Cigars Represent Mixed Feelings American Leaders Have Regarding Cuba


Share on Facebook


Recently a family member had a great trip to Cuba as part of a group exploring the country’s jazz culture.  The tour stayed primarily in Havana and enjoyed visiting the hotels, many of which the government has restored to resemble the Havana of post World War II. See the Godfather Part Two if you want to get a feel for the glamorous era.

There is presently much poverty in the city and very little to see outside Havana. Tour members, however, felt it was a great trip, and many want the relationship between the Cuban and U.S. government to continue to grow.

Mixed feelings about Cuba were expressed in story about President John F. Kennedy and his love of Cuban cigars.

Pierre Salinger, press secretary for John F. Kennedy, told his story to Cigar Aficionado magazine about Cuban cigars and American foreign policy.

“…I started to work for a rising young American politician named John Kennedy, who liked to smoke Petit Upmann Cuban cigars….Shortly after I entered the White House in 1961, a series of dramatic events occurred. In April, 1961, the United States went through the disastrous error of the Bay of Pigs, where Cuban exiles with the help of the United States government tried to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. Several months later, the President called me into his office in the early evening.

"Pierre, I need some help," he said solemnly.

"I'll be glad to do anything I can Mr. President," I replied.

"I need a lot of cigars."

"How many, Mr. President?"

"About 1,000 Petit Upmanns."

I shuddered a bit, although I kept my reaction to myself. "And, when do you need them, Mr. President?"

"Tomorrow morning."

I walked out of the office wondering if I would succeed. But since I was now a solid Cuban cigar smoker, I knew a lot of stores, and I worked on the problem into the evening.

The next morning, I walked into my White House office at about 8 a.m., and the direct line from the President's office was already ringing. He asked me to come in immediately.

"How did you do Pierre?" he asked, as I walked through the door.

"Very well," I answered. In fact, I'd gotten 1,200 cigars. Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.?"

Read the rest of the article,"Great Moments: Kennedy, Cuba and Cigars," at

According to Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, who fought in Cuba,  "A smoke in times of rest is a great companion to the solitary soldier.

Lars Schoultz, author of That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution, was interviewed by the University of North Carolina Press about his book recently. Here are his thoughts:

Q: What's the problem with Cuba?

A: The book's title, taken from one of Theodore Roosevelt's letters in 1907, captures perfectly the exasperation of U.S. officials since our first encounters in the early 1820s, when Havana-based pirates were plundering U.S. shipping.

But while Cuba has always been a pain in the neck, Fidel Castro's revolutionary generation -- the focus of my book -- has been especially annoying. It has sent us wave after wave of refugees. It has also supported governments and political movements we oppose in Latin America and Africa and even the Middle East, as if we didn't have enough problems there already. And most galling, it has refused to accept the position of inferiority to which we have traditionally assigned the peoples of the Caribbean. The Cuban revolution is a challenge to U.S. hegemony, and as one White House official commented in the late 1960s, "that especially bugs us."

Q: Why did you choose to write this book?

A: I've been studying U.S. policy toward Latin America for almost four decades, and during that period Cuba has been our principal enduring problem. The United States has not simply declined to have normal diplomatic and economic relations with Havana for half a century; it has also spent most of the past five decades openly and actively trying to overthrow the island's government. It has not been successful, and I never understood why.

After ten years of work, I think I get it. I want this book to stand as my generation's explanation of a policy that will seem strange to those who come after us. I hope it will serve as the baseline for future generations to make corrections (few, I hope) and additions (many, I'm sure).

Q: Who should read this book?

A: This book is for anyone interested in understanding why the United States doggedly pursued one of the most unproductive policies in the history of U.S. foreign relations. We've tried everything to get rid of Fidel Castro and his hearty band of bearded rebels -- from a CIA assassination plot featuring a ballpoint pen rigged with a hypodermic needle so fine that Fidel Castro would not notice he was being injected with poison (that was in 1963) to a U.S. interests section in Havana with a Times Square-style streaming electronic ticker running across its facade, the only such device in diplomatic history, or anyone's history. The State Department uses it to acquaint Cubans with the wisdom of representative U.S. thinkers such as the late rocker Frank Zappa: "Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff" (that was in 2006).

