politics

Nicaragua on the brink: political unrest, the path to peace and what it means for Estelí and premium cigars

April 2018 will be remembered as the month social and political upheaval brought tensions to a violent head in Nicaragua. Now the Nicaraguan people, the cigar industry, and the world are waiting to see whether things take a turn for the better or collapse even further.

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When you tune into the nightly news or scroll through online articles in your social media feeds, you’re probably not seeing a whole lot about Nicaragua. Let’s bring you up to speed. First the short version, then the long.

The short version: The shit has hit the fan.

Predictably, the long version is also more complicated. For the sake of context, you might need some background information on the country’s history and where the Nicaraguan government comes from. Almost all of this hinges on one guy, 72-year-old Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Ortega joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front (or FSLN, the Spanish abbreviation) when he was a student in 1963. He was arrested in 1967 for insurrectionist activities and released in 1974, at which point he made his way to Cuba for some guerrilla warfare training from the Castros. By the time the FSLN overthrew Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, he had risen through the ranks of the movement and was tapped to join the junta that ran Nicaragua’s provisional government after the coup.

In 1984, Ortega won a presidential election with more than 60 percent of the vote. His presidency was characterized, in part, by the typical Marxist move of nationalizing businesses. This is a period you’ll hear the old guard of Nicaraguan cigar making refer to as the biggest, most dangerous hurdle they’ve faced this side of Pinar del Río. Ortega remained in office from 1985 to 1990, when a free election brokered as part of the peace agreement that ended yet another civil war (this one between Ortega’s government and the Contras you’ve heard so much about) brought Violeta Chamorro into the presidency.

Ortega was out of office, but he wasn’t out of politics. So active was his opposition that he came back to run for president three times — unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2001, then winning in 2006 and every five years after that. In that election, though, he won only 38 percent of the vote (the runner up had 29) and moderated his policy stances to a form of democratic socialism.

Though Ortega toned down his Marxism, he didn’t go too far in loosening his kung-fu grip on power once he had his hands back on the wheel. Case in point, in his most recent electoral victory in 2016, he got more than 70 percent of the vote in a highly suspect election that was criticized for barring independent observers. That in a country that is currently on the brink of yet another civil war to unseat him less than two years later.

SO WHAT’S IT ABOUT THIS TIME?

Nicaragua has 19 active volcanoes. I was always a terrible student, so I don’t remember how real volcanoes work. In the interest of not abandoning this metaphor — Nicaragua even has volcanoes on its flag — let’s imagine Nicaragua as one of those science fair volcanoes you pour stuff into until it erupts.

The first ingredient into the volcano is also the one that took the longest to create: a general lack of confidence in the state as having Nicaraguans’ best interests in mind. This might seem silly. After all, who the hell really thinks they can count on politics? But the Sandinista movement is fresh enough in Nicaragua’s history that there is still a generation that remembers the sacrifices it made to bring Ortega and the FSLN to power all those decades ago.

“There’s an important distinction to be made here,” said Juan Martínez of Joya de Nicaragua Cigars. “A large chunk of the population continues to identify as Sandinista in ideology and beliefs. Despite that, the Sandinistas who today call themselves Sandinistas in the sense that they’re affiliated with the party and are Orteguistas are more politically active, but they’re a minority. Not all [ideological] Sandinistas are in favor of what the government is doing now. That includes some of the historic Sandinistas who founded the party and are not in favor of the government reopening wounds of violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua.”

The second ingredient, strangely enough, is a forest fire. See, at some point the Ortega government decided that it should team up with Chinese telecoms billionaire Wang Jing to build a new Central American canal in Nicaragua. The idea was to have it run near the southern border, cutting across the narrow stretch of land between the Pacific Ocean and the massive Lake Cocibolca before starting up again along the eastern half of the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border.

But as the plans got shaky and Wang Jing’s ability to hold up his end of the deal became less certain, environmentalists began to make noise about the fact that the project would do damage to the Indio Maíz Nature Reserve.

“That was a huge issue. A lot of protests,” said Nicholas Melillo, the Connecticut-born founder of Foundation Cigar Co. who first arrived in Estelí in 2003. “And a week before all of this got out of control in April, there were massive forest fires in the Indio Maíz Reserve.”

