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Partagas Barrel Cigar Box, 1961

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Partagas Barrel Cigar Box, 1961

Another wonderful discovery that speaks of a Cuba fresh from Revolution and just beginning to feel the full force of the US trade embargo. This barrel (scroll down for images) – almost certainly the only one in existence – was presented to Fidel Castro to commemorate the Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba, a year long campaign to abolish illiteracy in Cuba after the Revolution. The Cuban Literacy Campaign ran from January 1 until December 22, 1961 and this gift to Castro, which he signed and dedicated, celebrates a project that lifted the literacy rate on the island to 96%, one of the highest in the world. Che Guevara called 1961 the Year Of Education.

Seeing the barrel closed, there is just the slightest whiff of the colourful and evocative interior it contains. A small, enamelled badge on the lid – a pencil and lower case a – is the first suggestion that this is something out of the ordinary. The base carries two stickers that show the barrel’s Partagas pedigree. These stickers remain pristine in colour and condition. The barrel has sat upright and undisturbed for decades and the labels have not been subject to any UV degradation. Two small circular Cuban flags – one on each side of the piece – can be lined up in only one combination, which initially offers something of a puzzle as they are not directly opposite each other. And yet, despite its external anonymity, each person who has handled the piece has remarked what a beautiful, simple and considered design it is. This is not a miniature copy of a barrel. This is a miniature barrel, constructed using a cooper’s methods. It was a design employed by Partagas and Romeo and Juliet from the time of the Revolution through to the 1970’s.

The interior continues the story. The lid holds a thin veneer stamped with a dedication from the Partagas Factory to Prime Minister Dr Fidel Castro Ruz. Above this sits the enamelled Cuban coat of arms. The date is December 22, 1961, the final day of the campaign. The alfabetizadores referred to in the Partagas dedication are the adults who volunteered to teach in towns and cities. It is documented that 13,000 factory workers held classes for their illiterate co-workers after hours. Many individuals taught friends, neighbours and family members from their homes. At the bottom of this panel, Castro has written: Los tabaqueros son espiritu y grandeza de Cuba. The tobacco plantation workers are the spirit and strength of Cuba.

The base contains, in primary colours and on very basic paper (the US trade embargo had commenced in February 1961), a further dedication to the alfabetizadores and to a free Cuba. In a nice detail, a metallic gold paper runs the height of the base with the words seleccion privada – a reminder that this is, ultimately, a cigar box. There remain remnants of tobacco stuck to the base, but the biggest surprise is the aroma that still fills this long empty vessel. It is rich and real, but as fleeting as a ghost.

So, the only question that remains is why? What connection could there possibly between between a cigar factory and a literacy campaign? Castro’s handwritten dedication offers an answer. The tabaqueros he holds in such high regard are the beneficiaries of this campaign. Literacy is ultimately about communication. By acquiring literacy, these workers will enhance their quality of life through more direct ties with their countrymen. This barrel recognises the fact that the newly literate tobacco workers are, along with many others, the roots of the new Cuba. (height 165 mm, diameter 105 mm)

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