Tobacco, Patriarchy and Totalitarianism; Inseparable Friends

Erasmo Calzadilla

In 2012, BRASCUBA managed to produce and sell 227 million cigarettes.”The most interesting thing about these figures is that they come from the national market, which has a positive impact on the country’s economy.”  -Jorge Abraham Maluff, Cuban Co-President at BRASCUBA

Advertising for the “Popular” brand, designed to attract young people.


HAVANA TIMES — People who haven’t experienced “socialism” firsthand may imagine it’s a system where collective well-being takes priority over individual rights. According to this line of thought, chronic problems in these kinds of societies – such as a lack in personal freedoms – stem from excess. If we approach this from another angle, contrary to the aforementioned, left-wing totalitarianism sways quickly toward becoming an abitrary “Big Brother” power, which is enforced by its many repressive practices.

Something like this takes places here in Cuba but is a lingering trend. “Socialism” in Cuba works differently. The tobacco dilemma we face here will help us understand how exactly.

The evolution of lung, bronchial and esophageal cancer in Cuba.

Cuba is currently experiencing a lung cancer epidemic. Every year, more and more people, especially more young people, are dying because their respiratory tracts have been eaten away by smoking. Our Big Brother State is developing biotechnological advances to produce vaccines and has spent millions of dollars buying state of the art technology in order to fight this disease which seems unstoppable.

But, how crazy is that? This same Big Brother (using this term I summarize the System, the Machine, the Regime and the Party-State-government) actively participates in encouraging smoking, which is closely linked to cancer and other deadly diseases. The World Heath Organization claims that this dangerous habit is the number 1 cause for preventable diseases and premature death. In our country, the bad habit of smoking tobacco is deadlier than accidents, diabetes, flu and all the illegal drugs put together, to give you only a few examples.

Comparing the number of deaths as a result of smoking and accidents in Cuba.  Smoking, flu and pneumonia, accidents, diabetes.

If totalitarianism was really the collective’s disproportionate power over the individual, the System would have unleashed a campaign against smoking a long time ago, as its a bad habit practiced by the minority which harms the majority. But no, Big Brother has revealed itself as being excessively lenient in this respect: slow and reluctant to implement and enforce regulatory laws, tolerant of businesses that, in their own self-interest, encourage the consumption of this harmful drug. Why?

Such an attitude tips the scale towards my second hypothesis: The System is driven by the need and ambition to have a constant cash flow. But, then why do they encourage the tobacco industry to get the money that they then need to spend on treating those who get sick because of smoking?

No, neither of these makes sense; it’s time to substitute them for some more sophisticated hypotheses. For example, let’s contemplate this one for a moment: The smoking dilemma we have here in Cuba is the same as that in any other part of the world. There are some companies who only maximize their profits without caring about the social cost they imply, and then there’s a State who, in some way, represents the people and looks out for their best interests.

This seems to make more sense, but let’s go into some details to see where the devil really lies.

In some countries, where civil society is able to mobilize itself, they are able to keep the pro-tobacco lobby in check and even push them back, but civil society… this exotic concept, hasn’t flourished here. When Big Brother was still in its early stages, it turned what could have been civil society into the masses and then engulfed it, to protect it they said.

Smoking and gender

Smoking and gender.  Worldwide – Cuba.  Men and women.

We’ve come a little bit closer to the real reason, having shifted from idealistic and exaggerated hypotheses to more realistic and grounded ones. However, none of the ideas we’ve discussed so far really hit the nail on the head and won’t do unless we explore the issue of gender. Tobacco isn’t only a relaxing drug, it also acts (especially within our society) as a phallic symbol, a sign of macho power.

Ties and mutual legitimization between the Revolution, masculinity and tobacco have left a strong impression on the Cuban mindset. Another one has gradually been adding itself to this threesome, which up until now has only been villified: Capital. With these powerful horsemen at the reins of our country, it’s not surprising that Tabacuba and Brascuba push forward with the ease of the man in the house walking about in his boxers in his living room.