“We are an absolute exception to the rule in Nicaragua. Throughout the country — in tourism, the service industry, every other sector — business has been affected.”
— Juan Martínez, Joya de NIcaragua

Managua newspaper La Prensa reported that two experts agreed the fires were started intentionally and without any kind of control in place. In other words, either someone was being careless or someone wanted it to spread. About 13,000 of the reserve’s 1.1 million acres were ablaze, and at least some of the Nicaraguan public was convinced enough that they knew who to blame.

“People were outraged and all of a sudden it’s on fire,” Nicholas said. “So there was talk the week before this all got crazy in April that the government had set these fires. I have no idea what evidence there is to support that, but I was down there and this was a big issue of concern. Everybody was talking about the fires of Indio Maiz.”

The protests over Indio Maíz started April 12 with hundreds of marchers. The next ingredient in the science fair volcano came April 18, when an announcement was made that the Ortega regime intended to increase social security taxes while cutting pension payments to the elderly.

The general discontent — having been amplified by the canal issue and now the social security issue — was becoming a bona fide, but relatively modest protest movement. But the final ingredient, the one that would make all the others spill out over the top, was violence. The Ortega government began to respond to these protests with force, particularly through orchestrated attacks by pro-Ortega “Sandinista Youth” groups.

“I’ve seen a lot of protests over the years,” Nicholas said. “This one was different because the protests started and a woman took a video from her house in Managua. In the video you see very clearly trucks of people with brand new white t-shirts get out of the trucks and start beating up the protesters, chasing them down and chasing down the press that was on the scene. And then they jumped back in the trucks and took off. This video spread within two days. Nicaragua is 6 million people and everybody’s got Facebook these days.”

 
 

It’s tough to know how much that particular video, which went up April 18, did to spur the protests, but it and media like it played a role; just two days later, the protest movement had swept the country and the violence against the protesters had escalated. Two people were dead by April 20.

The cycle of civilian protests and violent government response — sometimes through those Sandinista Youth groups, sometimes carried out by police or paramilitaries — has gone on more or less uninterrupted. At the time I’m writing this, the protests have been going on about 60 days. The death toll is about 285. For perspective, that’s more deaths in confrontations between protesters and the Nicaraguan government in 2 months than Venezuela has seen in protests that have been ongoing since 2014.

An anti-government demonstrator uses a slingshot during clashes with riot police at a barricade in the town of Masaya.  (Photo: INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)

An anti-government demonstrator uses a slingshot during clashes with riot police at a barricade in the town of Masaya. (Photo: INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)

THE ESTELÍ ANOMALY

Throughout, the upheaval, the cigar and tobacco city of Estelí — a bastion of Sandinismo since the early days — has been quiet compared to the rest of the country. There have been protests and deaths and crime, to be sure, but nothing on the scale that the rest of the country is seeing.

“The cigar industry is different,” Juan said. “That’s because 99.9 percent of our product is exported for consumption outside Nicaragua, so our industry has been blessed.”

While the whole country has taken a hit economically, Estelí and its residents have been somewhat shielded from the worst of it because their economy is so connected to consumption of their luxury good by foreigners. A small number of factories, especially larger ones, have run into isolated absenteeism because some employees with long commutes to Estelí haven’t been able to get past the same roadblocks that have been slowing down the transport of cigars and tobacco to ports.

“Our production has been affected by personnel not being able to get to work because of the roadblocks on the highways. Many of our workers commute from outside Estelí,” said Freddy Molina, the general manager at Tabacalera AJ Fernandez. "Not having production at 100 percent means we fall behind on fulfilling orders. For a couple of days, there was no way to get cigars to the airport in Managua. That delayed shipments by three days to a week.”

AJ Fernandez employees have also been let out of work half an hour earlier than normal to help them avoid getting stuck in the protests and other crowds that might form after business hours.

Hiccups aside (some of them big hiccups, to be sure), things have been chugging along in Estelí factories.

“We are an absolute exception to the rule in Nicaragua,” Juan said. “Throughout the country — in tourism, the service industry, every other sector — business has been affected.”

Hotels throughout the country have begun to shut down. At certain points in this stretch, restaurants were reported to have been operating at as little as 15 percent capacity. Flights are arriving to Nicaragua practically empty. In this sense, Estelí is an oasis from the economic doom and gloom being faced by the rest of the country.

