for Cuba. When we entered the room, it was filled with female athletes in training. The women stopped immediately and came to greet Pedro, as if he were a conquering hero. I was introduced to all the members of the Cuban Olympic Gymnastic and Field Hockey teams. Pedro then said that I should select any one or two of the beautiful young athletes to experience “real Cuban hospitality!” There was no innuendo in his words, nor in his intention. At that exact moment I learned that the only revenue source in Cuba (to avoid living in abject poverty) other than cigars and sugar, is prostitution. I guess I should have known, considering the impoverished society that Cubans are forced to live in, in Castro’s Cuba. At Pedro’s insistence, I selected two of the most beautiful young women I had ever seen. There was more conversation in Spanish, and after a few minutes, we left the facility to head off to the villa where we were staying in downtown Havana.
In my first hours in Havana, I learned that there are different ways you can see Havana: as a tourist, or as a local. Thankfully, my journey was not only as a local, but as a very, very well-connected local. Tourists stay in hotels. VIPs stay in Spanish villa homes owned by politically connected Cubans. These loyal Cuban nationals are allowed to use their homes as a sort of bed-and-breakfast, and villas are NOT hotel rooms. One of the major (adult-oriented) advantages of staying in a villa is that it is against the law for Cuban nationals to be in a hotel room. Though the staffs of the major hotels are mostly Cuban, a citizen being found in a room unauthorized, or worse, “in delicta privada” with a tourist, wins a direct trip to jail. Any thoughts of debauchery with the beautiful women of Havana die a quick death if you’re a “tourist.” That aside, other perks of the villa include home-cooked meals, hand laundry, and a spectacular 20’x20’ master suite with doors leading to a spacious pool.
Transportation is not the ’57 Chevy you see in all the features about Havana. Those features describe the clock stopping at midnight January 1st, 1959, the moment The Cuban Revolution began. Instead, Pedro met us with an Audi A8, the car used by world diplomats assigned to Cuba. Driving through Havana however, does conjure the thoughts that this is indeed a land that time forgot. I looked carefully and could clearly see the splendor of Havana past – the time when people named Lansky, Luciano, and Schultz operated hotels and casinos. There were no visible signs of affluence that would draw attention to one’s self. In Castro’s Cuba, drawing attention to one’s self is about the worst thing you can do. Downtown Havana is set up similar to Manhattan, a basic grid of streets and avenues, with 5th Avenue being the main drag. It is also a mirror of Miami, with a long Oceanside drive. Even though I was only 90 miles from Miami, within minutes of being in Havana, I realized I was years removed from my comfortable American lifestyle. Once we arrived at the villa, I was introduced to Mari, “the lady of the house.” She was married with four grown kids, and as a family they resided in 3 bedrooms in a small wing of the house. Renting the other six master bedrooms suites was how the family was able to live very comfortably. Very comfortably, if you consider that 6 tourists pay on the average of $100 a night and the director of La Casa del Habano makes $4 a month! That’s right, four dollars a month. That is the highest salary paid in Castro’s Cuba – but more on that later. A car full of beautiful female Cuban Olympic athletes had just arrived at the Villa.
The weeklong festival featured daily meet and greets, as well as a tasting of all the newest cigars that Habanos would bring to market in the next year. These social events are presented at each of the major factories and are hosted by an incredible staff of models, and with as much Cuban Rum as you can consume. If you are not careful, you can smoke and drink your limit before dinner. Doing anything to excess in Havana is just as easy to do as it is in Las Vegas. The dinner meal is a huge social event during the festival. Old friends unite to tell tales of the year since last they were together. Business, matters of love, family, and plans for the week are all joyously discussed over copious amounts of rum and Mojitos and the best of everyone’s rare cigar collection. There is an immense amount of pride and ego in one’s collection of rare Cuban cigars. You can tell your place on the sliding scale of respect by the cigars you both give and receive during your meetings at the festival. Receive a 1994 Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona (one of the highest rated cigars ever in Cigar Aficionado Magazine) and be known as someone deserving of great respect. Get a Monte Cristo #4 and well, maybe, not as much respect. Not that the Monte 4 is a bad cigar, in fact, I think it’s the best of the smaller Cuban cigars, it just doesn’t have the cash value of the Hoyo. Dinners during Festival last a minimum of two hours. In addition to great food, drink, cigars and friends, dinner is fuel in your tank for the evening’s entertainment. And believe me, a full tank of energy is mandatory, because the nightlife in Havana goes ‘til sunrise!!!
