"Don" Albert Fox, a stocky Floridian who talks in a hushed, confidential tone, has his own custom cigar bands and a retired master cigar roller in Havana who keeps him well stocked.
The tiny labels contain a Cuban flag and an American flag, representing the friendships that Albert A. Fox, Jr. has been carefully nurturing since about 2000.
In the late 1990s Fox tried to take his aging mother to Cuba, her birthplace. The U.S. government denied them permission to travel there.
Since that first denial, the Tampa political operative has been to Cuba more than 60 times. He's met with President Fidel Castro on nine of those visits and has contacts at many levels within the Cuban government.
And he knows his cigars.
Fox fancies Cuban shirts, because they have more pockets. To hold cigars. Every time I saw him, he had fat ones, long ones, sweet and smelly ones sticking out of every pocket. He handed them out everywhere. Slipping one from a pocket, his head bowed, he offered them slightly concealed.
"You smoke cigars?" he growled.
Occasionally he had one in his mouth. He liked to have a glass of Bucanero, the best Cuban beer, in one hand.
Fox is among a small but growing clique of activists in the United States who are on a mission to end our Cold War-era embargo on the Communist-run nation just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Their foot soldiers include U.S. politicians like Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter, the most recent in a string of state officials who have visited Cuba on what are generally billed as trade missions.
"They've gone to Cuba to sell grain, and then once they're there, they see that we're in the middle of one of the biggest foreign policy screw-ups in our history," said Phil Peters, an expert on Cuba at the Lexington Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.
Otter's first Cuba visit came in March 2003, as a congressman. That trip was organized by the Lexington Institute.
"We're doing the exact same things that we did in the '50s when we cut Cuba off and threw them into the arms of the Russians," Otter told me, riding in the front of an air-conditioned Havanatur bus during his fourth Cuba visit, earlier this month. "We're isolating ourselves from them, we're not talking, we're not doing business deals, we're not exchanging products, thereby exchanging values. We don't have to agree with everything they do. But understand it."
Cuba is not an easy place to understand.
A recent story in the Miami Herald, citing a dozen people in positions to know, asserted that Washington "is now largely ignorant of what is happening within the inner circles in Havana as Cuba undergoes a transfer of power" from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul.
And as I prepared for my recent trip to Cuba, I got a not-so-subtle message that Cuban spin doctors are weary of Norteamericano reporters coming down to the island to speculate on the impending implosion of Caribbean Socialism.
The question often asked is, what will happen when Cuba opens up? But Otter, and the growing coalition of Congressional bedfellows who oppose the embargo, like to remind us that it is not Cuba that is closed. It is the United States.
What kind of tank?
On my last night in Cuba, an older European woman who has lived there most of her life asked me about think tanks.
She wanted to know if it was "tank" as in fish tank or as in army tank.
I was momentarily stumped.
Is the growing support in places like Idaho for normalized relations with Cuba a result of thoughtful humanitarian motivations (aquarium) or an imperialistic bent (M1 Abrams)?
Folks like Peters at the Lexington Institute and libertarian-minded politicos like Otter are not exactly the type of people you'd expect to be doing the bidding of socialist stalwarts like Fidel Castro. Not if there isn't anything in it for them, or at least for the economy.
"I'm not a fan of communism at all," Peters told me. "I would hope that the Cubans could find their own way toward a more open society with political and economic freedom."
Otter, who sold french fries all over the world for Simplot International before entering the political sphere, is no fan of communism either. But he believes that business is a better way to change governments, rather than isolation.
We seem to be preoccupied with being the toughest kid on the block, Otter said.
"All I'm saying to you is that there are a lot of ways to change the world than with muscle," Otter said.
"Listen, you give me enough french fries, disco records and Levis, and get rid of the State Department, and we can get rid of the entire diplomatic corps. We can change the world."
"Every one of those McDonald's is a potential embassy in the world," he added.
It's a view on Cuba that many Democrats and Republicans in Congress now share. There are bills in the House and Senate right now to end the American travel ban, as well as legislation to make it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel home, to alter or end the embargo and to otherwise normalize relations with Cuba.