“The most important business entity in the country is Grupo Pellas, run by Carlos Pellas,” said Wendy Guido, an alternate assemblywoman for the minority Conservative Party in the National Assembly, Nicaragua’s legislative body. “They own Mukul, the luxury resort which is the largest and most expensive hotel in the country. Pellas has closed it. That gives me the impression that other business owners, especially much smaller ones, will have to do the same.”

Wendy told me that even the hospital the Pellas Group owns has been struggling to keep up with influx of patients after it offered to treat people wounded in the protests. Unemployment, she added, is starting to become an issue in some sectors of the economy.

That the cigar industry’s consumer base is outside the country can go only so far for so long to insulate it and Estelí from the effects of all this instability and uncertainty. Whether cigars and the town that makes them follow the rest of the country down this path will depend on how the political landscape changes and how quickly the state, civic leaders and everyday Nicaraguans can mend the wounds of this latest round of turmoil.

Still, Nicholas remains confident that the people of Estelí recognize the important role the industry has played and won’t let things devolve to the point of putting that industry in jeopardy by antagonizing cigar makers and attacking their businesses.

“Every family [in Estelí] has someone who is working or has worked for the cigar industry. If you take the cigar industry out, where is the fulfillment of jobs? There is no other industry there that can put that many people to work, so people are very conscious that this is how they support themselves and their families,” he said. “It might not be perfect, but the cigar industry has come a long way in its standards, its practices, insurance for employees, education for employees, things of this nature.”

For now, most cigar makers seem to have found ways to make do, especially in the lead up to July’s IPCPR trade show Las Vegas, which premium cigar brands usually treat as the venue for their big reveals of new products. That means that they’ve needed to contend not only with the slowdowns in production, but also with the added complication of shipping product from Nicaragua to Las Vegas in time for the show

“Luckily, we were very prepared,” said Nicholas. “A lot of my booth for the IPCPR was prepared and made in Nicaragua. We got everything through. I was on edge for a while and I was going to be on edge until the shipment hit the States. Shipments are coming through. It’s definitely backed us up and we’re behind a cycle on our shipments. We should be on track over the next couple of months as long as things don’t go crazy again.”

WHERE THINGS GO FROM HERE

I’ve only been covering the cigar industry since the start of 2013. Even in that short time, Estelí has been transformed by the cigar industry. Sure, there’s poverty. But there’s also been a palpable sense of optimism on the street, in restaurants, and in the demeanor of the people you deal with around town.

Maybe the most incredible thing about that is that even in this historical socialist stronghold, that optimism seems rooted not in the protectionist policies of a Marxist regime or trust in a paternal head of state, but in the benefits of living in a town driven by a diverse group of competing entrepreneurs making cigars for consumption in the Yankee free market that Sandinismo demonized and even fought for so long. It’s not just the farms and factories, but the economic development that has come along with all that: hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, transportation, professional services.

If living through all that transformational change — and recognizing that it’s owed in large part to the private sector — kicked Estelí’s residents out of their rigid support for their Sandinista president, his violent response to protests against his policy has turned many to outright opposition.

“[The violent response to protests] swayed a lot of people’s opinions,” Nicholas said. “I think everybody was shocked about how fast it went down. Because of how fast it happened, I tend to think that people were not happy and didn’t express it. Maybe there was a fear of expressing it.”

Estelí’s optimism has given way to an anxiety about what the future holds and what the city and country will have to go through to get there. According to Juan, there’s effectively a self-imposed curfew of 6 p.m. because violent crime has spiked with the diversion of law enforcement resources and a general drop in confidence in those institutions. Other cigar makers have talked about their facilities’ guards being held up at gunpoint and the challenge of keeping squatters off of farmland, where they would set up tent encampments and claim the land was stolen during another period of upheaval.

Meanwhile the relative calm in Estelí is just that — relative. There are protests and mortar fire and even some gunfire and deaths. At one point, protesters began using pavers that cigar makers had just paid to pave certain areas with to shield themselves from police, ripping them out of the ground and creating barricades.

Students light candles during vigil after taking part in the “Walk for Peace and Dialogue” in Managua, where many demand Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife Vice-President Rosario Murillo step down. Ortega has been under pressure to step down after announcing, then walking back a contentious pension reform plan that triggered days of protests and violence.  (Photo: RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

Students light candles during vigil after taking part in the “Walk for Peace and Dialogue” in Managua, where many demand Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife Vice-President Rosario Murillo step down. Ortega has been under pressure to step down after announcing, then walking back a contentious pension reform plan that triggered days of protests and violence. (Photo: RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

“No Nicaraguan feels like things are OK right now,” Juan said. ”It’s a trauma that will take some time to recover from, not only in terms of government institutions, but relationships among citizens. There’s a fragmentation of those who are pro and those who are anti, which will be a challenge as we look to rebuild society.”

