Eusebio Leal: Habano, Cuba's Ambassador
He has never smoked, yet he considers himself a tobacco bard, not only because he comes from a tobacco-related family, but also because he by and large sees in the smoke of Habanos the dreams of the Cubans, the perfect confluence among music, poetry, literature and, of course, the national identity.
Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian, wallows in the fact that the tobacco festivity becomes a universal event every year, and now two decades later, it's undeniable for him that each festival takes the Cuban identity to new heights.
“From the moment Christopher Columbus mentioned for the first time the encounter between those men who appeared to carry a burning stick in their lips to date, tobacco turned out to be the evolution of the best-qualified handcraft of Cuba's productive craftsmanship. I strongly believe Cuban tobacco holds the dregs of the Cuban people's artisanal beauty, both due to its origin –I mean what goes on in the plantations- and what actually happens in the factory, what happens to the smoker, the connoisseur, especially those who cherish, look after, love and enjoy tobacco.
“The smoke of the Habano holds the dreams of the Cubans in a big way. Nobody can talk about the cigar factories or the Habanos without recalling the struggles of the tobacco planters, the exile of the workers during the great independence wars, the manufactures in Key West and New York City, and of course, Jose Marti's apostolic work, so closely linked to this.”
His family hails from Pinar del Río and all workers in his hometown viewed the moving of the factories out of Pinar del Río –especially the ones in Guanajay and Artemisa- to Havana as a labor victory. He says trade union wars were waged; he talks about how female cigar rollers, leaf vein strippers and other employees were whisked off at four in the morning all the way to the Jose Lepiedra cigar factory in Marianao. He remembers that lovely scent impregnated in the clothes of his uncles –not the perfume of smoked cigars, but rather rolled cigars- whenever they got back home.
The Habano Festival, held in the Cuban capital over the past twenty years, has been an open window to the world at a time when others were trying to corral our country, he says. “I think tobacco has been Cuba's best ambassador because the Habano suffered from persecution; it couldn't enter the United States, just only a little bit of it. That cedar box that doesn't give out scents, but rather preserves the smell of that leaf thoroughly rolled, has been some kind of qualitative letter of presentation for Cuba. Everybody looks forward to getting a cigar box as a gift, at least three cigars or a bundle of cigars. When I say “bundle” I refer to an old expression solely used as jargon among cigar rollers, as in, say, ‘give me a bundle'”.
And if it's special moments we're talking about, right during the holding of the world's most celebrated events devoted to Habanos, Eusebio Leal remembers dearly those festivals in which Fidel was the star of the show as he offered cigar boxes autographed by him that were eventually auctioned off for noble purposes, either for Cuba's public healthcare system or for some world-class projects for the sake of peace, such as the Chapel of Man, a work made by Osvaldo Guayasamín. “Today, those boxes are the finest token of affection, the outspoken testimony that he, when the time was right, traded his own smoking pleasure for a chance to fight for healthcare worldwide.”
Eusebio Leal has attended several of these events. “I can remember a particular lecture that was quite memorable for me because it was some sort of an abstraction, like some kind of dialogue among thoughts. It's all about mulling over and thinking and reaching out through memory to the history of tobacco that, as you know well, is so long that the Cuban people have coined a popular idiomatic expression that says, “don't you come and tell me the history of tobacco”, referring to someone who is just about to start a long story. That's more or less what I did then”.
When asked about what Habano means to Cuba, the city historian doesn't think twice. “Identity, personality, dignity; tobacco is not blended with the blood of the slaves because tobacco was always a free creation, from the plantations to the factories and workshops where laborers are making them, rolling them, preparing them. Tobacco is and will always be a symbol of freedom. And I think that the way tobacco is realized, that is, in the lips of the smoker, whether it's a he or a she, and the way it goes up in smoke, is somehow men's dreams that come true, that dream among smokers of going beyond and enjoying and reveling in the act of smoking.