Fidel must be feeling in a pretty good mood right now as he studies the big beautiful June issue of Cigar Aficionado. There it is on the cover set against a splendid blue sky, white beach, trim, tanned back of a blond young woman the big letters: “Cuba The Best Resort Hotels Nightclubs Restaurants and Much More.” A little lower in bright blue against the white sand: “Plus: Travel to Cuba How to Get There How to Invest.” He’s probably thinking what medal to pin on the member of his staff who helped this issue come to fruition.
The magazine, whose subhead reads “The Good Life Magazine for Men,” is unabashedly devoted to cigars. Its glossy covers have borne the likeness of many a celebrity — usually but not always — clutching a lit cigar: Denzel Washington, Pierce Brosnan, John Travolta, Chuck Norris, Gene Hackman, the male cast of “The Sopranos,” Kevin Costner (the latter having recently spent some face time with the Bearded One himself, showing Castro his “Thirteen Days” on the Cuban missile crisis).
Back in May-June 1999, the cover displayed photographs of Clinton and Castro between the full-sized query in red: “Cuba: Is It Time to End the Embargo?” and in smaller type face: “Plus a Complete Travel Guide for Americans.” You might just get the idea the magazine had some vested interest in Fidel’s little island. Advertisers in the publication, by the way, are about as top drawer as a magazine can get: Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Hyatt Hotels, Virgin Atlantic, Cartier, Palm, Bombay Sapphire, The Plaza. Needless to say, the bulk of the ads in the magazine are for various brands of quality cigars — many bearing the warning from the Surgeon General to the effect that: “Cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes.”
The special section on Cuba opens with a double-page spread of the cover model still with her back to camera facing white sand and dwarf palm trees. The text reads: “Dreaming of Cuba,” “The fabled island begins to offer choices for sophisticated travelers” by James Suckling, a writer identified as the magazine’s European editor and Cuba expert, who “has visited Cuba repeatedly over the past few years, and spent time in the fields with tobacco growers and some of the most respected people in Cuba’s cigar business.” That there are a number of detailed articles on Cuban cigars should then come as no surprise.
Do you get any real feel of what life in Havana is like? Well, take the piece on “Havana Nights” by George Brightman that begins: “Havana by night isn’t what it used to be. The streets are usually quite empty and the lights are dim, giving it an air of a place out of history.” And after a rundown of places like the Macumba, “one of La Havana’s largest, and right now, hottest [nightclubs],”we end up with “A glass of rum, a good cigar and sweet music. What more could you ask? Just a few more Havana nights.” No mention of the teenage hookers working likely tourist hangouts.
Suckling writes on restaurants, noting “securing a table in one of the few good restaurants in Cuba is difficult these days.” And goes on to mention the top places to eat in Havana may represent only a couple of hundred seats. He informs potential tourists there is a growing middle class on the island — without backing it up in any way — but tells us “most restaurants, especially tourist places, are far too expensive for locals.” When I visited Cuba a few years back, no ordinary Cuban was allowed to set his foot inside a tourist restaurant, money or no money.
There is an article on “Getting to Cuba: “How does an American travel to the forbidden island?” To be fair, it explains pretty accurately the complications and legalities of an American getting there, but points out in 1999 (last year for which there are statistics) 22,000 Americans went to Cuba without authorization, “though some experts estimate the total was much higher.” About 82,000 that same year went legally on charter flights originating in New York and Miami.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I went to Cuba as a member of an official delegation from the Screenwriters Guild — 12 fidelistas plus my wife Cynthia and myself as members, you might say, of the opposition.)
The article on investing in Cuba is perhaps the most interesting in the special section. By Sebastiaan Berger, identified as a Dutch-trained lawyer with his partner Cameron Young, identified as being admitted to the bar in Canada and receiving a master of law degree from Duke University, note that Cuba has become one of the world’s fastest growing tourism destinations in the Caribbean, and talk encouragingly of how Cuba is establishing a streamlined administrative process for foreign investments.
Basically, except for a little quick once over of Castro’s coming to power, you might think this whole special section was devoted to some charming, somewhat undeveloped Third World country. The lot of the ordinary Cuban and the daily restrictions on his life is not of concern to the editors, or presumably the readers. And, yes, you won’t be surprised they would like to see the American embargo lifted so one and all can enjoy the potential golden opportunities that lie 90 miles off our shore.
For what it’s worth, down in the left hand corner of the cover along with the bar code, you find the magazine costs $4.95 in the U.S., $5.95 in Canada, 5 pounds in the U.K. and $6 in Cuba. Interesting, in that Americans can’t bring dollars into Cuba — or spend them there. Regulations used to be pretty strict about Cubans possessing any U.S. money.