In recent years, one Senate amendment and four in the House have attempted to lift the travel ban.
Congressman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, and Arizona Republican Representative Jeff Flake co-wrote a guest opinion in the Washington Post last week that called for engagement with Cuba.
"We should unite around a principle that Democrats and Republicans have long embraced, a principle that aided the West's success in the Cold War: American openness is a source of strength, not a concession to dictatorships," they wrote.
"It is time to permit free travel to Cuba, as provided in legislation we have introduced."
Fox, who runs the nonprofit Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, said that groups working to end the embargo need to coordinate their efforts better if they are going to get Congress to act this year.
"Until we speak with one voice we won't advance this football," Fox said.
Though most bets would be on the American values represented by McDonald's and Wal-Mart and Gov. Otter winning out in the next decade on the island, there is another, long-lived side to Cuba activism that comes out of the American left.
Taking Gringos to Fidel
Global Exchange, a human rights travel organization based in San Francisco, has taken Americans on "reality tours" to Cuba since 1989. Its goal, for many years, was to take as many people as possible to see what Cuba actually looks like and feels like.
"We used to be taking thousands of people per year and last year we took 70," said Kirsten Moller, the group's executive director.
That's because the Bush Administration has severely curtailed the number of licenses given out to visit Cuba.
For many years, despite the embargo, Americans could travel to Cuba for any number of cultural, humanitarian, academic or artistic reasons. Labor groups, bird watchers, architects and any other kind of group you can think of could get permission to travel to the island. They went to learn but also as a sort of protest, to demonstrate that the travel ban is wrong.
"We want people to go and kind of debunk the myths of Cuba," Moller said.
Now, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a Treasury Department group that enforces the travel ban, issues very few licenses to visit Cuba and increasingly fines people who travel there unlicensed.
Journalists, researchers, government officials on state visits and members of international organizations are still allowed to visit, but most other specific licenses have been eliminated, Moller said.
When I was in Havana, I bumped into a group of travelers from Los Angeles, in Cuba on a religious license, among the only specific category still allowed by Bush's Treasury Department. They said they were Baptists and were going to church, but they appeared to be having a pretty good time anyway.
I first visited Cuba in 2004 as a journalist and hooked up with a group of labor union activists from the Midwest while I was there. They were on an approved visit. Among the group were several graying members of the U.S. Communist Party who had visited the island dozens of times and were in love with the idea of Cuba.
Their tour included visits to Cuban schools, hospitals and talks with Cuban labor officials, all coordinated and controlled by our Cuban hosts.
The U.S. government justification for granting these licenses is that visitors would show the Cubans how free and fat and happy we are in the United States.
But according to Leslie Balog, an American who worked for Cuba's Radio Havana for 20 years and now runs the Global Exchange trips there, many American travelers actually come home quite impressed with what they see.
"The Americans were liking Cuba, instead of the Cubans liking the Americans so much," Balog said. "I guess that's why Bush ended it."
As the humanitarian tours of Cuba have been curtailed, however, a new type of visitor has been increasingly landing at Jose Marti International Airport: the American farmer.
Food paves the way
In 2000 Congress allowed Americans to sell agricultural products and medicine to Cuba on a cash-only basis.
Since that time, delegations from 28 states, from Maine to Montana, have made their way to Cuba to sell seeds, vegetables, lumber, fish and meat to the Cuban government. Since 2003 the United States has become Cuba's top food supplier, according to a recent Associated Press report.
"Since 2001, when real business began, that sparked a lot of interest because there was real business to be done," said Kirby Jones, a former journalist who has been taking business groups to Cuba since 1975.
Jones, like Al Fox, is a Cuba fixer for American politicians and businessmen in Havana. He took groups from Delaware and Nebraska there just prior to Otter's trip, and he is now planning two more state visits.
Why Cuba? he is often asked.
"Well, why not?" Jones said. "U.S. companies deal with countries all over the world that we disagree with."
