From Cuba with Questions

Love cigars or detest them, when a box of Cohibas lands in your lap, you don't say no

The box of 25 Cohiba Esplendidos was presented to me as a gift. A distant relative from Pinar del Río, Cuba's mountainous western countryside where tobacco grows in fertile valleys, brought three boxes of the island's renowned cigars to Miami on a recent visit and offered them to family members she hadn't seen in years.

My relative doesn't want her real name used, so I'll call her Daphne. She is a petite, neatly dressed woman with roller-curled hair dyed a golden brown. At a recent family reunion, she wore frosty pink makeup and assumed a slightly haughty air as she smoked her cigarettes and chatted. Apparently the guajiros on my father's side of the family don't lack self-assurance.

Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, and grandmothers sat in white plastic lawn chairs on the patio of a modest home in Little Havana. Daphne's recently arrived niece, also from Pinar del Río, was renting the house. My maternal grandfather, a typical Cuban storyteller from the industrial Havana suburb of El Cerro, cracked a few jokes but remained uncharacteristically guarded. He eyed Daphne warily.

After trying her first menthol cigarette (she found it refreshing), Daphne headed inside the house and slipped into the guest bedroom her niece had prepared for her. Moments later she emerged carrying three boxes of Cohibas. "Miren, tomen (Look, you all take these)," she announced, more a command than an offering.

As I sat on a kitchen stool, she dropped a box in my lap. My grandfather, a smoker since childhood who'd quit not long ago, declined to accept one. His wrinkled nose, corrugated from a lifetime of nicotine, could no longer tolerate the smell of tobacco, so he walked outside.

An uncle who'd been glued to the television suddenly snapped out of it, leaped from the family room to the kitchen, and grabbed a box, though he doesn't even smoke. Another distant relative, a second-cousin I think, seemed unsure but eventually latched on to one.

Although I don't share Daphne's love for tobacco products, I was thrilled to have an entire box of Cohibas. The fact is I'm fascinated by anything that comes from Cuba, especially when it hails from a location with special meaning for me. For instance there's the bottle of rum an aunt who visited the island bought for me in Guanabacoa, the heavily Afro-Cuban Havana suburb of my birth. Each time I share a glass of that ron with just the right person, the aroma takes me back to my first breath of air in Guanabacoa. Now, from Pinar del Río, the enchanting land of my father's youth, I would have cigars, even if I never smoke them.

I did some research to learn more about Cohibas. The tobacco comes from Pinar del Río's legendary Vuelta Abajo district, a 90-mile-long, 10-mile-wide swath of exceedingly fertile land along the southern edge of the province's mountain range, the Sierra de los Organos. Cuba's equivalent of the Bordeaux region in France, this is where the world's finest tobacco is cultivated.

Given that native Taino Indians were smoking cigars, or something similar to a cigar, when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, the Cohiba brand, created in 1968 at the behest of Fidel Castro, is a veritable baby -- but a very privileged baby. Castro ordered that the revolutionary government's official tabaquero, Avelino Lara, be given first pick of the island's finest tobacco, from which his staff of skilled rollers fashioned their Cohibas (cohiba is believed to be the Taino word for cigar) at a special factory that took the name of its Havana neighborhood, El Laguito.

For nearly fifteen years, Cohibas weren't commercially available at all. Only Cuba's ruling elite and select diplomats or heads of state could sample the limited supply. Before long these elusive puros attained a near-mythic reputation for being the finest the world had ever known. Eventually, though, Castro allowed production to increase, which led to more factories and a greater variety of cigar sizes and styles. Global demand for Cohibas soared, but the U.S. trade embargo prevented their distribution and sale here. American smokers smoldered in frustration.

This nation's cigar craze of the early Nineties drove Cohiba prices sky-high. An illicit box from abroad easily could fetch $1200 or more. Money like that proved irresistible to con artists, who began producing counterfeit Cuban cigars of all types, including Cohibas. But savvy American buyers quickly learned how to spot obvious frauds, which in turn led to more sophisticated fakery.

Today the Internet offers numerous Websites devoted to Cuban cigars, several specializing in Cohibas. Potential buyers are warned to inspect the warranty seal on the right bottom side of the box. (It must be creased just so.) A white sticker reading "Habanos" must run diagonally across the upper left corner. A heat stamp must adorn the bottom of the box. ("Look closely to make sure it is a heat stamp and not an ink stamp," cautions one Website.) Various arcane government codes are used to denote what factory the cigars come from and their date of manufacture.

Of course I knew none of this when Daphne perfunctorily handed out her three boxes, fresh from the island. I was just happy to have them. She then revealed their source: The Cohibas had come straight from a Havana factory by way of a "contact" who had given them to her as a gift but was selling them for $30 per box. She wouldn't elaborate. End of story.

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