Winston Churchill A Passion for Habanos


20/02/2010

When he showed up at the hatch of the Boeing 17 aircraft that brought him to Havana, Churchill raised his right hand, made the V-sign with his fingers and greeted the cheering crowd that waited for him at the Rancho Boyeros airport.

Sir Winston made repeatedly the V-sign for the residents of Havana, a gesture he coined all through World War II, a period in which the press portrayed his image of goodhearted and implacable grandfather, always with a habano between his fingers as the diehard stogie lover he was.

That meant the start of a series of tribulations for Cuba’s protocol officials and the British delegation in Havana because the former prime minister never paid heed to schedules or formalities, sticking exclusively to what the moment called for. He used to wake up every morning at 5:00 am, putting the entire hotel staff on the rack. One rainy day, visibly upset for not being able to take his usual swim in the pool, he ordered his personnel to pack up and leave, only to order the unpacking as soon as the sun came shining through. His spare time was devoted to card games with whoever was willing to sit down with him. “He eats, drinks and smokes without any restrictions whatsoever. And plentifully,” wrote Enrique de la Osa in his report on the visit.

Habanos and Rum

The press conference he gave at the National Hotel was a complete disaster. Churchill walked in the hall ten minutes before the scheduled time and his half-cocked answers were heard in a room with barely a handful of reporters present. There was a sweltering heat and the former prime minister and the British ambassador to Cuba left the hall in a hurry, surrounded by a jam-packed crowd of refined ladies and high-class gentlemen that had swarmed over the few journalists that had attended that session that had been supposed to be a news conference.

Enrique de la Osa wrote on: “It seems that both the prime minister and the British delegation in Cuba –the organizers of such a lousily planned meeting- had taken advantage of that occasion to give their followers the opportunity to take a closer look at Mr. Churchill. The intention of letting reporters do their job was definitely put on the back burner. The main issue here was making those elegant ladies and those righteous gentlemen attending the press conference quench their curiosity by engulfing the former prime minister in that circle of enthusiasm and animal warmth.”

Someone asked him whether he liked fishing and he answered that he barely had time for that. When asked about his country’s government, he said he was not used to speaking about that topic outside the UK. He stressed that peace could only be attained through the unity of Russia, the U.S. and UK. And on the Nuremberg Trial that sentenced Hitler’s war criminals, he commented that making sure those horrors would never happen again was more important than the trial itself. In public, he stated his devotion for Cuban cigars and expressed his desire to be a part of its international promotion. Everywhere on the island nation and in Havana, he showered them with praise.

It was Churchill’s second visit to Cuba. Way back in 1895, he had celebrated here his 21st birthday. Then, the young officer from the Fourth Hussar Regiment came on a personal visit to watch the Cubans fight for their independence against the Spanish colonial rule and where the future Lord of the British Admiralship received his baptism of fire. At that time, he was also a great drinker of Cuban rum. He wrote that explicitly in his memoirs.

The Adventure

In My Early Life, his first memoir book, Churchill dedicated a whole chapter to Cuba. He recalled his stay in Havana, Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus before joining a Spanish column and taking to the battlefield. He wrote that as he was approaching the Cuban coasts that he felt as if he were sailing aboard Captain Silver’s vessel en route to the Treasure Island.

What was Winston Churchill looking for in these lands back in 1895? He explained that in his book: adventure for the sake of adventure. He wanted to know what war was actually like, an opportunity he didn’t have in his own country due to the peace England had enjoyed all through the last decade of the Victorian Age.

“We knew neither the attributes of our friends nor those of our foes. We had nothing to do with their own rifts. Except for our own defense, we were not allowed to engage in battles. Yet we were realizing that was the great moment of our lifetimes, indeed, one of the greatest moments I have ever been through […] It might be called madness. Traveling thousands of miles, with shortage of money and waking up at 4:00 am with the illusion of engaging in a combat, next to foreigners, was undoubtedly a poorly logical point,” he wrote in My Early Life.

Churchill left Sancti Spiritus with three thousand Spanish troopers, marching in four battalions toward Arroyo Blanco. He rode his horse for hours and camped out, slept in hammocks, bivouacked with the troop, bathed in rivers… The days rolled on and nothing happened, until one morning before breakfast when his group was taken aback by crossfire coming from the nearby woods and a horse that was grazing peacefully next to Churchill was killed as a bullet hit it on the side.

The Spaniards rushed to the place the slugs were coming from and found nobody there. Churchill had been forewarned that in Cuba the enemy was everywhere and nowhere… “As I watched all those operations, I thought for a moment that the bullet that had killed the horse had whizzed by just a foot from my head. At least that way I had been under fire. That was something,” the former prime minister wrote in his memoirs. He had grasped the situation: Spain was going belly up and was about to bleed to death before an army of soldiers in tatters who were armed with nothing but those terrible long knives called machetes, a weapon wielded by soldiers for whom the war was costing them nothing, except misery, perils and hardships.” However, Churchill was on the Spanish side.

Until his arrival in Cuba “I had (secretly) rooted for the rebels, or at least for the rebellion.” But once here, “I started to see how distraught the Spaniards were before the prospect of being expelled from their beautiful Pearl of the Antilles and I was feeling sorry for them.”

Back in Havana in 1946

During his visit to the Cuban capital, Churchill asked for a grand tour around the city in a ragtop automobile. Since the protocol didn’t have such a vehicle in stock, the former owner of the Partagas cigar factory offered his and even acted as his own chauffer. The only thing the proprietor asked in return was a visit by the prime minister to his company. And that visit was carried through. 

One of the traditional vitolas from the Romeo y Julieta cigar brand is named after the British politician and is one of the 240 formats Habanos S.A. doles out under its 27 Premium brands. Something that few people know about is that Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province and home to the world’s finest black tobacco, recognized Churchill with the title of Favorite Son.

The lunch offered by Cuban President Grau San Martin to Mr. Churchill –the menu card is still preserved- was sprinkled with anecdotes. Sir Winston left for the Presidential Palace wearing a three-piece suit, yet a few minutes later he told the motorcade to turn around and steer back: he had forgotten his cigars. And yet another fumble: the motorcade was forced to drive in circles around the Palace for a few minutes just to make sure the former prime minister and the Cuban President could meet at the exact time.

At the end of the lunch, Mr. San Martin invited Mr. Churchill to walk out to the North Terrace, from where the visitor could wave his hand to a crowd of Havana residents down in the streets.

Then Churchill said: “I’m very pleased on this lovely island of Cuba where I have been received so well…” And then said in Spanish: “Aprovecho la oportunidad para decir: ¡Viva la Perla de las Antillas!” (I take this opportunity to say, long live the Pearl of the Antilles!)

At the end of his stay, he made just another enthusiastic statement: “If I hadn’t to see President Truman, I’d stay here for a month.”

“Cuba is a charming island,” Churchill wrote in My Early Life. Like an old hawk he was, he didn’t hide his sorrow about why his ancestors had let “such a delicious prey” slip through their fingers.”