Efforts to move beyond the fighting have been on a rocky path. For starters, while there seems to be near consensus that things are not OK, there’s stark division among Ortega’s opponents about what to do about it.

“There are some who are more moderate, others who are more radical,” Juan said. “The most radical demand is for the president and vice president to leave tomorrow and for there to be an immediate reconstruction effort. That’s not going to happen. The more likely course would be special elections in 2019, but before that there would be changes in the electorate, in the supreme court, and in the electoral systems. The idea would be for all that to create a clean path for elections.”

In late May 2018, a group of Nicaraguan bishops hosted a meeting intended to lay the groundwork for an ongoing dialogue between the Ortega government and a group of civil society leaders and activists called the Civic Alliance.

The meeting went on for hours, with the Ortega government keeping the focus on (literal) roadblocks set up by its opposition as a sticking point for any progress. The government that had provoked an uprising with violence against protesters called the roadblocks themselves a human rights violation and the head of Nicaragua’s central bank projected that getting stuck in the status quo, roadblocks and all, would lead to a half-point bump in the unemployment rate — from 4.7 to 5.2 percent — and that inflation could increase by as much as 8 percent.

A reasonable case can be made for putting roadblocks on the negotiating table. But when people are dying in the streets at your own hands, it’s hard to see making removal of roadblocks a precondition for any other progress as anything short of intransigent.

I just hope more people don’t have to die.
— Nicholas Melillo, Foundation Cigar Co.

“Initially, what we did was to open a dialogue,” said Wendy. “At first, I had a lot of hope that it might be productive. The government had stopped it’s repression, but it picked up soon after.”

The Church backed out of its mediation role, saying publicly that it would not engage in or facilitate negotiations until it got guarantees from Ortega’s government that there would be an end to violence, repression, and the suppression of dissenting speech. Meanwhile, what the majority-FSLN Assembly has done is create a “Truth Commission” to investigate claims of injury and death during protests throughout the country. Wendy cast the only vote in the Assembly against the creation of that commission. It was approved with 74 votes, all of them from the FSLN.

“It’s tough because early on it just fell apart right away,” said Nicholas of what he sees as the best case scenario for Nicaragua at this point. “I really don’t know. I couldn’t give you a good answer. I just hope more people don’t have to die.”

Whatever path things take, it seems unlikely that this most modern iteration of the conflict between Sandinistas and their opposition can be resolved by anything short of an Ortega exit. What Nicaragua looks like when that time comes seems to depend on how brazen Ortega is willing to be with his opposition and how much of his authoritarian nature that opposition can stomach.

“We’ll keep working as we always have. We have a responsibility to the 3000 workers who depend on us,” said Freddy.

“The ideal would be for the government of Nicaragua to stop responding to these things with violence and for people to return to normalcy and for foreigners to resume visiting the country,” said Juan. “Of course, the ultimate ideal is for this to never have happened, but that’s off the table.”

Cuba between the lines

Ten years ago, Cigar Snob was born as Cuba entered into a new era in its history.

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Egberto Escobedo was born and raised in Camagüey, Cuba. It’s his official place of residence on government records. Yet, when he goes home to Camagüey, Egberto is deported — not from Cuba, but from Camagüey. See, he moved to Havana to be with his wife, but he still has family in Camagüey. Sometimes being deported has meant being taken back to Havana. Other times, it’s meant being put in a patrol car and dumped on the highway nearly 200 miles outside Camagüey.

So what did Egberto do to so thoroughly piss off the Cuban government? He’s on the coordinating committee of the Forum for Rights and Liberties, an independent Cuban organization whose name is pretty self-explanatory. The Cuban government doesn’t encourage groups like these. It certainly didn’t appreciate Egberto’s heading into Camagüey with copies of the speech Barack Obama had delivered in Havana during his historic March 2016 visit. He and other dissidents had plans to study the speech closely and figure out what their take would be.

