Cigar Smokers Give Obama Unsolicited Cuba Advice

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With a popular new President, a clear shift in the US's political direction, and a public mood that's open to new ideas, many cigar aficionados are wondering whether the general atmosphere of change will extend to U.S.-Cuba relations.

One group of cigar aficionados--the group that publishes Cigar Aficionado (CA) magazine, which first appeared in 1992 and has since defined itself as the premier information source for cigar smokers in the United States--has even gone so far as to devote a cover story to the cause.

As was widely reported in January, 2009, that month's issue of Cigar Aficionado argued for a more open relationship between the United States and Cuba--a relationship that would allow for the easing of trade restrictions and, most of all, some importation of Cuban cigars to the United States. Cuba is, after all, the cradle of the best cigars in the world. Where other countries have managed to make equally great cigars--as in the case of the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua--they have often done so with the aid of Cuban tobacco seeds, Cuban government aid, or ex-Cuban cigar families. But it's been largely impossible to smoke Cuban cigars in the US--legally, anyway--since the early 1960s, when souring relations with the newly Communist island nation led President John F. Kennedy to impose a trade embargo on Cuban products (supposedly after dispatching Pierre Salinger to obtain hundreds of boxes of Cuban cigars to ensure that the White House remained unaffected by its own policy).

As the Cigar Aficionado issue details, though, the official history of unbroken post-embargo antagonism between the two countries belies a long history of attempts at negotiation. Using recently declassified National Security Archive documents--analysis of which will also form the nucleus of an upcoming book by Cuba analysts Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande, who wrote the CA special story--CA shows that the US has come tantalizingly close to lifting the embargo on several occasions, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The documents, freely available on the Internet, give a history of failed US-Cuba conversations, many of which ended because of issues that, in retrospect, could easily have been resolved. In 1977, incoming President Jimmy Carter even ordered that the US move toward immediate normalization with its island neighbor, only to see talks founder over US insistence that Cuba withdraw troops from Africa. Carter later expressed regret that he did not go through with his initial plan to establish formal diplomatic relations with Cuba. The new information reminds us that the embargo is not a fact of nature--and come just in time to give President Obama an opportunity to learn, early and often, from his predecessors' mistakes.

Giving hope to some advocates of a possible US-Cuba perestroika is the fact that, on this issue at least, both right-wing and left-leaning cigar fans can agree--and unite to press for change. While Cigar Aficionado likes to portray cigars as a topic that brings together intractable political foes--they devoted cover-story interviews to Rush Limbaugh and Fidel Castro in the same year, one of the few magazines that can make such a claim--differences in political belief divide cigar smokers as they do any other group of people. (For example, consider the differing reactions of liberal and conservative cigar fans to the recent SCHIP increase, which ensures health care for disadvantaged children--a liberal policy goal--at the expense of a tobacco-tax increase, which has right-leaning cigar smokers, well, smokin'-mad while some more liberal cigar smokers are happy to, well, suck up the difference for children's sake. Excuse the pun.)

But many liberals and leftists have long favored a more open relationship with Cuba, citing the failure of the Cuba sanctions to weaken Fidel Castro and the US's willingness to cultivate close friendships with regimes whose human-rights records make Castro look like Mr. Rogers. Right-leaning cigar smokers, meanwhile, have often been willing to ignore the general conservative preference for hard-line anti-Castroism in order to ensure that American smokers can enjoy some of the world's best cigars unmolested. So, all told, a new deal with Cuba is a policy option on which cigar smokers of all political persuasions may find some agreement and partnership--which itself makes the likelihood of change more likely.

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