Why do we spend our tax dollars on these activities? My answer is that U.S. policy is based upon an ideology of benevolent domination. We believe Cubans need our help, but they just don't realize it. So we have to twist their arm a bit, but only for their own good.

Q: Why is the U.S.-Cuban relationship important?

A: In itself, Cuba is unimportant, especially since the Cold War ended. But the U.S.-Cuban relationship is the best-ever illustration of why it is no longer easy to be a hegemonic power, to take up the White Man's Burden. The behavior of great powers is constrained in the contemporary world.

At a rudimentary level, this book is simply a case study in the trials and tribulations of realism, an intellectual tradition stretching back to the fifth century B.C., when Thucydides, chronicling the conflicts among Greek city-states, perfectly captured realism's bedrock principle: the strong will do what they want, and the weak will accept what they must.

Washington policy makers pride themselves in being realists, and Cuba, Thucydides would emphasize, is a modest island with an economy 1/250th the size of its wealthy, continent-wide neighbor, which has used a substantial portion of its fabulous wealth to create the most powerful military in the history of the human race. And that raw strength has given U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State Alexander Haig the ability to ask President Reagan for a simple green light: "You just give me the word and I'll turn that f - - island into a parking lot."

What Thucydides would have difficulty explaining is why, when the Cubans refused to accept what they must, their island was not turned into a parking lot. How have they managed to get away with it?

This book accents the constraints that the modern world now imposes upon the exercise of power. It especially highlights the most elemental constraint, the need to maintain a sense of proportion, and emphasizes that it is not simply a good idea; it is mandatory. Realists have to be realistic.

Q: How much of Cuba's history with the U.S. does the book cover?

A: After a brief introduction, fourteen chapters are built around the policies of individual U.S. administrations, presented chronologically from Harry Truman through George W. Bush.

Q: What makes this history interesting?

A: That's easy -- it is our particular "brand" of realism. We cloak it with a benevolent disposition.

This, too, is nothing new. When asked to explain why he had sent in the Marines to take over Cuba in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "I am doing my best to persuade the Cubans that if only they will be good they will be happy; I am seeking the very minimum of interference necessary to make them good." Secretary of War William Howard Taft unselfconsciously said the same thing directly to Cubans: "We are here only to help you on. With our arm under your arm, lifting you again on the path of wonderful progress."

Almost a century later, in 1992, a reporter asked President George H. W. Bush why he would not talk with Fidel Castro now that the Cold War was over. "What's the point of my talking to him?" Bush replied. "All I'd tell him is what I'm telling you, to give the people the freedom that they want. And then you'll see the United States do exactly what we should: Go down and lift those people up."

The problem, of course, is that most people do not want a neighboring power to lift them up, regardless of how well-intentioned its effort might be, and as the initial chapters of my book attempt to explain, Cuba's revolutionary generation grew up in a society that left it particularly opposed to uplifting by the United States.

Q: Why is knowing the history of U.S. policy toward Cuba important to our understanding of current U.S.-Cuban relations?

A: Today's policy is the product of a century-old uplifting mentality, and uplifting does not sit well with people who believe in self-determination. I've never met a nationalist who wants to be uplifted.

But here a focus on lessons from the past can be deceptive. The reason this book is so long is that today's uplifting is executed differently; instead of sending in the Marines, we coerce more gently, each new administration taking a slightly different tack.

After the failed attempt at armed overthrow (the Bay of Pigs), Lyndon Johnson set the rough mold that others have filled with their own inventions. Inexperienced in foreign affairs, in 1963 he waited only a few days after JFK's assassination to seek advice from the widely respected Senator J. William Fulbright, who warned against doing anything dramatic. "I'm not getting into any Bay of Pigs deal," Johnson interrupted to agree. "No, I'm just asking you what we ought to do to pinch their nuts more than we're doing."

