Legend of the Cuban cigar

Reynaldo Gonzalez, a demigod in the cigar realm, lights a Habano delicately with a cedar strip, which is said to preserve the rich flavor of a Cuban cigar.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series* by Boston University journalism students.

HAVANA, Cuba — The back room of La Casa del Habano is a temple where cigar lovers from around the world come to worship their god.

More than 100 climate-controlled mahogany drawers, each filled with delicately rolled cigars, line the walls. Rich smoke hangs heavily in the air, flirting with the sweet scent of cedar strips that purists use to light their cigars.

Historical cigar boxes, including one bearing the crest of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of much of South America, cover the ceiling. 

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On a recent afternoon, two Cubans who say they have “stolen” a couple hours away from their jobs sink into thickly cushioned chairs and puff. Every few minutes, the proprietor, Reynaldo Gonzalez, who is a demigod in the cigar realm, comes in to join their conversation.

“Smoking cigars is part of our national character,” says one of the smokers, who gives his name as Isaac. “We’re proud of it.”

Some say that the quality of Cuban cigars declined after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution and the turn to communism that followed, leading many wealthy tobacco farmers to flee.

It would be difficult to persuade anyone in La Casa del Habano of this.

Many cigar shops in Cuba bear the same name, but this one, tucked into the second floor of a hotel in the touristy Old Havana neighborhood, attracts pilgrims from around the world.

As Isaac sings endless praise for Cuban cigars, sipping on an espresso, a handful of German visitors enter the room. One of them, a woman, recoils from the smoke and hurries back to the main part of the shop. Her male companions seem awed.

They listen intently as Gonzalez introduces one kind of cigar after another. Finally they make their choices. Gonzalez carefully hands them about 20 cigars, cradling them tenderly in his hands as if they were his infant children.

It has taken many years for Gonzalez to become a world-renowned cigar maven. Cigar rolling is a family tradition that he inherited from his father. He worked for years as a roller, achieving the rare status of a “Level Seven Torcador,” meaning that he could produce up to 150 “puros,” as they are known here, per day.

Gonzalez now rolls only a few cigars a day, usually in the late afternoon. He employs several other rollers so that tourists can watch this delicacy being prepared.

Even fervent aficionados, however, concede that not all Cuban cigars are of the finest quality. Most Cubans cannot afford the ones Gonzalez sells, and must settle for the cheaper, low-grade product.

The quality of cigars a Cuban smokes, like much on this island, depends on access to hard currency. Those who work in the tourist industry, and others with access to hard currency, can treat themselves to an occasional afternoon at “La Casa del Habano.” The rest must be content with what one Cuban dismissed as “the leftovers of the leftovers.”

Some Cubans, unable to afford high-quality cigars and unwilling to smoke the dregs, have turned to cigarettes. The smokers at La Casa del Habano pity and scorn them.

“Cigars are absolutely, positively, not cigarettes,” one of them says. “They are not as poisonous.” He then launches into a long monologue about the evils of cigarette smoking. 

Most Cubans, however, have to endure the evils of cigarettes because they cannot afford the holy puros.

Many around the world have found Cuban cigars divine, among them President John F. Kennedy. According to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, Kennedy made a special order shortly after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.

Salinger said Kennedy called him into the Oval Office and said: “I need some help.”

“What do you want, Mr. President?” Salinger asked.

“I need some cigars,” the president replied — and then added that they must be Cuban.

The next day, Salinger brought Kennedy 1,200 Cuban cigars. After receiving them, Salinger recalled, Kennedy “opens up his desk drawer and he pulls out the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States and signs it.”

On a side street one recent afternoon, an elderly fruit vendor named Abelino became excited when a young visitor asked for directions to a cigar shop or local cigar historian.

"You smoke cigars?" he asked in surprise.

Then he reached inside his dusty backpack, pulled out a cigar, and said, "Here. Smoke this."

Abelino’s cigar looked like any other. Yet the leaves were loose and the cigar quickly crumbled. Those bought several days earlier at La Casa del Habano, by contrast, remained perfectly intact.

A painting in the inner sanctum of La Casa del Habano pays homage to the late Alejandro Robaina, who is worshipped by cigar lovers as an ultimate symbol of Cuba’s cigar tradition. Robaina came from a family of cigar producers, spent decades rolling them, and was said to produce some of the finest cigars ever made on this island. He died in 2010 at the age of 92.

Sitting beneath the painting, one Cuban in the store points up with reverence.

“He must be at the right hand of God,” he said, “showing him how to smoke.”

*This spring, Boston University journalism and photography students made a weeklong trip to Cuba. By special arrangement, GlobalPost is presenting six stories that emerged from their trip. The introductory piece is by Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times foreign correspondent who was the students' journalism professor. The five that follow were written by his students. Photos were taken by students working under the guidance of prize-winning photographer Essdras Suarez.