Front page of the Tabacuba website.

Today, many countries are beginning to fight for neutral packaging (which neither stands out nor attracts people to smoke), to get rid of menthol filters and to stop selling cigarettes alongside other retail products as well as for explicit health warning messages on packaging. Cuban tobacco companies, however, are going full steam ahead in the opposite direction: cigarette packets are becoming more and more attractive, menthol filters are being introduced, cigarettes are being sold in retail establishments, putting unclear health warnings on packaging and promoting tobacco as being “Cuban”, popular, young and happy. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that we are one of the most affected countries by America’s deadliest habit on the continent: standing in fifth place.

It’s very difficult to find up-to-date information about smoking in Cuba. After losing a few hours searching the web, I found statistics for the number of cigarettes sold until 2013 (figures which tobacco companies don’t publish on their own websites, of course). According to this article, sales went up slightly during that year. The report didn’t mention the huge amount of cigarettes sold on the black market, which is tolerated by our political and anti-crime vigilence bodies.

The last official reports about smoking – published on the internet- last took place in 2001 (nationally) and in 2007 (municipally). That is to say, the number one cause for premature death isn’t followed by a vigilence system which collects up-to-date information. It’s scary to confirm just how far Big Brother’s indifference has gone.

The State itself has created several institutions with the supposed aim to tackle this habit but, out of their depth, they’re unable to face the conspiring forces that back tobacco consumption.

In summary, dear readers, totalitarianism doesn’t imply absolute control of the collective over the individual; nor is it connected as much as you might think with repression and discipline. It’s possible that Cuban society may be one of the most anarchist in the world but, paradoxically, in the worst sense of the word “anarchy”.

In our particular case, socialist totalitarianism is the casual and undisciplined way a predominant group forces itself upon, infiltrates and sneaks its way into the heads of everyone in society, getting into people’s imaginations even. This group of businessmen-officials-macho-game players, who have been climbing to the top of the social ladder, have replaced the innocent and cynical Communists of yesterday, whilst maintaining and taking advantage of their “best” legacy: the stupefied masses who are incapable of organizing themselves to fight for their rights.

Every time you get onto a bus and see the driver with a cigarette stub in his mouth, blowing smoke at his passengers, remember that this heartless employee is the last piece of a powerful machine that relies mainly on our common sense. And we, the majority, are the ones at harm. What can we do to avoid breathing in other people’s smoke? To stop being humiliated at every turn?

  1. Statistics taken from Annual Health Report.
  2. The mortality rate for smoking in Cuba was taken from the summary made by the Round Table dedicated to this subject.
Illustration by Carlos.








Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

7 thoughts on “Tobacco, Patriarchy and Totalitarianism; Inseparable Friends

  • I think that my. additional post with links was either lost in cyberspace or is still awaiting approval. I’ll wait until I can get to a PC to type out the links if they don’t appear, as this is a way to resist atomisation of those unhappy about the tobacco problem and the lack of progress, to which Erasmo has consistently drawn attention

  • I promised some links. As this comments section is for English speaking readers as well as those who read Spanish too. I’ll just note today that MEDICC Review actually has or at least had good articles which can’t be dismissed as propaganda. I recommend vol 15 no 4 Tobacco and Alcohol Consumption among Health Students in Cuba and Mexico” and everything written by Dr/Prof Patricia Varona Perez which is also in Revista Cubana de Salud Publica. for example vol 35 no 2

    if Erasmo or anyone else finds this difficult or expensive to download please let me know so I can help

    I’m not suggesting the right amount of attention is paid to this: given the status of “health superpower” the WHO and PAHO reports on Cuban action are indeed poor. I’m am simply noting thst it’s possible to locate allies. If the resistance to doing something is strong because Cuba has it’s own tobacco lobby that’s an opening after all.

    Finally on cancer and ageing: yes the rate of growth of deaths from cancer is greater than the rate of growth of population ageing, but nowhere near the dramatic mortality rate soaring into the clouds as you drew it. it’s a question of style I guess. I’m a careful academic I admit

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