“My wife and I — and activists like us — are the victims of beatings and other mistreatment in the streets and in police stations. In Camagüey, they’ve declared me persona non grata,” said Egberto. “A government official told me that he wouldn’t allow me to go into the province. I have a 22-year-old daughter there who I haven’t seen in three years and he told me I couldn’t see her. I told him, ‘We’ll see.’” At about 1 a.m. the morning of our phone interview, he had been spirited into his own hometown, where he’d hide out at a relative’s home until he was “deported” all over again.

A new chapter in Cuba

Cigar Snob debuted May 20, 2006 (Cuba’s Independence Day). In July of that year, Fidel Castro’s health took a sharp turn and his brother Raul — who had been Cuba’s minister of the armed forces since the regime took power in 1959 — assumed the role of acting president in Cuba. He officially became president in 2008.

Frequent readers of this magazine know we don’t rate or report on Cuban cigars. From the beginning, the magazine’s owners and employees have fielded questions about why that is; the answer is simple. For one thing, those cigars are generally not legally accessible to our overwhelmingly American readership. For another, all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes. Thanks to the fact that the timing of Cigar Snob’s birth coincided with Fidel’s permanent switch from olive green fatigues to Adidas track suits, our history has run in parallel to a new chapter in Cuban history.

... all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes.

Almost immediately, speculation began as to whether Raul would — even if only out of necessity — rule as a reformer.

“In the economic sphere, when Raul Castro took over from Fidel Castro nearly 10 years ago, he began introducing a series of small reforms in the economic domain,” said Dr. José Azel, a scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. “One of those reforms was to allow a certain amount of self-employment in precisely 171 activities. They have now been expanded to something like 206 activities, but they’re all domestic activities. None of them have anything to do with the external sector, and they are trades such as repairing cigarette lighters, selling fruit, repairing umbrellas, and things like that.”

Self-employed Cubans are referred to as cuentapropistas. The categories of independent work in which Cubans can legally engage are as narrow as the examples José listed. You can obtain a license to sell fruit on the street, but you’ll technically need another license if you’re going to also make your living peeling fruit, he said.

Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image:  Reuben Strayer )

Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image: Reuben Strayer)

“This is not a private sector as we understand that term in the United States — you know, sole proprietorships, corporations, partnerships and the like. These are individuals that have been granted a permit by the state. They don’t have the kind of legal standing that we associate in the West with the private sector,” said José.

They’re limited, but the changes have made a difference in some Cubans’ lives — albeit a small one compared to how they’d benefit from even freer markets. Egberto is skeptical.

“Over the 56 years this regime has been in place, it has on various occasions freed the market in order to lift the economy. They know free market measures develop the economy. And every time they do it, they later begin to undo the freedoms they had allowed because they are afraid of losing economic control over individuals,” said Egberto. “I don’t think they’ll change their politics; their system survives thanks to totalitarian control of the market. We’re in a time of crisis, and they’re allowing people to be self-employed because the government can’t provide jobs. As they begin to recover economically, they’ll scale back those freedoms.”

Another important change Cuba has undergone is the abolition of its “white card” system. Until 2013, Cubans with valid passports needed what amounted to a trip-specific exit visa in order to leave their own country, a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Cuba is a mocking signatory.

“If the world’s six billion inhabitants could travel any time they wanted, the jam there would be in the skies of the planet would be enormous,” said Ricardo Alarcón with a completely straight face in a forum in 2008. At the time, he was president of Cuba’s National Assembly (the country’s legislative body). He’d been asked to explain the logic behind the white card absurdity.

When white cards were done away with, Cubans who had been denied permission to travel took full advantage. One of them, blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World, has been traveling persistently, whereas just a few years ago she’d been unable to leave despite countless invitations to accept awards, give lectures, and sit on panels about Cuba. She and others are rushing to get all this travel in before the Cuban regime changes its mind. There’s concern about the decision being reversed or — more realistically — passport renewals being denied to those who the Castros prefer not to see challenging the government’s narrative abroad.

The thaw

A little more than a year before Cigar Snob’s first issue, Barack Obama was sworn in as a U.S. Senator. He won the presidency in 2008 and has been as much of a game changer for Cuba as Raul. Under Obama, U.S.-Cuba relations have changed as much as could be expected without Congress lifting or altering the embargo. Diplomatic ties have been almost completely normalized, with each country’s interest section becoming a full-fledged embassy. Restrictions on American travel to Cuba have been loosened.

Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana  (Photo:  IIP Photo Archive )

Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana (Photo: IIP Photo Archive)

Though Cuba had begun to allow its citizens to own certain consumer tech, Cuba’s unchanged totalitarian core was revealed in 2009, when USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for delivering satellite and computer equipment to Jewish communities. Ricardo Alarcón (champion of air traffic control) accused him of working for American intelligence agencies and Alan ended up in prison for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” until a controversial 2014 prisoner swap.

The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations continues to evolve, but it’s hard to see any moment eclipsing Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in symbolic significance. It’s easy to find glowing reviews, though, so let’s go to Egberto for another take.

“His visit was a fiasco,” said Egberto. “The Cuban government is capitalizing on it abroad as a tool to undo limitations imposed on it. These people have more experience than Obama does and know how to neutralize his efforts. They’ve begun to make life harder for cuentapropistas with higher taxes. Eventually, you’ll only have a small number and they will be controlled by the regime. That’s not freeing the market.”

The scenario Egberto describes — in which the Cuban government closes doors shortly after opening them — has played out before. Today, travelers to Cuba enjoy paladares (private restaurants usually run out of homes) and stay in casas particulares (think sharing economy lodging, a la Airbnb, without the software). Those businesses only came out of the black market shadows in the mid-90s, during Cuba’s “Special Period.” At the time, Cuba’s extreme poverty couldn’t be helped by the Soviet Union (which had just collapsed) or Venezuelan oil money (Hugo Chávez wasn’t around yet). The U.S. embargo was in full effect — no exceptions for cash-up-front trans- actions, food or medicine. As conditions worsened on the island, the people’s protest for freedom grew louder, peaking in August 1994. In response, Cuba began to allow paladares, but then raised taxes on them in February 1996 and stopped issuing new licenses altogether that April. They even cracked down and shuttered independent restaurants that had become direct competition for government- owned establishments. Baruch College professor Ted Henken wrote that at least one paladar owner he interviewed in Havana saw her licensing fees go up from $23 to $775 in a six-year span. The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month. That’s pushed lots of people back into the black market. I know; I’ve eaten at a clandestine paladar. The shrimp was delicious. It’s also worth pointing out that licenses to for paladares and casas particulares allow their owners to cater either to Cubans or to foreigners, effectively creating an apartheid system against the country’s own citizens.

Cuba has made similar moves in agriculture, the arts, and other areas. So what should Obama have done differently to ensure the change that took place while he was in the White House was more durable?

“Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press,” said Egberto. Obama wasn’t quite hidden, but it’s true that his meeting with some of Cuba’s most prominent dissident voices had a decidedly diminutive quality to it that contrasted with the visible nature of his speech at the Teatro Nacional, his attendance at a baseball game with Raul Castro, or his sightseeing jaunt through Havana. There were cameras at the meeting, but it seemed like a slapped-together affair and was, indeed, crammed into a tiny space at the very large U.S. embassy. Case in point: you probably didn’t know that meeting even happened.

Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press
— Egberto Escobedo, Cuban dissident

Among the 13 dissidents present at that meeting with Obama: José Daniel Ferrer, the head of Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU); Guillermo Fariñas, best known for activism for unrestricted Internet access; Berta Soler, the leader of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), who attend Mass every Sunday before silently marching through Havana demanding the release of political prisoners; and Antonio Rodiles, the founder of Estado de Sats, an independent Web series in which Cubans discuss everything from art to economics. Berta and Antonio were in the minority who actually told Obama that he should have stayed in Washington.

“For people to find out what was said in that meeting with some opposition leaders, those leaders practically had to call separate press conferences in other places to tell people about it,” said Egberto. “The Obama administration should have been more critical and less fearful. And he should have done more to ensure that the details of his trip were made known in Cuba, not just outside of Cuba.”

Crack in the dam

“Once this stuff really starts happening in Cuba, it’s going to go like light speed,” said Matt Brady, who has years of experience in democracy promotion and studying government transitions. “Once there’s a crack in the dam, the water is just going to gush. And there’s nobody — not the Cuban government, not the U.S. government — that is going to be able to stop the flood that is going to happen.”

Matt is well versed on the subject of Cuba. He has years of experience in democracy promotion work in that country with Freedom House and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. But the dam metaphor only relates to money flowing into and out of Cuba. Whether that dam’s bursting will have implications for political freedoms and human rights is a big question mark.

“Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not,” Matt said. “Once you allow companies to set up cell towers or airlines to establish roots, they’re going to expect to lose money for one to two or three years, hoping that they’ll end up with a pole position for a monopoly or something close to a monopoly. That’s the jockeying that’s happening with the hotels and the airlines.”

Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not.
— Matt Brady

While there’s disagreement on whether this was the ideal path for the relationship between the American and Cuban governments, just about everyone has come to terms with the idea that the travel and trade restrictions loosened by Obama won’t be tightened any time soon. So what does that mean for people on both sides of the Florida Straits? For one thing, at least some amount of American investment will continue in Cuba. Companies like Carnival, American Airlines, Airbnb, Netflix and Sprint will continue to pump money through the crack in the dam Matt described. Either until the dam will break, leaving them in a great position, or the cracks will be patched by Cuba’s communist government, leaving American businesses on one side and their money on the other.

“Companies know they’re going to lose money for a bit, but they essentially are going to set themselves up and there’s nothing that the government can do,” said Matt, “unless they start seizing assets again [in Cuba], which is possible. You could have that. You really could. That’s the X factor.”

Matt laughed at the idea. What else can you do? After all, this is the same regime that nationalized billions of dollars’ worth of American assets when it first assumed power. And it’s still the case that foreign ventures in Cuba must be owned in partnership with the Cuban government. That can be a dangerous proposition, especially since Cuba’s tourism industry and other sectors that interact with the outside are controlled by the military.

In the cigar world, we have a recent example of the hazards of investing on the island. Cigar Rings prints a large number of the cigar bands you see every time you walk into a cigar store. Its owner Albert Montserrat ended up in the Dominican Republic when he moved there from Havana about 10 years ago. He’d gone to Cuba from Spain thinking he’d find a stable opportunity printing labels for Cuban cigars. It wasn’t too long before he gave up on the Cuban government pulling its weight in the partnership. He was essentially forced to cut his losses and leave. In Cuba, there’s nobody to complain to or sue. You just lose.

“Let’s consider the seventh congress of the Communist Party that closed [in April],” said José Azel, referring to the meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party officials in which Raul Castro was elected to another five years as the head of the party. The first such congress was held in 1975. “Raul Castro and all the Cuban leadership and even Fidel Castro made an appearance to make absolutely certain — so there would be no misunderstanding — that there is not going to be a change in Cuba’s economic or political models.

“The purpose of economic activity [in Cuba] is not to enrich anyone, and in fact when people talk about the Chinese model, when Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms in China, which were far more extensive and profound than the economic reforms in Cuba, Deng Xiaoping made the statement that to get rich is glorious. He was trying to change the mindset,” said José, addressing the enormous communist country that so many people point to when drawing comparisons on everything from U.S. diplomacy to the prospect of gradual political and economic reforms. “Raul Castro has made the statement that the accumulation of wealth will not be allowed.”

José thinks it’s more likely that Cuba, years down the road, could come to resemble what he called the “kleptocracy” of Putin’s Russia, in which the old guard of the military and KGB took roles as captains of industry.

“You’re going to have an oligarchy,” Matt said. He also sees Russia as being the best place to go for a look at what Cuba’s economic and political sphere might become, albeit way down the road. “Fidel and Raul in particular have developed these state-owned companies that control large sectors — tourism, foreign exchange, banking. The money from the outside is going to flow into these companies and people that are in charge of them are going to pillage the companies. That’s already started happening. How will the Cuban people react?”

The more things change

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana.  (photo:  People In Need Cuba )

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana. (photo: People In Need Cuba)

Plenty of people are more optimistic about Cuba’s future. Even Matt describes that Russian-style oligarchy as a step toward something more free, more fair. But it’s important to face the reality that having an embassy in Cuba and seeing an American president touch down in Havana are not sure signs that significant or lasting change is happening in Cuba. In fact, while Barack Obama was in the air on his way to Havana, dozens of members of the Ladies in White were arrested during their weekly march. There’s little indication that any of the economic openings translate into a Cuba where people have political freedoms, an independent press, or a government that can go more than a week without beating peaceful protesters in the street. Case in point: Cuba’s National Commission for Human Rights, an independent (and, therefore, illegal) organization that tracks human rights violations on the island, reported that the Cuban regime had made at least 1,380 arbitrary political arrests in the month of April alone, bringing the 2016 total to at least 5,351.

So these half-baked changes — which have had bigger implications for foreign investors, tourists and Cuban officials than for the average Cuban — leave us at Cigar Snob and you, the smoker, with things to think about. What should our relationship with Cuba look like, as a publication and as individuals, and what should be prompting us to change that relationship?

