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The Tourist General and the President of Cuba | by Jeff Burger
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The Tourist General and the President of Cuba

On a spring morning in April '94, I retired from my college teaching post of eight-years, The Art Institute of Seattle. That same afternoon I emptied my brokerage account, purchased a ticket on British Airways and by 6PM I began a five year adventure travelling the world.


It was during the Fall of 1996 that I entered Cuba on a journalist visa. The truth of the matter I was there on a "walkabout", visiting Cuban cigar factories. Day after day, one at a time I sought solace in the cigar factories and by night I sat on my hotel balcony, in hotel bars and verandas drinking Mojitos in Cuban sunsets lost in the aroma and clouds of fat Cubans (cigars) and Hemingway-esque thoughts.


It was into my first week in Havana, at the Cohiba factory when I met Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, President of Cuba. At first I thought as armed soldiers entered the Cohiba factory lobby, that maybe as an American I was in for an anti-American ass-kicking. I was pushed aside, and held against the wall as the factory representative calmly explained my presence to the armed entourage. I was not calm though, I am no Bruce Willis "super-action-hero-guy".


President Castro entered the Cohiba factory lobby and I was not expecting the man to have the stature that he did, he was like a living statue, tall and solid and bigger than life. Castro was aware of my presence. In all truth, I do not recall what he asked me or how I responded, my God I was standing toe-to-toe with the FIDEL CASTRO! Then he was gone, as quickly as he had entered, - I was still being held against that wall by two of the President's armed guards.


I asked if I could complete my cigar purchase and be on my way. There was no answer, just the gleam off of two polished AK-47s was enough of a hint to keep me from asking anymore questions.


Another soldier came back into the lobby from inside the factory from where I had seen the President disappear to. The aide asked if I would join the President in a cigar - I HAD NOW DIED AND GONE TO CUBAN CIGAR HEAVEN!!! Fidel through his aide-interpreter asked me questions about my education, my "walkabout", if I was married, etc. ... , Fidel spoke English occasionally and at his whim. It was more about two cigar aficionados enjoying a love for a Cohiba in quiet air and a little "dawdle time".


The day before I was to leave Cuba and head back to London the concierge from my hotel gave me a note informing me that there would be a photo-op with President Castro. Yeah like I would turn that invitation down! I was led to a room lit by large windows, on the only chair was a field dress shirt in my size with my name on it (?!) and two boxes of Cohiba Esplendidos - what a gift! On the dresser were two shoulder epaulettes-military insignias and a large square set of campaign ribbons. I recalled laughing with President Castro, joking with me during our smoke, so I thought why not?


The photo session was fast, a bit tense I thought. We shook hands and I thanked Fidel Castro and his aides for the cigars and shirt, his aide told me to remove the other items though. The President of Cuba was gone after 3 clicks of the shutter and a day later I was back in London with my souvenirs and a once in a life time memory of Cuba.


Jeff Bürger

Le Cigare Cubain est ma muse.


*NOTE – *Fiction, "A Man Of Leisure Daydreams".

Self portrait based on Public Domain photo.

All Rights Reserved ©1996 JB Studio / Jeff Bürger


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Taken in August 1996