But this renewed interest in Cuba is not just about business.
Congressman Flake has been among the most active members of Congress on the Cuba issue. He brought Otter into the Congressional free-Cuba club and is pushing to end the travel restrictions in the current Congress.
"Arizona is never going to sell anything to Cuba because I don't think they have anything to sell," Jones said.
Flake, like Otter and other congressmen with libertarian views, do not want their government telling them where they can and cannot go for business or pleasure.
So they go to Cuba.
And guys like Al Fox and Kirby Jones are there to pave the way.
When Otter decided to make Cuba his first state trip as governor earlier this month, he first contacted a Cuban official to find out if Fox was still in good favor there. When the Cubans gave him the thumbs up, Otter enlisted Fox to set up the trip.
Fox ran for Congress last year in Tampa, as a Democrat. He lost in the primary.
But Fox's Cuba work is highly bipartisan.
He is a lobbyist who has arranged two prior Cuba trips for Otter and gave campaign contributions to Otter, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and Flake through his United States-Cuba Political Action Committee.
Fox does the grunt work when American politicians want to see someone in Havana.
He got the governor and his 34-member delegation OFAC licenses to travel to Cuba, booked their airfare and hotel and made arrangements for their four-day stay in Havana. In return, Otter paid for Fox and an assistant to travel, stay and dine with the Idaho delegation while they were in Cuba.
When the Idahoans got off their bus, in matching black polo shirts and caps, and scrambled for their luggage and keys in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional, there were two Americans with them who did not give off the Idaho vibe.
Fox and his assistant, a recent college graduate who spoke excellent Spanish, seemed to be the only ones who knew what was going on. The assistant would not talk to me at first, but Fox was very comfortable sharing his views with a reporter.
On his disagreements with the Cuban-American community in Miami, for example: "If you lost your cattle ranch, that's not America's problem," he told me the day we met. "You picked the wrong dictator."
He then urged me to write a story about Butch Otter, not about him.
Fox in Havana
Everywhere the Idahoans went in Cuba, Fox was not far behind.
At a restaurant an hour from Havana, en route to Ernest Hemingway's restored house, Fox showed up just in time for a beer and to pay the bill.
At dinner, on the delegation's last night in Cuba, Fox greeted one Cuban official after another. He introduced one man to me as the Karl Rove of Cuba. The guy did not really appreciate the reference, but smiled warmly. And without missing a beat, this guy who could be Castro's brain, proceeded to quote from a story about my trip to Cuba that had just been posted on the Internet that afternoon by the Idaho Press-Tribune.
After the elegant dinner, there was a conflict over who would pay for a cabaret show in the hotel's lounge.
Fox showed up, drink and cigar in hand, to smooth out the situation.
When the international press corps was looking for comments from a reluctant Otter before he left the island, Fox made sure they bumped into one another in the lobby.
At one point, Fox handed me a cigar. He said it was rolled by a black Cuban woman, a retired cigar maker who prepares a bundle for him every time he comes to town.
The Cuban cigar is the highest profile symbol of the island in the U.S.
"When I was down here before, if you were given a gift, you were allowed to bring it home," Otter said, adding that he was not bringing any tobacco home on this trip.
These days, Americans cannot import any Cuban products, unless they are informational, like the Cuban hip-hop CD I bought on the street.
Cuban tobacco is a forbidden pleasure for Americans. Fox sometimes tries to bring a few home, as many American visitors to the island surely attempt. U.S. customs officials, upon finding the contraband, will cut the fine, aromatic leaves to pieces and drown them in some malodorous chemical.
Fox said on a recent return to Miami a Spanish-speaking agent destroyed his $400 box of Cubans, all the while muttering under his breath in Spanish that he's fucking with cigars while the U.S. is at war in Iraq.
And that is the essence of Fox's stance on the embargo: It is a 45-year-old policy that does not work.
Cubans against the blockade
In some ways, the embargo does work out well for the Cubans.