Nut pinching has been U.S. policy ever since, and despite a host of imaginative efforts (all detailed in my book), most people who follow Cuba policy closely now are convinced that we can give you shock and awe or we can shower you with our largesse, but we simply are not very good nut pinchers.

Q: What does this book reveal about the future relationship between the U.S. and Cuba?

A: Today's aging generation of Cuban revolutionaries (and Florida-based Cuban Americans) is rapidly fading away. When the next generation makes changes in Cuba, as it inevitably will, then Cuban Americans' assessments of those changes will slowly diversify until at some point the pollsters will tell everyone it is safe to declare victory without risking the alienation of Florida's Cuban-American voters. The 2008 election suggests that this moment might be closer than many think.

When it arrives, the easy part will be over. The difficult-to-answer question will be whether the United States will ever abandon the ideology of benevolent domination that appears on nearly every page of this book.

In the uplifting vision etched into the 2004 and 2006 reports of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, for example, an army of U.S. experts will soon be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Cuba's post-revolutionary generation, helping construct a new and improved country by implementing the Commission's report.

Perhaps it will work this time, but no one should be surprised if this latest generation of U.S. officials discovers what the Roosevelt-Taft generation of equally optimistic Progressives found a century ago. At that time, Cuba's governor, U.S. General Leonard Wood, complained, "it is next to impossible to make them believe that we have only their own interests at heart."

Q: What challenges will the next U.S. president face in relation to Cuba?

A: President-elect Obama clearly did his polling in south Florida and positioned his campaign accordingly. Specifically, he pledged nothing too radical, but simply a return to the pre-2004 embargo, when Cuban Americans were allowed to make annual family visits and to send fairly large amounts of cash and gift parcels to their relatives on the island.

Those human contacts undermine a hostile policy.

Since most of President-elect Obama's close foreign policy advisers are opposed to the embargo, is change inevitable? No doubt the new president's advisers also recognize that they have to maintain a sense of proportion about small countries like Cuba. They know they will have many problems to confront and always with a limited amount of political capital.

So, do we continue with another four years of nut-pinching lite?

One good bet is that constituent pressure will demand change, and if I had to put my money on the table, it would be on the demographic changes that are occurring in Cuba and south Florida -- any government in Washington will probably have to confront fairly rapid change.

But caveat lector: even the best-informed insiders have been predicting rapid change since 1959, when Secretary of State Christian Herter told his British counterpart that the end of the Cuban revolution "is probably only a question of time," when the embassy calculated that it would be "months rather than years," and when CIA director Allen Dulles predicted it would be "something in the range of eight months."

Q: What steps must be taken by Washington to normalize the U.S.-Cuban relationship?

A: Short-term, we could simply lift the embargo. Civil society can take it from there; Washington simply needs to get out of the way.

But if Washington wants to take a step that might help the process along, it is to read the Declaration of Independence. It asserts that all people, including presumably the Cubans, have the right to institute their own government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Revolutionary in its day, most people now endorse Jefferson's thinking. But some, like Thucydides, still cannot quite square the mental circle: the Declaration of Independence insists on more than self-determination; it also counsels toleration and accommodation.

Cuba's most revered patriot, Jose Marti, saw the full circle, and to fellow Cubans he offered this advice in 1891: "One must not attribute, through a provincial antipathy, a fatal and inborn wickedness to the continent's fair skinned nation simply because it does not speak our language, or see the world as we see it, or resemble us in its political defects, so different from our own."

After re-reading the Declaration of Independence, the logical and essential step is for Washington to concentrate on controlling its compulsion to uplift, which to Cubans is an especially annoying defect. If we do, then perhaps the citizens of that infernal little island might be a little less irritating.

The only alternative is another half-century of hostility, and in the end there still will be no escape. After all, Fidel Castro concluded in his 1974 interview, "we are neighbors."

Q: What do you hope to bring to the study of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. with this book?

