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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 7)

Editor's Note

It was nearly midnight. Rain and stillness filled the air.

After nearly two years of unrelenting letters and phone calls with Cuban diplomats in the United States, Europe and Cuba, I was about to get my wish: a private audience with President Fidel Castro. My time had come. It was Thursday, February 3, 1994. A number of meetings and telephone conversations beginning at 8:00 a.m. and continuing throughout the day preceded a night I will long remember. At each point along the way the response: "Maybe tonight," "we can't promise," "it looks like it may happen," or "it's looking good." No one would say, "yes, tonight you will meet el presidente," but I saw in their eyes that my time was near. And with all my persistence, they, my Cuban connections, were rooting for me.

I had been told to stay in the Hotel Nacional that evening and be in my room at l0:30 p.m. on standby, waiting for the call. A nerve-racking hour-and-fifteen-minutes later than promised it came. I was asked to meet a Foreign Affairs official in the lobby, a woman I had met with several hours earlier.

"Are you ready?" she asked.
"As ready as I'll ever be," I replied.

We walked down the front steps of the hotel into the silent night air. Waiting by the curb was a chauffeur-driven, older, dark-blue Mercedes. Off we drove into the narrow streets of the city. It was now about midnight.

"Where are we going?"
"To the Palace."
"The Palace?"
"The Palace of the Revolution."

It was at this moment that I finally realized it was really happening. Cigar lovers from around the world were going to have their day. In a significant departure, Castro was about to give one of his very rare one-on-one interviews in his 35-year reign—not to The New York TimesThe Washington PostTime, CBS, ABC or CNN, but to the editor and publisher of a two-year-old, small circulation, special-interest magazine called Cigar Aficionado.

Pinch me! Am I dreaming or what?

Upon arriving at what seemed to be the back entrance of the Palace, I was whisked through double glass doors into an elevator, where a security guard pressed "3." From there, I was escorted into a large, simply furnished reception room while my bags were taken away for a security check.

A half hour later, roughly 12:45 a.m., a gentleman dressed casually in a powder-blue shirt and tan slacks entered the room, smiled and said, "please come with me." I was wired and ready, if you know what I mean.

We walked down a wide hall, then took a right turn down a long, narrow hallway lined with armed soldiers. At the end of the hallway, there was a small group of soldiers clustered by an open door to the left. I reached the door, and there he was, standing inside the entrance in his familiar, olive-green military uniform, waiting to greet me.

We shook hands; we both smiled, then he led me to a corner of his expansive office, where we sat and began our visit.

Marvin Shanken and Fidel Castro interview.
I told him that I had two dreams. The first, as would be true for almost any cigar lover, was to visit Cuba's cigar factories and the Vuelta Abajo. The second was to meet Fidel Castro and "talk cigars." As this was my fifth visit to Cuba "on assignment," the first dream had already been realized. Tonight, my second dream was now coming true.

We spent the first half hour getting acquainted, talking about the magazine, Cuba, cigars—you name it. He had lots of questions. He told me he is a big fan of my magazine. He likes the articles, the photographs, even the paper stock. He wanted to know about my readers. Who you are, where you live and how the magazine is doing. I unashamedly told him the truth—the magazine is doing fantastically well.

When the moment seemed right, I said, "Fidel, my readers would love to hear from you; I have a few questions." He nodded his head, and from out of nowhere came an assistant with a tape recorder along with the palace photographer.

Fidel was happy to talk about cigars, even though he stopped smoking eight years ago... and he remembers the exact day he quit. He still keeps tabs on the cigar industry, which produces Cuba's most prestigious export. He has fond memories back to the age of 15, when his father first introduced him to cigars, and of his days when he was seldom photographed without a cigar in his hand.

Castro clearly relished discussing his country's cigars. After more than an hour, the interview turned to subjects that trouble the Cuban leader and interest all of us—the country's economy, the 33-year-old trade embargo imposed by the United States and his own future.

It's no secret that Cuba is going through tough times. Shortages of food, clothing, medical supplies, gasoline and electricity are common. There's good reason. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the demise of other members of the socialist bloc have left Cuba's nearly 11 million people without their most important benefactors and their billions of dollars a year in aid and subsidies.

President Castro was ready to talk about a world without an embargo. He talked about how peace between nations should depend on their respect for one another's sovereignty. He spoke of the United States' history and fight for independence. He was pointed in his comments about who should take the first step to end the impasse. He also left no doubt about his own plans during this difficult period in Cuba's history and in the future.

It was almost 3:00 a.m. when we finished, and the last of the photographs had been taken. It seemed then that we could have talked for several more hours. But I had finished the list of questions...and was already anxious to share this very special evening with the readers of Cigar Aficionado.

The Interview with Fidel Castro

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.

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 ago...as 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.


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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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