El Habano: The Global Luxury Smoke

Author: Jean Stubbs

Working Paper Number: 20

PDF file: PDF icon WP20.pdf

Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz blazed new ground in the Cuba of 1940 with the publication of his seminal work on transculturation, by fashioning a Cuban contrapunteo (counterpoint) out of Cuba’s two major commodities: tobacco and sugar, encapsulated in the proud cigar band versus the lowly sugar sack. He used tobacco and sugar as metaphorical constructs, highlighting the fetish power of the commodities and a counter-fetish interpretation that challenged essentialist understandings of Cuban history. The fetishism and counter-fetishism are of particular significance when it comes to understanding the history of the Cuban cigar. For Ortiz, tobacco and the cigar most ‘transculturated’ and most came to symbolise Cuba and Cubans’ quest for freedom, independence and national sovereignty. By the same token, both lay at the heart of un-freedoms, dependence, and a highly contested island/offshore history, one that took on new dimensions with the nineteenth-century meteoric rise of El Habano (the Havana) as the world’s luxury smoke, competing with pipe and ousting snuff. The lifting of the Spanish monopoly on Cuban tobacco in 1817 heralded the Havana cigar’s coming of age. It became de rigueur in the male entrepreneurial world of the rapidly growing industrial, trading and financial conurbations. With its fine taste and aroma, and its smoke assuaging the senses, it was one of life’s pleasurable luxuries that sent out a message of wealth, power and distinction across the world. Its beginnings, however, were far different; and what follows explores how the Havana came to establish itself at a later and not earlier stage in life as the coveted luxury smoke, doing so amidst moral and mythical discourses, ranging from bodily and spiritual uplift to harbinger of death. It first traces cigar ‘pre-history’: the social life and discourse, changing values and meanings, surrounding tobacco and the cigar, which was but one of the forms in which tobacco was consumed, as their materiality was forged in a global commodity chain. It then enters the nineteenth-century ‘golden age’ of the Havana and its aggrandised, mythicised and contested history. It ends with how this luxury handcrafted smoke, whose non plus ultra was El Habano, made a comeback in the fiercely competitive, highly mechanised and ultimately proscribed world of tobacco. The analysis draws on a range of sources, which include my own work and that of Cuban scholars and writers, as well as academic and popular histories of tobacco and the glossy publications on the Havana cigar that proliferated in recent years. It thus ‘smokes’ its way through a complex history of origin, production, transport, marketing and consumption of this luxury product as we have come to know it, as well as the myth and legend in which it is enveloped.