Of Fakes, Arrests, Fear and Survival

2 Dec

I arrived in Havana on the 26-th of October.

The next day I met a German couple for Mojitos on the pool terrace of the Saratoga and laughed at their stories from their first day in Havana.

They had arrived with me on the same flight and planned to tour Cuba the hard way, on Viazul buses carrying backpacks.

Their first day had already been hilarious and they had fell in for all the tourist traps that the inventive Cuban Jineteros/as had laid out for them. From the dance show to the expensive Mojitos to fake cigars to buying milk for their “babies”.

Dom wanted to take some genuine cigars on his trip and I was just looking down on the Partagas factory behind the Capitol.

I suggested we drop by the LCDH there and I’d assist him in buying some cigars for his trip and at the same time I’d say hello to the Casa staff.

We arrived and were immediately surrounded by the usual hustlers hanging out by the door and across the main entrance offering their “genuine factory cigars” at much lower prices around the corner – or next door.

I laughed at them and went to the main door, which was closed.

Now the hustlers started jeering and shouting the Casa was closed and the boss arrested.

Good joke, I thought, they never cease to amaze me with their stories.

Then it was repeated again, shouted actually from across the street : The boss had been arrested and led away in handcuffs, the guys inside were bigger thieves than they, the hustlers, were. I could have the story, just come and listen, then come and see my cigars.

Mentally I was giving them compliments on their resourcefulness – the line was too good to be true. I promised to come back and listen, when a custodio opened the door to the factory and we were let in.

Immediately inside the store I noticed a very subdued atmosphere, something was clearly amiss. I selected 10 cigars for D., we paid and by now I knew that there must be something to the claims shouted outside.

Not the perfect timing for further questions inside the store to verify the gut feeling I had – the answer was literally hanging “in the air” and seemed to weigh a ton.

Outside I took the time to talk to the most vociferous guy in the gang and received the information that Abel Esposito, his son, his wife, his ex-wife, some more relatives had been arrested, piles of money found in his desk, illicit cigar sales discovered, Switzerland was mentioned, money laundering involved, cars confiscated plus some more distasteful details that I could hardly imagine to be true.

My thinking was again that these guys knew how to throw cigar customers off-balance with far-out stories, certainly it couldn’t be true, but again my gut was telling me to consider the proverbial “grain of truth”.

I promised to be back and look at their cigars with more time.

That evening I made a few phone calls to trusted Cuban friends with inside knowledge of the cigar world.

I asked innocently whether Abel would be present for the opening of the Encuentro or might be “absent” due to “problems”.

The ones who confirmed “problems” wouldn’t speak on the phone about their cause, let’s meet for a cigar and stop this phone conversation straight away.

The ones who said they didn’t know about problems were eager to meet me for a cigar and discuss my information – but not on the phone.

After a few calls I knew the problems were real and that again a renowned figurehead had been caught with his hand inside the honey pot.

Whether real or unreal, true or imagined, fact or rumour, if you don’t know the Cuban reality and the struggle to survive, you won’t get the many subtleties of such a story. The shades of gray are infinitesimal.

After a few cigars with my friends I had the black and white : the arrests had been made and a lot of fear was going around the Havana cigar circles.

It was like a stone had been thrown into a pond and everyone feared the ripples could turn into more arrests.

And from friends in non-cigar related government companies I received confirmation of the same crippling fear to sign a paper, confirm an order, make a decision – no-one wanted to be held accountable for making a decision. It was paralyzing the system, no-one wanted to be held responsible for decisions.

On Oct. 30-th I posted the information that Abel Esposito would not be present at the Encuentro and had been arrested.

As promised, I returned to the hustlers peddling fake cigars in front of the Partagas factory.

I was honest in not pretending to buy their cigars, just frankly interested in seeing them, their quality, their selection, their prices.

If interested I might buy a stick or a box, if not I’d take some pictures for “cigar friends” who might be interested.

This was accepted and I was told to follow a woman at a distance to a private apartment inside a large building behind the factory near the entrance gate to Chinatown. They were afraid of the police harassing them for talking to tourists – when all the interaction is done in public and is so blatantly open, but I guess it adds to the mystique and might thrill some adventurous soul.

Chinatown again, I was reminded of the Chinese hustlers selling huge amounts of fake Lanceros, Esplendidos and other Cohibas to a Chinese trade delegation in a restaurant last year which I witnessed and photographed and left me and my Cuban friends ( one of them a cigar quality control manager ) speechless at the impunity and openness of the selling.

Here I found a vast array of impossibly ugly, badly faked cigars that might impress an amateur ( that is, the majority of their clients ) but hardly someone familiar with basic cigar knowledge.

The boxes ranged in price between 80 to 140 CUC, open to negotiation, of course.

Seals, holograms and other paraphernalia were on hand for later attachment to the boxes.

Among the beauties that caught my eye was a box of Quay d’Orsay 2012 EL’s and a box of Partagas … well, something or other, 10 count box with a mixed selection of 2004 and 2012 sticks in the box and the bands from this year’s Encuentro. 20-th Anniversary Partagas Encuentro 1983-2013.

I laughed out loud – later I saw exactly the same bands used on the cigars passed out at the Encuentro’s welcome and gala night …

Noticing my resistance and my obvious refusal to buy anything, the prices were lowered.

I declined and told the hustler I’d be back again for more “selection” – nooooooo, my friend, you can buy these boxes only today.

How come only today, I asked.

Well, by tomorrow these boxes have to be returned to the Escaparate at the Partagas factory …

Shaking my head to prevent my laughing from becoming hysterical I said farewell and left, passing the mother feeding her baby and hoping she might have better luck with the next Yuma.



3 Responses to “Of Fakes, Arrests, Fear and Survival”

  1. Steve Mazzuca 02/12/2012 at 16:14 #

    Excellent in site and article, Nino!

  2. Vesa Kaartinen 02/12/2012 at 23:05 #

    Thanks Nino, a very interesting story of Cuban reality . More this kind of stuff in https://www.facebook.com/groups/118635291492268/?notif_t=group_r2j .

  3. Simon 22/12/2012 at 00:04 #

    Thank you for a lovely article Nino. Very interesting to hear just how the black-market cigar world draws in the tourists. A shame to hear the Communist state in fine form, however.