All we really wanted was a smoke


The revolutionaries of Fidel’s Twenty-sixth of July Movement rolled into history sporting beards and smoking cigars. Occupying the lobby of the Havana Hilton in January 1959, the barbudos, as they came to be known, puffed on Western culture’s most compact emblem of personal wealth[2] while planning to nationalize the marble beneath their feet. It would have been one thing if they’d smoked cheap Creole stogies, but Che’s Montecristos were top-shelf, and Fidel’s taste, even before he created Cuba’s premium brand, Cohiba, ran to pricey Partagas and Bauza. Was this anachronism, ironic appropriation, nationalism—or all of these at once? Tobacco is an essential part of Cuba’s identity. That the island’s soil and climate are ideally suited to the perfection of the tobacco leaf is national dogma. The plant’s origins on the island are prehistorical; we know that it arrived between the third and second millennia BCE from South America, where it was cultivated by the ancient Mayans. The Tainos, Cuba’s native people, showed Christopher Columbus how to roll and smoke what they called cohibas. The Spanish first spurned tobacco, then changed their minds. They monopolized the trade for almost a century, funneling all Cuban tobacco back to the Crown. By the mid-nineteenth century, when great Cuban brands like Partagas and Upmann were established, the habanero was known all over Europe, and Cuban cigars had become the iconic smoke. In reclaiming the cigar from the imperialists, the revolution reclaimed a part of Cuba’s national myth.

more from Ginger Strand and James Wallenstein at The Believer here.