Here is just some of the video of the arrests that took place while Air Force One was on its way to Havana.

 
 

“I’d suggest that people who visit Cuba try to create their own agenda for the trip,” said Egberto of what he thought travelers should keep in mind while in Cuba. “They should try to carve their own path inside of Cuba, independently. If you’re taken by the hand to specific locations (chosen by the government), you’re not going to get to know the real Cuba. When you see what the government wants you to see, you might think, ‘They’re on the right path.’ It’s a lie. But Cuba is not only coffee, tobacco and rum. If our economy is freed, if private enterprise is allowed, Cubans are creative enough to create great things in a way that is sustainable.”

I know from experience that Cuba’s government manipulates travel experiences to preserve the facade. In 2009, I was turned away at José Martí International Airport. A security agent told me that I was not allowed into “any part of the country,” then escorted me back to the Mexicana Airlines plane that had taken me to Cuba and had me board. No boarding pass, no interrogation, no air marshal. Just an arbitrary, extrajudicial determination that I was too dangerous to let in. It probably had something to do with all the dissidents, underground journalists and artists I had met with during previous trips.

In fact, the U.S. embassy in Cuba recently said Cuba’s government has a practice of treating American citizens who were born in Cuba as Cuban citizens while they’re visiting the island. In other words, Cuba doesn’t recognize the rights and legal protections that Cuban natives would enjoy while returning to the country of their birth. This is clearly meant to intimidate the travelers most likely to spread subversive ideas.

Even non-Cubans can feel it. In December 2015, filmmaker and YouTuber Casey Neistat posted video commentary about his own trip to Cuba. “I was there as part of a technology delegation,” he said in one of his vlogs. “We were supposed to meet with our Cuban counterparts and discuss technology and what it could do. The Cuban government actually stepped in at the last minute and said no to a lot of the things we wanted to do and a lot of the things we wanted to discuss. And a lot of what we were there to do was compromised. They dictated the terms of what turned out to be a very boring panel that should have been interesting. This idea that a government can tell you what you can and cannot say is something that I know nothing about.”

 
 

Especially if you’re traveling to Cuba as part of a tour group, it’s unlikely that you’re getting an unfiltered view of what life is like there. Hamlet Paredes, who joined Rocky Patel to create his own cigar brand, Tabaquero, arrived in the U.S. a little more than a year ago from Cuba, where he was one of the cigar industry’s star cigar rollers and ambassadors (which is at least part of the reason he speaks such good English). He still has family in Cuba, and he’s more optimistic than Egberto is about the impact of Obama’s diplomatic efforts. That said, he has some similar takes on how travelers to Cuba should approach their visits.

“It depends on the objective of each traveler. When I visit a new country, I like to get to know its people and see its reality. Most tourists are in a fishbowl and they’re shown everything that paints the country in a positive light. Meanwhile, they’re walking right by the reality and don’t even see it,” said Hamlet, adding that eating at paladares is one way to get a closer look at the lives of ordinary Cubans.

Those opportunities to engage with Cuban cuentapropismo are more limited if you’re planning a cigar-centric trip. None of the limited categories in which Cubans can run licensed businesses involve making cigars or growing tobacco, for example. For the foreseeable future, Cuba’s cigar industry will be monopolized by Habanos, which markets every cigar manufactured there. Even if Cubans were allowed to open independent boutique factories tomorrow — which is highly unlikely since the Cuban government has no interest in creating competition for its cash cow — it would take a long time for Cubans to build the skill sets necessary to compete.

“There are things we’re not used to,” said Hamlet. “I’m still learning to do things like negotiate. Those are things I never had to do in my country because everything is so tightly directed by the state. That kind of thing will happen to those who go into business for themselves.”

In the meantime, we at Cigar Snob will be anxiously awaiting substantive change in Cuba. God willing, we’ll be reviewing independent brands produced in small, independent Cuban factories.


Editor's note: The story above appears as it did when it ran in the print edition of Cigar Snob Magazine. Shortly after that issue shipped, it was reported that Cuba would be "legalizing" small- and medium-sized businesses. What exactly that means and how it will impact Cubans — especially in the long term — is unclear, especially considering that the country is still ruled according to a constitution that (among other things) gives the state the ability to legally lay claim to any property it wants.