By 10:30 each night, we were off to the hottest fashion shows, nightclubs, and production shows. When I asked if we could take in the show at The Tropicana, Pedro said: “You have all week for that stuff. Tonight, we go dancing!” When we arrived at the Havana Libre Hotel (formally Meyer Lansky’s Havana Hilton), Pedro walked us past the long line of tourists and local women, directly to the elevator headed to the open air nightclub on the roof. After being shown to our table next to the dance floor and brought bottles of rum and whiskey, I had a chance to take in my surroundings for the first time. Nightlife in Havana and nightlife in Las Vegas are in fact 180 degrees different. The gender make up of the club is 10 females for every male! That’s right! It’s not a typo – 10 beautiful Cuban women for every male! I had never seen anything like it in my life – one more beautiful than the next, and all dressed in the Cuban version of South Beach chic. One after another and in small groups, all the women in the club greeted Pedro. I was introduced to so many beautiful women at such a fast pace, that I quickly realized it was useless to try to remember any names. I decided to just smile, be friendly, relax and enjoy the parade of beautiful women. The language barrier began to finally have an impact, as all the conversations around me were going on in Spanish. Helpless to participate, I decided
to enjoy a couple more cigars, the great live band, and admire the beautiful Cuban women! When finally included in a conversation, it was time for my second lesson in Cuban economics. My partner explained to me that every single Cuban woman in the club was available to join us at the villa. The cost of an evening of pleasure you ask? Exactly $100 per girl. My partner went on to explain that these women are not prostitutes by choice. In order to survive and help feed their families in Cuba, they are forced into it. That reality took the luster off anything I chose to do in Cuba. After a few too many drinks and cigars, I think I convinced myself that these beautiful women really wanted to be with me for me. Okay, that’s not true. The afternoon economics lesson clearly explained the facts, and it was my choice to accept and/or justify it as the way of Cuba. On one hand, the reality is very sad. On the other, the fact that the $100’s I could choose to spend would feed families. Cuba and its women present quite a moral dichotomy: indulge, yet battle my conscience. Abstain and be complicit to starvation, poverty and worse. We returned to the villa around 5:00 a.m., my mind dizzy with cigars, rum, and the hypnotic rhythms of live Cuban music.
The next 6 days were filled with daily receptions, the launching of the year’s Edicion Limitado and a day trip to Vuelta Abajo, the prime tobacco growing region. For what seemed like miles, all I could see was row after row, acre after acre of tobacco plants. We arrived at the home of Don Alejandro Robaina. Robaina is man whom, without a formal title, has the responsibility of directing the entire planting, growing, curing and processing for all of Vuelta Abajo’s tobacco. A frail man in his eighties and in somewhat failing health, Robaina is the only man in the history of Cuban cigar manufacturing to have a brand named after him while still alive. I spent my day at the side of a true legend in the cigar community, joining him on his daily routine. Together we walked through the fields, inspecting everything from the seedlings to the fully matured plants. With Robaina’s nephew, Hiroshi, acting as translator, I learned a myriad of information about the process required to grow and produce the best cigar tobacco on the planet. We next visited the curing and aging barns, where the tobacco is carefully monitored in preparation for a final sorting. The tobacco is then divided by wrapper, binder and filler, and then by destination (which factories it will end up at). By noon, we were back at Robaina’s modest home for a home-cooked lunch and stories about the history of the region and his 60+ years in the field. Robaina told me that one of the things he enjoys most is the fact that Senior Presidente had given him an acre of land on which he can grow his own tobacco, coffee and chocolate. Almost as if on cue, one of his assistants brings in an unfinished cedar box and offers me the darkest, best-smelling cigar I have ever seen in my life. About 9 ½” x 56/64”, Robaina explains to me that these cigars are for his personal consumption only – made entirely of a blend of tobaccos he created. This is a gift similar in stature to a wine aficionado receiving a bottle of their favorite wine directly from the vineyard owner. It was the best tasting, most full-bodied cigar I had ever smoked. I asked Hiroshi if it would be an insult to offer to buy some of Robaina’s private collection. Robaina said he would be honored if I were to take some with me. There was no negotiation in price, I simply handed Robaina $500 and decided that whatever I got in return would be more than fair. Cigars of this size on average will retail for $50-$75 per stick. Robaina gasped when he saw how much I was willing to spend. He insisted it was too much, to which my reply was: “It was an honor to have such wonderful cigars.” I was hoping for 25 cigars. After we finished lunch, desert and coffee, Robaina’s assistant came back with four perfectly prepared cloth wrapped bundles of 25 cigars each! I just hit the Cuban Cigar Lotto! One hundred cigars from Don Alejandro’s private selection! No band, boxes, nothing, but 100 of the most amazing cigars I could ever have the privilege to smoke. After saying my goodbyes to all who spent their day educating me, I returned to the villa just in time to change for dinner and the night’s entertainment.
