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A Conversation With Fidel

Marvin R. Shanken travels to Havana for an extensive interview with Fidel Castro.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 9)

Shanken: How important are cigars to Cuba?
Castro: It is one of our most important export items. It is also one of our main sources of revenues. It is also an important factor for us in the domestic market. In addition to that, we have the hard currency which comes from exporting cigars. Cigars are one of the four or five most important items of export that we have. First, it's sugar, then nickel, fish, tourism. These are the main items that provide revenues. Biotechnology is gaining ground as well as the pharmaceutical industry. And now cigars are more or less in the fifth place. Historically it has been very important.

Shanken: Is there any Cuban export that carries as much prestige today?
Castro: The cigar has made our country famous. It has given prestige to our country. Cuba is known among other things for the quality of its cigars.

Shanken: It's also a craft with great tradition. When you feel it, when you smell it, when you look at it, you realize that great dedication has gone into the creation of every cigar. People have spent their lives making the cigars—some of the rollers have been making cigars for 30, 40, 50 years. To an aficionado, cigar making is like one of Beethoven's symphonies.
Castro: You are right. Lots of things go into making Cuban cigars, both in cultivation and in the manufacturing. To tell you the truth, it is very hard work, especially growing quality tobacco. It requires a lot of operations. The cultivation and choosing the right leaves for the cigars are really an art. And then making cigars is really beautiful. It also very much relates to the history of Cuba and to the struggle of independence for Cuba. Many of the people who migrated to Cuba later worked in the cigar factories, and they were very active in the struggle for independence during colonial times.

Marvin Shanken and Fidel Castro interview.
Shanken: When you build a warehouse or a road, it's hard work, but it's much different than making a cigar. Cigar lovers appreciate the craft. Other people, nonsmokers, have no idea about the labor and passion that goes into tobacco farming and cigar making.
Castro: Yes.

Shanken: For many years, the world saw photographs of you smoking a cigar or holding a cigar in your hand, as you did just a moment you are now doing. (Castro picks up a Cohiba Esplendido with his right hand.) For the past seven or eight years, you have stopped smoking cigars. Don't you miss them?
Castro: I should explain that. I got used to smoking in my early years. My father was a cigar smoker, and he really appreciated a fine cigar. My father was Spanish, and he originally came from Galicia. He was from the countryside. I remember when I was a teenager in high school. I was about 15 years old. I had lunch with my father when he presented me with a cigar. So he introduced me to cigars and he also taught me to drink wine....

Shanken: So he was a wine lover.
Castro: He used to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Spanish wine. And he taught me about both things. He liked wines from Rioja. I always smoked cigars and, on very few occasions, cigarettes. But I always kept the habit of smoking cigars. So I was always a cigar smoker, as far as I can remember, since I was 15 years old until I was about 59 years old. That's about 44 years of being a cigar smoker. On two occasions in my life I didn't smoke. Once was during the Revolution because there was a great movement against cigars as a result of an uprising of the peasants on the plantations, and tobacco production went down. There was a great spirit against cigars. In order to be in solidarity with them, I quit for some time. But that was the only reason. Soon production recovered, and I started smoking again. Later I did not smoke because of reasons of health. Many people in our country were against smoking. I didn't not smoke because I didn't like cigars. I was very much in the habit. But there was a whole national movement against smoking.

Shanken: In what year was this?
Castro: I can't remember exactly. It was '84 or '85. No. It was on Aug. 26, 1985. It was when there was a general health issue in Cuba against smoking. At first, I thought that I would simply try not to smoke in public for this campaign against smoking, and I did not make a commitment to it. I used to be with a cigar in my mouth all the time. I always had a cigar. When I was with a foreigner in a meeting like this, I would be smoking my cigars. Pictures would show me smoking cigars, or in an interview on television I was smoking cigars. And then the interview would be shown on television here, and you can imagine what people would think watching me smoke my cigars. Then I came to a decision that to really launch a campaign against smoking, I had to set the example and quit smoking. That was why I quit smoking. As I had a very strong motive, it was easier for me. I not only had a strong commitment; I had a strong motive. So, it was not so hard for me to stop smoking. People used to ask me if I still smoked when I was alone because it seemed impossible to them that I could quit smoking cigars after all those years. I must be smoking at home.