Many of Cuba's woes—food and medicine shortages, slow Internet service and a general malaise—are blamed on what is known on the island as "the blockade." One of the arguments in the United States against continuing to isolate Cuba is that it will force the Cuban economy to stand on its own, and either prosper or wither away.
"If we eliminate it [the embargo] tomorrow, free trade would not save communism from its internal contradictions," said Ian Vasquez, an analyst at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington, D.C.
But people who do business with Cuba today are not so sure that McDonald's will start popping up on every corner in Havana the day the embargo ends.
Kirby Jones said that the Cubans have studied capitalism since 1994, and decided that they can maintain control once allowed to trade openly with the United States.
"If people want fast-food cheeseburgers, we'll do it and we'll make the money. Why do we give the money away to McDonald's?" Jones says of the Cuban position.
The idea is that the Cubans will import Nikes and sell them in state-run stores, not in a Nike-branded store. Or a Wal-Mart.
This idea does not just come from the top, from Fidel or Raul. In the eight months since Fidel Castro has taken ill, Jones has seen government ministers at many levels taking more responsibility and being held accountable for policy.
And he has observed the development of Cuban fiscal policy toward more independence and central planning, not less.
"The first hotels were owned by foreigners along with Cubans," Jones said. "Then they realized, 'Why don't we own the hotels?'"
Cubans are in favor of more trade and love the new availability of chicken, imported from the U.S., Balog said.
"A lot of Cubans remembered Uncle Ben's rice from the old days," she said.
The Cuban government is not about to open up to foreign companies like many third world countries are forced to do.
"When you try to do business with Cuba, it's not all that easy," Balog said "They have a plan—they don't just allow you to go in and do whatever you want."
In recent months, U.S. oil firms have begun wringing their hands over Chinese oil exploration in Cuban waters, some 45 miles off the coast of Florida.
Sen. Craig has introduced a bill to open up Cuba for U.S. oil interests, and even in Florida, the prospect of Chinese oil rigs near the Florida Keys is turning heads.
But if Craig and Otter and the conservative farmers now selling to the Cubans are counting on regime change, they may have to wait awhile.
"I don't think they buy the idea that if the U.S. opens up that their system will change," Phil Peters said. "It won't happen overnight. They don't have to worry about Butch Otter's view of the world going into effect May 1."
Hotel lobby diplomacy
In an ornate, pink and gold state room on the first floor of the Hotel Nacional, on their first afternoon in Cuba, Otter and his delegation heard from a Cuban tourist official about the state of tourism on the island.
The Cubans estimate that a half-million American citizens visited the island between 1995 and 2004. If the travel ban were to be lifted, the Cubans anticipate 2.5 to 3 million American visitors per year.
Otter pointed out that the island does not have nearly enough hotel rooms for this many visitors.
"You've got to have some more rooms, a lot more rooms," Otter bellowed.
Miguel Alejandro Figueras of the Cuban tourism ministry said that an executive from Carnival cruise lines recently told him they were prepared to have a ship in Havana's deep harbor within 15 days of the embargo's end.
Every American who comes to Cuba has his or her boundaries. Otter asks if he can meet with Cuba's "political prisoners" on each visit, and is politely turned down. Fox refuses to go to the old Tropicana Club, once a symbol of the decadence of pre-Revolutionary Cuba. And Fox knows a politician who refuses to meet with Fidel Castro.
The Idaho delegation picked up a lot of new information in Cuba. About business. About socialism and international relations. Some learned about Havana Club rum with a few ice cubes. Others searched out soft drinks at the numerous Hemingway-affiliated bars and restaurants.
Otter moves with a Cuban flair in Havana, despite his boots and big belt buckle. One night he delivered the finest speech I have ever heard him make. It was a bona fide testimony to international cooperation. He appears to really like the Cuban people. He hopes that the Idahoans he brings down there will come back to the States and speak truth to power. As in, "I've been to Cuba, Mr. Bush. You can't tell me!"
And he marvels at the Cubans, as they do at him.
"I haven't seen a sourpuss since I've been down here," Otter declared one afternoon. "It's amazing, isn't it?"