On Tuesday afternoon, four Cuban goombahs were halfway into the third round of their daily dominoes game at Macabi Cigar Factory.
Heli Montoto slammed one of the white pieces on the table and taunted his partner, Jacinto Perez, "Put on your batteries, man."
The two had already lost two games to Adrian Lopez and Jorge Azze, two other middle-aged, tanned exiles with huge cell phone holsters on their belts. Earlier in the day, El Nuevo Herald eagerly announced in splashy, colorful graphics that sales of Habano cigars had dropped eight percent from last year to $360 million.
Cubans blame the economy and the global anti-smoking lobby for damping sales
But these guys had other theories. Of course. "The anti-smoking, the economy - those are all factors," Lopez said. "But the Habano is not what it used to be. It's the regime's fault." Azze chimed in: "It's always Fidel's fault."
Macabi Cigar Factory is a classroom-sized, vaguely emasculating shop on Calle Ocho, right next door to Versailles Restaurant. Inside, there are a few ass-battered leather couches, some wine racks, and the unmistakable vibe of a clubhouse. It smells of baked goods, ashes and cologne.
While these guys were passing the time fiddling with their Dominican smokes, the glitzy Habano Festival is taking place in Cuba through Friday. Habanos are, of course, Cuba's famed cigars - actually, the Holy Grail of stogies - and the festival is a trade show to introduce new brands, such as this year's Julieta, a slender smoke aimed at women. This thing is such a big deal for people who care about this stuff that Cigar Aficionado magazine calls it the "Coachella" of the industry, which either means the trade rag is painfully tone-deaf, or crusty punk kids have suddenly invaded Cuba hoping to smoke cigars and catch a Daft Punk show.
What's wrong with the Habano anyway? Ahnuld still likes it, Rush Limbaugh still likes it spiked with some painkillers. On this, opinion varies. Lopez, a 51-year-old construction products salesman, says the cigar's ashes are too dark, and that its outer wrapper is wonky. But his dominoes opponent, Perez, a boxy Cuban-American, argues that it's the blend; for a while there Cubans were randomly blending different types of tobacco, which resulted in a subpar product. But, since he's winning so far, it's ashen-haired Azze who drives the point home.
"A number of years ago I was in Oviedo, Spain with a friend, and he insisted on buying a box of Habanos," said the 55-year-old, nursing a pinky-sized stogie on the edge of his ashtray. "The owner of the store kept telling us not to buy it because her customers were returning them. If the regime's own clients don't like it, how the fuck do they expect loyalty."
To smoking amateurs (this Riptide reporter), these talking points sound perfectly legit. Oh yeah, too dark ashes are a total nuisance. So, we checked in with a higher order: Cigar Aficinado, the magazine that in 1994 put both Limbaugh and Fidel Castro on its cover. Habanos did have a low period through much of the 1990s, and especially between 1999 until 2001, when because of lack of fertilizers and insecticides, "at least one out of five cigars" was defective.
But the Cubans have turned a corner since, the magazine says, thanks in large part to successful recruitment of many young workers to learn the cigar-making trade. The new Habanos, they have rhapsodized, "cater to the wants and needs we have as lovers of the leaf, and to the modern life we all aspire to." So, if no less an authority than Aficionado says quality isn't a problem any more, what's holding back our codgers in Little Havana? Like everything else around these parts, opinion on cigars comes laced with political arsenic.
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As the game drew to a close, Azze, who fled Cuba when he was 8, admits that even if the Habano were legal in the United States, he wouldn't smoke it. He doesn't want to support the Cuban government. "We're the recalcitrants!' he said proudly.
"We don't smoke it for the same reason we haven't returned to Cuba," said Lopez, who was seven when he immigrated. "The regime always wants to blame a million factors, but they never look at their own problems." On that last round, they lost a game to Montoto and Perez.
Meanwhile, Cigar Aficionado's blogger in Havana, James Suckling, closed his latest with this bon mot: "Fired up the new Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill and it's a hell of a smoke."