Shanken: I question that, too. It's hard to believe that you've stopped completely.
Castro: I said, look, in order to smoke, you need some accomplices. You need somebody to buy the cigars for you. You need somebody to hide the ashes that are left around. You need at least three, four, five accomplices who know that you are smoking cigars. They would know that you are doing something like that. They would know that you are smoking behind closed doors, and I wouldn't want three, four or five people knowing that I was deceiving others. So I chose not to do that.

Shanken: You are saying that you do not smoke even in the privacy of your home by yourself?
Castro: No.
Shanken: Not even a puff?
Castro: No. No.
Shanken: Not even a little puff?
Castro: Not one....A few days ago, I was in a meeting with a large Spanish firm. It was Tabacalera [the Spanish tobacco monopoly]. And they were analyzing different cigars and all that. And I did not try any cigars, even though it might have benefited our economic relations with them. I remember the quality of cigars and how a great cigar should be. (He picks up a Cohiba Esplendido.) They should not be too compact. And they should burn very evenly. Even if you light them in one corner, they soon come to an even burn. With other cigars, if you do that, they continue to burn unevenly throughout the smoke.

What I used to smoke was the Cohiba, which was the one that was developed in the last 23 years. It was the 23 years that I smoked after the victory of the Revolution. It was the Cohiba that I preferred.

Shanken: Which size did you prefer?
Castro: It wasn't this one [points to the Esplendido (Churchill size)]. It was the smaller one [the Corona Especial]. I'll tell you something about the Cohiba. The Cohiba did not exist as a brand in Cuba. But one man who used to work for me as a bodyguard, I used to see the man smoking a very aromatic, very nice cigar, and I asked him what brand he was smoking. He told me that it was no special brand, but that it came from a friend who makes cigars and he gave them to him. I said, let's find this man. I tried the cigar, and I found it so good that we got in touch with him and asked him how he made it. Then, we set up the house [the El Laguito Factory], and he explained the blend of tobacco he used. He told which leaves he used from which tobacco plantations. He also told us about the wrappers he used and other things. We found a group of cigar makers. We gave them the material, and that was how the factory was founded. Now Cohiba is known all over the world. That was over 30 years ago.

Marvin Shanken and Fidel Castro.
Shanken: Where does the name Cohiba come from?
Castro: It is a native name. It was the name the native Indians gave to cigars.

Shanken: Was it the generic name for cigars or tobacco?
Castro: I am not sure exactly. So the new brand was created based on the experience of a tobacco grower who used to make cigars for himself. And in my view, it was the best cigar available. I did not like any others after that. When I was a student before the Revolution, I used to smoke different brands. Sometimes I used to smoke Romeo y Julieta Churchill, H. Upmann, Bauza, Partagas, but ever since I found Cohiba....It was so soft—and it was not an overly compact cigar. It was easy to smoke.

Shanken: When Cohiba became a brand, was it made exclusively for you?
Castro: At first when the tobacco grower used to make it, he used to make it for himself and the bodyguard. And then for some time, he used to send me the same cigars, but I found it so good that I thought it could be a new brand. I thought that it would be worthwhile setting up a new factory to make this cigar.

Shanken: You sound like a businessman.
Castro: I thought it was worth its own factory. All it needed was a name. And based on the type of cigars from that man, I had the factory established.

Shanken: This brand today is considered by many cigar lovers to be the finest brand of cigars in the world.
Castro [holds a Cohiba Esplendido]: This particular cigar is too tight in my opinion. The Cohiba should be easy to smoke. And it should burn very evenly, almost like a cigarette. I don't know much about the new Cohibas, but that was how the old ones were.

Shanken: I accept that you don't smoke cigars now, but do you ever dream about cigars?
Castro [laughs loudly]: Well, I have had dreams about cigars. Sometimes I used to dream that I was smoking a cigar. The funny thing is that it doesn't happen to me anymore. I think it happened to me in the first five years. Even in my dreams I used to think that I was doing something wrong. I was conscious that I had not permitted myself to smoke anymore, but I was still enjoying it in my sleep.

