A Conversation With Fidel

Marvin R. Shanken travels to Havana for an extensive interview with Fidel Castro.

(continued from page 1)
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.
Shanken: The American trade embargo against Vietnam is ending. Russian and U.S. relations have been turned around. Even Israel and Palestine are trying to get together. Why is it, in your opinion, that Cuba continues to be embargoed? It is a question that we all ask. What do you think?
Castro: It is difficult to answer. It doesn't stand up to logic. Perhaps it is because we are too close geographically to the United States. Perhaps [because] we have resisted the blockade for over 30 years. Perhaps it is a matter of national pride for the U.S. government that has turned us into an exception and has given us the honor to be its only long-standing adversary. I think it is not logical. I don't know what history will say though.
Shanken: There would be many benefits to both sides, if you were willing to take the first step.
Castro: How can we take the first step? We are the ones whom the blockade is imposed against. If we had a mutual blockade, then we could take the first step. But how can we? The first step should be taken by the U.S.
Shanken: From what I read, the American government is looking for Cuba to undergo political reform and improvement in its human rights.
Castro: That is the pretext that they use, and for many years they have used many different pretexts. At one time when we were in Africa, they used to say if the Cubans withdrew from Africa, then the relations would improve. That pretext was left behind. Later they said that when the links with the Soviet Union were cut off, then our relations would begin with the United States. Now the Soviet Union is not supporting us anymore, and nothing has changed. They keep on moving the goalposts back. Before it was Latin American subversion, the situation in Central America...and when they talk about reforms in Cuba, it is a precondition that we cannot accept because it has to do with independence and the sovereignty of our nation. It would be like if we were to give a precondition to the United States that it must change something in the Constitution in order for us to open up relations again. That's absurd.
As far as human rights, and I will try to keep my answer brief, no one in the world has done more than Cuba has done for human beings, for its citizens--no one else, in every sense. The best evidence of that is that our health programs have saved the lives of over 300,000 children, and we have been helping out in other places around the world with our doctors, medicines and knowledge, more than any other country in the world. So, I think that no other country has as unblemished behavior about human rights considering how much we have done for man. That is a legend. It is a fabrication. It is an unjustifiable pretext.
Shanken: There are two issues that seem to come up. The first is about the Soviet missiles [in Cuba] in the '60s aimed at the United States.
Castro: There are not any missiles anymore.
Shanken: The second issue regards compensation for the properties taken from private Cuban citizens at the time of the Revolution. I would like to know your thinking as to whether or not there is any way to satisfy the Cuban-Americans whose properties were taken so that we can move on to the bigger agenda of living together in a neighborly way?
Castro: Those thousands of Cubans whose economic situation were affected by the Revolution were people who had experience in business, and thanks to the Revolution, they were given facilities in the United States that they would have never received if the Revolution had not been victorious. Those people are wealthier now than they were in Cuba. That they owe to the Revolution.
It would be to create a hope that our country were in an economic situation which would allow it to compensate those people whose property was taken. We cannot create that expectation because we do not have the resources and, also, because of the blockade, our country has been suffering great losses, several billion dollars' worth. We are a small country, and the blockade has been very harmful to us. Now we are suffering more with the demise of the Soviet Union and the socialist states, with which we supported ourselves. But we are still striving. We are putting up a fight, and we are trying our best.
You can be assured that, if, instead of Cubans there were Americans here setting the example that we are setting as far as our capacity for struggle and resistance, the American nation would be proud.
Shanken: Perhaps people in Washington will read this interview and begin to think more about how this impasse can be overcome.
Castro: It is a struggle between Goliath and David. Let's see if they wish one day to leave David alone. You say that Clinton smokes cigars?
Shanken: Yes. He has smoked for many years. But his wife, Hillary, has created a no-smoking policy in the White House. So now he just chews cigars, it seems.
Castro: Then I guess President Clinton and I will not be able to smoke our peace pipe or cigars in the White House.
Bottle shot of Kanon vodka.
Shanken: The American press repeatedly refers to the very poor conditions here in Cuba. The enormous shortages. The human suffering. Some are convinced you will fall soon or your government will be overthrown or perhaps you will step down. Like a great Broadway show, you have had a long run. Is it time to give someone else a turn? Do you have any such plans?
Castro: I wish I could. I wish I were free to do what I want to do. In easy times, you know, it is easy to talk about that, but in the hard times that we are living now, I would be shrugging off my responsibilities to my country if I did this. It would be like deserting the front line in the heat of the battle. I could not do that. I am not the owner of my life anymore. The most I can do is accept the responsibilities that I have been invested with by my fellow citizens and try to carry out those responsibilities for as long as I have them. But believe me I would enjoy now to be free to do what I would like to do; however, it is not possible for me to have the freedom in the hard times that I am living in now.Perhaps I could even smoke cigars again without all these very important obligations.
There are many things I would like to do. I wish I were the problem. The problem is the Revolution, and the problem is our ideas. The United States, or some people in the United States, they do not just want Castro's retirement. They want the total destruction of the Revolution. And that is what the majority of our people would not accept.
There is a new generation of Americans, and in the history of America, many similar things happened. First, you had the struggle for independence against the British with a long struggle that had great repercussions on the world. There was the Civil War in the days of Lincoln, which brought about great changes in American society.
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.
Terry Penn Maitland, FL 32751, usa, December 22, 2014 3:22pm ET
It is so disappointing that he has spent such long periods of time not smoking cigars because the do gooders said it was bad and he didn't want to offend them, MY GOD HE IS A DICTATOR FOR CHRISTSAKES!
Ricardo A. Bello T. Miami, Florida 33172-3652, USA, December 22, 2014 6:30pm ET
I wish he would never had stop smoking at all. On the contrary, it would have been better to see him smoke two or three dozens cigars a day, maybe then he would have the decency to die. So much suffering for the ego of one truly evil man, amazing. That man hated all the good things that Cuban stands for, and he hated La Habana specially.
Angel Garcia Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 23, 2014 8:16am ET
I am fortunate that being a Canadian I am able to travel to Cuba. I have visited Cubans in their houses and they are very content with their lives. I have even been given cigars as presents and which I was told that I could never be able to buy outside of Cuba and they were fantastic. Your interview with Fidel was very enlightening and now that the US has started the ball rolling on the road to Economic cooperation with Cuba I believe both economies will thrive like they used to. I do not believe that Fidel will get to see this happen, which is really sad..
Dr. Gregory Burks Hattiesburg, MS, USA, December 24, 2014 4:39pm ET
I've smoked cigars for 30 years & know what a labor of love cigars are, for us for such a small price. I've smoked a few Cubans & was disappointed. In light of what we've seen since the embargo, I wonder if El Presidente really knows that Cuban citizens would give him & the Revolution up overnite to live in a modern world. Dr. Greg Burks
Preston Weiters Jr. Millville, NJ, US, December 30, 2014 8:43pm ET
12/30/14, Cohiba has branched out to DR since the 'revolucion;'I wouldn't rush out just yet to look for them as they're likely to be so expensive you wouldn't want them on a regular basis. I've got a relative in Canada who tells me all tobacco products are very high there, especially Cuban products. How much of the prices of Cuban products are sucked out by either the Cuban &/or Canadian gov'ts in taxes is anybody's guess.
Lorenzo Contreras San Antonio, Texas, USA, January 21, 2015 2:55pm ET
A Great Re-Post!!Thank you.
From a political point of view and after re-reading this article, it still strikes me funny that things haven't changed much between the U.S. and Cuba in 20 years... how sad.
And remembering that Cohiba is only 43 years young today is great. There are so many cigar smokers that think Cohiba is one of the oldest cigar brands in Cuba is also funny. I'm glad the Fidel Castro, himself, clears things up for us!
P. J. Laurence Carroll (MR. BIG RED) Mineola, N.Y., USA, April 17, 2016 7:22pm ET
Dear Marv,