After seven long days and nights filled with far too many cigars, far too much rum, and more beautiful women than any man deserves, it was finally time for the closing event of the Festival, a State Dinner hosted by Senior Presidente Fidel Castro. Nearly 700 men and women from around the world, dressed to the nines on a hot humid Havana night, gathered for a gourmet meal, samples of all the year’s cigar releases, a charity auction, and the chance to meet Fidel Castro. As we were on our way to the State Dinner, we suddenly encountered a roadblock and were stopped at gunpoint by soldiers in the Cuban Army. Oddly, the soldiers never approached our vehicle. We were simply stopped for a few minutes until three identical Mercedes Benz S500 stretch limousines sped by. My partner explained that the presidential motorcade is always those three limousines and that no one knows which one President Castro is traveling in. It happens that the limousines were a gift from Saddam Hussein, and President Castro, in constant fear for his life, uses them as a shell game trying to avoid assassination. Shortly after finding our table (Lucky #7) the room erupted in applause as President Castro made his entrance in military fatigues and escorted by a phalanx of Secret Service. After taking his seat at table #1, there was a brief welcoming speech and our gourmet meal began. As this was my first State Dinner in any country, I was unaware of the etiquette regarding the opportunity to meet President Castro. It appeared no one was interrupting the President’s table, which was being watched at arm’s length by Secret Service in poorly fitted suits attempting to conceal automatic weapons. After our first course, President Castro stood up to survey the room, and there was a sudden rush of people headed towards the table. The Secret Service was allowing people through to meet the President! It was explained to me that no one was to interrupt the President while he was seated, and that when he stood, there might have been an opportunity to be introduced and shake hands. Just after the main course I had my chance. I saw President Castro begin to stand and I made a beeline (in a non-aggressive manner) toward table #1. I was first to the Secret Service detail and was halted, but not moved back. A few minutes passed before I was approached by an aide and asked who I was and where I was from. President Castro turned in my direction and I was formally introduced. After a gracious and firm handshake, President Castro asked if this was my first time in Havana. After my positive response, he asked how I was enjoying my trip and what I liked the most about Havana. I told President Castro that the trip was better than I could have ever imagined, and that in addition to the amazing cigars, the warmth of the Cuban people
was what I was most impressed by. With that, President Castro thanked me for visiting Cuba and I was gently tapped by a Secret Serviceman, indicating my time with the President was over. Though it lasted only about 2 minutes, being in the immediate presence of President Castro, gave me a personal understanding of his incredible charisma. After dessert, I snapped a quick picture of President Castro, just to be able to say (and remember) that I was there. After dinner, President Castro always gave a speech. Now, this in itself, seems harmless, unless you know that in the past these politically laced diatribes have lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 HOURS! I crossed my fingers under the table, hoping for brevity as the speech was in Spanish and without translation. My prayer was answered, and after just 45 minutes, President Castro ended his speech. With the help of Simon Wolf, we moved on to the final event on the agenda: a charity auction to benefit underprivileged children in Havana. This seemed sort of odd to me, as the entire nation of Cuba seems somewhat underprivileged. There were only 9 lots at auction, a variety of elegant limited edition humidors, a couple of paintings, and a hat being worn tonight by legendary Cuban musician, Compay Segundo. My partner informed me not to even think about bidding in the auction, as this was the time when the richest and most powerful men in the Cuban Cigar industry flex their wealth and egos for the charity. Having seen the auction 10 times before, my partner was eager to depart. He wanted a head start on our last night partying in Havana. Since this was my first time, we negotiated just less than a 50/50 split. We agreed that after the fourth item, Compay Segundo’s beloved hat, we’d head out to La Mansion for a Fashion Show and then one last time to the nightclub at Havana Libre. The first three items sold for a combined $135,000 USD! It was astonishing to watch those men and their egos joust for a humidor or a painting. Really, all they wanted was another photo-op with President Castro and the item won. As Compay Segundo took the stage, President Castro took the microphone from our auctioneer and conducted the auction himself! Fifteen minutes and $62,500 later, a gentleman from Europe took the stage to get his new hat and a photograph with two Cuban legends. With that, we said our goodbyes and were off.
At 11:00 a.m. the next morning, my incredible whirlwind seven-day trip to Havana was over. I left Havana with greatly mixed emotions. I felt unbridled joy for the opportunity to see Cuba and the Cuban cigar business in all its glory. To spend a week with the most intelligent, articulate, fun-loving cigar aficionado in the world is a wonderful memory I will cherish for a lifetime. On the other hand, I also left feeling great sadness. The people of Cuba are truly impoverished and ruled under the iron fist of President Castro. They live in conditions not unlike the worst slums in the United States. They wait in line for food, and they have very few of the most basic necessities we have in the United States. Most sad is the fact that the Cuban people truly know no better life than they have. They are taught since childhood that we in the United States are their most grave enemy; that we are a culture, and a society, to be feared. The fact that there is so much human suffering so close to our shores, is to me, unacceptable, and also it is unlikely to change anytime soon.
~May your ash burn straight and all your cigars taste great!