Shanken: I think tonight you may again dream about cigars. Medical research is inconclusive regarding the health hazard of smoking cigars, if they are not inhaled. Why does the Cuban government take such a hard-line position against smoking cigars? I understand cigarettes, which are inhaled and may cause lung cancer, but why cigars? Many intelligent people around the world, including doctors, smoke cigars. They understand that there are risks. And many doctors say that the risks of smoking a cigar are no greater than riding a motorcycle or speeding down a mountain on skis. So why are cigars lumped together with cigarettes?
Castro: It seems that we are having a real conversation here. We have the publisher of a magazine on cigars and a citizen of a country whose economy depends on the production of cigars. [Everyone laughs.] I think that we based the decision on the conviction that cigars are bad for your health. That was when we launched our campaign. I think that cigarettes are more harmful than cigars. Even if a cigarette has a filter or not, people inhale them. I have never in my life inhaled a cigarette or a cigar. I simply enjoyed a cigar after lunch. You have to improve your digestion. I enjoy a cigar because of its aroma, its taste and watching the smoke. Of course, don't forget that my lung capacity was always good because I always exercise and I never inhaled smoke. I have preserved my health. Cigars are less harmful to your health, but according to doctors, many people who don't smoke are affected by smokers who sit nearby to them over a period of time. Anyway, we couldn't make a different policy for cigars or cigarettes, and I think that it is proof of the ethics of our country because from an economic point of view we want people to smoke cigars. Also, I couldn't be seen in magazines or anywhere else smoking cigars.

Shanken: It's a noble sacrifice.
Castro: I did it for reasons of health, even though my health was OK. It was a moral duty to contribute to the campaign against smoking. The World Health Organization had a campaign against smoking, and we were the first ones to support it. One day, in the same place that we are sitting now, a representative of the WHO came here to present me with two medals—one for not smoking and the other one for the government programs after the Revolution, which have turned Cuba into one of the countries with the best health ratings of Third World countries in the world. So, you see, I can't smoke anymore. My commitment is very strong. It is final. It is a kind of commitment that I can't change. Anyway, I may not smoke. I agree with you that there are many things that endanger men's lives such as traffic accidents or diseases. And many things can be done for health that are unrelated to cigars.

Shanken: There are many educated people who are willing to take whatever the calculated risk is because they love cigars so much.
Castro: It's a person's right. They know how they feel about it—not to drink, not to smoke, whatever.

Shanken: Have you spent much time in the Vuelta Abajo or visiting the cigar factories?
Castro: Yes. I have visited the Vuelta Abajo very often. I like it there. [Tobacco growing] is a very complicated and sophisticated cultivation process, one of the most complicated that I know. I forgot to mention something more about cigars. When I was in the mountains during the war, people used to send me cigars. Sometimes I would run out of cigars, and when I only had one left, I would put it in my shirt pocket and keep it. When did I finally smoke it? I would smoke it when I had very good news or very bad news. If it was good news, I would celebrate with a cigar, but if it was bad news, it really compensated for the bad news.

Shanken: Do you remember signing a box of 50 Cohiba Lanceros? It was recently auctioned at a charity dinner in London to benefit medical relief for Cubans. Do you know how much the box sold for?
Castro: I heard it was very expensive.
Shanken: £12,000 ($18,500).
Castro: I never heard how much it finally went for, but that is very impressive. I heard it was a record.

Shanken: Let's move on to something a little more serious. The embargo. How has the production of cigars for export been affected because of your inability to get enough fertilizer, gasoline, tarpaulin and other resources for the growing of tobacco? You could export more cigars by lowering the standard of quality, but apparently you are not. I've been told that quality is your top priority.
Castro: We feel that it is fundamental to maintain the quality of our cigars, which is an important legacy that we must preserve. And I think that the quality can even be improved. We are more worried about the quality than the quantity of cigars that can be produced. We feel that the best cigars come from small areas, certain regions and climates where the finest tobacco can be grown. The great cigars of Havana come primarily from the tobacco of Pinar del Rio. It is difficult in other regions. We are familiar with the different soils that give the best kind of tobacco leaves. For analyzing the locations, I have said that we have to do it like the wine producers. We have to preserve the uniqueness of our cigars. If you have a certain piece of land, let's say 20 or 30 hectares, and it makes a certain excellent quality of tobacco, we should grow tobacco there. You shouldn't go and grow it elsewhere. Many things contribute to this quality: the climate, the soil, the amount of sunshine. It is exactly like wine. The same things happen for the best-quality wines. However, there is more standardization of quality with tobacco than wine in my opinion. Wine can have an exceptionally fine harvest one year and then standard or worse the rest of the years.

