A few years ago, Air Cubana was the world's last smoking airline. Before boarding, a Texas evangelist smuggling Bibles to Havana warned me not to worry when I saw white smoke fill the plane after take-off: "It's the Russian air-conditioning!" As soon as were airborne, white smoke filled the cabin. The German guy next to me freaked out. "It's the Russian air-conditioning!" I cooly told him. "Ach," he sighed with relief and lit a cigarette. On cue, everyone on the plane lit up. When the plane was good and full of both white and grey smoke, the Air Cubana stewardesses showed up with cigar boxes. Everyone started buying Romeo y Julietas and Cohebas and lit up as soon as they finished their cigarettes. By the time we landed, I was weeping and I tumbled gratefully into the tropical heat breathing in the diesel fumes of Havana like they were pure oxygen. Which, compared to the Air Cubana cabin, they sure were.
In Cuba I met Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the great pitcher, who cried real tears about his banishment from baseball by Fidel Castro, and chained-smoked Marlboros as he told his tale. After he escaped from Cuba I saw Orlando again in Ohio before the Yankees signed him up, and he told me that he'd been stranded for days on a deserted island after the escape and he'd refused to smoke Cuban cigarettes until he was rescued and could have a Marlboro. Saying that was like slapping Fidel Castro personally. Look out, Coheba man, I'm the Marlboro Man now.
Cigarettes were huge during the Cold War, when just lighting up an American cigarette in Eastern Europe was like aiming a gun at the system. In Romania, Kent cigarettes became currency. I asked somebody why Kents and he said, "They can't be faked over here." Most people didn't even smoke them, they just traded them with the seals unbroken for things like shoes and oranges. When anti-smoking bans took effect in the United States, the Marlboro Man could still ask for asylum in Cuba. It's all over now. The revolution didn't die when Che Guevara cut his hair or when Castro traded his fatigues in for a suit, but it sure is dead now. What's a revolution without smoke?