A: I want to highlight our continuing commitment to benevolent domination, which we have never confronted.

Q: Does the U.S.-Cuban relationship play a role in the United States' current policies with Latin America?

A: Every poll in recent years indicates that Latin Americans' regard for the United States has hit rock bottom, and one reason is the intransigent U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Latin Americans' dislike of Washington's Cuba policy was seen most recently on October 29, 2008, when the U.N. General Assembly voted for the 17th time to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The tally was 185 to 3. All of Latin America -- neoconservative to left-populist -- every one of them voted against the United States.

Nut pinching is a costly policy. We are perceived as bullying a small neighbor, and for that we are paying an especially exorbitant price in the currency that sometimes matters most, world opinion.

A conversation with Lars Schoultz, author of That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution  property of the  University of North Carolina Press.

Visit your local library for more resources on John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Cuba and Cuban cigars.

The Havana Cigar: Cuba’s Finest
Del Todesco, Charles (1997).
Originally published in France, The Havana Cigar provides a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at Cuba’s best-known export. Soon after Columbus arrived in the New World, tobacco became Cuba’s crop of choice. Tobacco was so lucrative, the Spanish Crown imposed a monopoly on it in 1717. Havana’s first cigar factory opened in 1799, and another 400 follow within two decades because of demand in Europe, where the cigar was regarded as a sign of success. Del Todesco details the extremely involved processes of tobacco growing and treatment, plus the meticulous hand assembly of cigars. A catalog of Havana cigars and their characteristics caps the book. Patrick Janet’s remarkable photos, especially those taken inside the cigar factories, are a testament to those people whose lives are devoted to cigars and cigar making. This ultimate read for the stogie aficionado will have U.S. smokers wishing for an end to our Cuban embargo. (Reviewed April 15, 1997)— Excerpt of review by Brian McCombie first published April 15, 1997 (Booklist).

Habanos : the story of the Havana cigar
by Nancy Stout, (1997).

The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs
Jim Rasenberger, (2011).
Striving for a balanced history of the CIA’s April 1961 attempt to spark a revolt against Fidel Castro, Rasenberger thoroughly combed the resources about the inception, planning, and combat of the Bay of Pigs operation. Retrospectively, the project has been picked apart to ascribe its failure, with either JFK, for altering major elements of the plan, or the CIA, for myriad bureaucratic sins, receiving recriminations. Rasenberger avoids the retrospective blame game and places the principal actors in the elapsing swirl of decision-making as the operation developed. Kennedy’s reaction to the plans presented to him impels the narrative as Rasenberger depicts CIA officials changing the plan according to his orders. Although the changes lengthened the odds against success, bureaucratic momentum overwhelmed all doubts, including those of an apparently conflicted Kennedy. Rasenberger’s ensuing account dramatically depicts the landing, three days of brutal fighting, and frantic communications between the CIA and the White House as the invasion unraveled. Seeking to explain rather than condemn, Rasenberger informatively guides readers through this controversial cold war event. — Excerpt of review by Gilbert Taylor first published March 1, 2011(Booklist).

One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
Michael Dobbs, (2008).
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is probably the single most analyzed episode of the cold war. In the past decade, declassified American and Russian documents have proved that a nuclear exchange was even closer than most scholars had previously realized. Dobbs, a reporter for the Washington Post, has used those sources as well as numerous new ones gleaned from two years of research in the U.S., Cuba, and Russia. Although nothing presented here will change the overall view of the crisis, Dobbs presents new and often startling information that again confirms that the “thirteen days in October” brought the world to the edge of an unprecedented cataclysm. Dobbs spends little time describing the characters of the key players, but he does convey a sense of men under immense stress as events threaten to outstrip their ability to cope with them. This is a well-written effort to explain and understand our closest brush with nuclear war.
—Excerpt of review by Jay Freeman first published May 15, 2008 (Booklist).


Cigar Wrapper Color Chart
RMR Cigar
Date: 2010-04-13 

Creative Commons License