Fidel Castro interview.
In general, if tobacco is grown in the same soil, you can grow the same-quality tobacco leaves. It of course depends on the cultivation and technique, but this is a question of if you can grow more or less tobacco. It is also not a matter of the variety, as it is with other crops like wheat, which is a matter of producing more quantity. In this case, you have to find the best variety of tobacco to produce the best quality of cigars. That is our policy. In the case of the finest export cigars, we are taking measures that guarantee and improve the quality of the cigars that we are producing.

We have a very traditional cultivation. Many of the cigar-tobacco growers used to walk like this because of the number of hours they spent working in the fields. (He stands and walks hunched over like a field worker.) We should say that the tobacco growing takes many man hours. In terms of how much they are paid, it is not very fair. It's almost like slavery, but you cannot make a life out of it. But if you mechanize it, like the blond tobacco for cigarettes, you can make a living. But you cannot mechanize tobacco for cigars because it would sacrifice the quality completely. Tobacco for cigars is not a question of quantity. It has to be planted in a certain place, and it is a selected product. It is economic. It is not something to be exported as a raw material, but to be exported as cigars. This makes it worthwhile in terms of economics.

Shanken: Trinidad. We understand that it is a brand of cigar that is your own personal brand, which you give to diplomats and friends as presents.
Castro: No. I principally give Cohibas for presents.

Shanken: You don't give Trinidads?
Castro: No. I don't give Trinidads. I give Cohibas. I have been advising the people who are in charge of tobacco production, Cubatabaco, that they should come up with new brands and new blends. This would help the situation with the conflicts over the brands [with similarly named cigar brands from such countries as the Dominican Republic and Honduras]. If we have the best raw material, we have the best soils and the best know-how, why shouldn't we create new brands?

Shanken: The El Laguito factory has a brand called Trinidad, which they say is for you to give as personal gifts. It has become a legend.
Castro: I am not fully aware of that brand, but I assume it is like the Lancero in size from Cohiba.

Shanken: It is the same size, but with a little darker wrapper. Are you going to allow Cubatabaco to sell it?
Castro: I don't know about that cigar. I always had the Cohiba like this (points to a Lancero) and sometimes a little smaller. It is really unfortunate that the American cigar smoker cannot purchase cigars from Cuba. But I will tell you an anecdote about that. You know that [President John F.] Kennedy was the one that set up the blockade. Every time a friend of his came back from Cuba, he made sure that he brought back some Cuban cigars.

Shanken: There are many Americans who buy Cuban cigars when traveling internationally. It is estimated that 8 million to 10 million Cuban cigars a year are smoked by Americans.
Castro: That's very interesting.

Shanken: On to another subject. Did you smoke a lot of cigars with Che Guevara?
Castro: Yes. Che used to really enjoy smoking. I think he appreciated it as much as he appreciated Argentine beef.

Shanken: After the Revolution, we have read that the government decided to stop using the traditional brand names, and that they would have one brand name, called Siboney, for all export cigars. That never happened. Do you have any recollection of that?
Castro: That would have been insanity! That would have been crazy. I always wanted them to create new brands.

Shanken: If you and President Clinton ever get together, would you smoke a cigar with him, symbolic of peace at last between our two countries?
Castro: Now that would be an interesting thing. As I told you, when I was in the Sierra Maestras [mountains of Eastern Cuba] during the Revolution, and I had good moments, I would smoke my last cigars. Perhaps something like that would bring back my old habit from the days of the Sierra Maestras, but I would have to ask for permission from the World Health Organization. I wouldn't want to lose my medal.

Fidel Castro interview.
Shanken: I know the issues are great and complex, but do you see the day soon when America and Cuba will work together as neighbors and friends as they did many years ago?
Castro: I hope that day will come sometime, but no one will be able to say when that will happen. It is not an easy thing to happen. As for our side, we do not have any particular objections, nor do we lack the will.

Shanken: Have there been any private negotiations to try to come to a mutual understanding that will result in the elimination of the trade embargo?
Castro: No. No, not at this time.

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Comments   2 comment(s)

Christopher Skinner July 22, 2014 1:16am ET

Great article and interview! Thanks for reposting 20 years later.

Nathan Johnson — Inver Grove Heights, MN,  —  August 7, 2014 10:07pm ET

This is such a cool article! Although I don't agree with Fidel's politics it would have been amazing to sit down with him and talk cigars - what an amazing experience. I found the part about Trinidads particularity interesting the rumor says that this was Fidel's brand but he him self says no.

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