I am a long-time subscriber to your magazine, and understand the journalistic fascination with all things Cuban, especially cigars, as they are all taboo in The United States.

I will not support, nor smoke products from Cuba, and I'll tell you why. My friends' father, John Scarangella, a New York City police officer, was assassinated by members of The Black Liberation Army in April, 1981. A woman, JoAnne Chesimard (Assata Shakur), is believed to have fled the scene, as her fingerprints were found inside the van that the two killers exited with 9MMs blazing. Thirty shells were fired at the two police officers, and sixteen found their marks. Chesimard currently resides in Cuba under political asylum, and has done so since 1984. The Castro government adamently refuses to turn this vicious cop-killer over to American authorities.

Sorry, I neglected to mention she also murdered a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973, and grievously wounded another Trooper. The Black Liberation Army murdered over ten police officers in The United States.

Therefore, in good conscience, I can never support such a regime as Castro's. I could never look my friends, Tommy, Gerard and Julie Scarangella in the face if I supported anyone that aided and abetted a cop-killer like JoAnn Chesimard. I guess, we agree to disagree....


P. J. Laurence Carroll
Jose Gonzales December 1, 2016 5:02pm ET
Wonderful blast from the past. Is it true Fidel have Suckling the nicer humidor as he was the worker?
Jose Gonzales December 1, 2016 6:06pm ET
Wonderful blast from the past. Is it true Fidel gave Suckling the nicer humidor as he was the worker?

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