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Che's Habanos

During his Years in the Jungle, Cigars Were Che Guevara's Faithful Companion
Jesus Arboleya, Roberto F. Campos
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

After the Revolution, Guevara was named to important government posts. Nevertheless, for ordinary Cubans he was a model of austerity: he ate like the rest, his only attire was olive green drab, he supported his family on a modest salary. He was not inclined to luxuries nor did he accept privileges or gifts, except for books and cigars.

He preferred to smoke large sizes in assorted brands, including Montecristo, H. Upmann and Partagas, but when times were tight he was not demanding. Carlos Lugo, then a young rebel officer, remembers first bumping into Che at the entrance to the office of another legendary guerrilla commander, Camilo Cienfuegos. Guevara ignored him as he passed by, which did not prevent him from swiping a cigar that Lugo carried in his shirt pocket. Not long after this they met again. Lugo was getting ready to join the Nicaraguan guerrillas and Che was helping with the preparations. The officer reminded him of the incident, but the commandant made no attempt to repay his debt.

There are hundreds of photographs of Che smoking in the midst of the intense activity that characterized his ministry in the revolutionary government. His intimates profess that he barely had time to sleep, much less to enjoy a cigar at leisure. He would smoke a cigar until it nearly burned his lips, or else he would stuff the butt in a pipe and smoke it until it turned to ashes, but without inhaling the smoke, just as connoisseurs recommend today.

Because of pulmonary emphysema, he was forced to take medical leave for a time. When the doctors tried to prohibit him from smoking, Che negotiated permission to smoke a single cigar a day, and promptly arranged to have an extraordinarily long size rolled for him that he could smoke all day, without violating the agreement.

A few days before leaving on a revolutionary mission to Africa in 1965, Che held a final meeting with Raul Roa, then Cuba's foreign minister. It was, perhaps, an excuse to bid farewell to his friend without unveiling his plans to join the guerrilla forces in the Congo. Roa left written testimony that while they discussed world politics, particularly Che's recent appearance at the United Nations, the latter "sipped with sluggish delight the fragrant smoke of his cigar while rumpling his black beret." At the end, Che told Roa he was going to cut sugarcane for a month and with fine humor invited his friend along.

A photograph taken during preparation for Che's departure shows him without his characteristic long hair and beard, unrecognizably clean cut while savoring a long, thin cigar. Some claim that it was a special vitola (size), a gift from Fidel Castro, probably a prototype of the now famous Cohiba. If this is true, it would count Che Guevara among the earliest tasters of one of the world's finest cigars.

His passion for reading and smoking became the standard of his endurance. Evaluating with his customary severity his own attitude during the Congolese guerrilla experience, he said: "I think I have been sufficiently dedicated so that no one can impute anything about my physical or personal aspects, yet my main bents were satisfied in the Congo: tobacco, which I seldom lacked, and books, which were always abundant. The discomfort of having a pair of torn boots, a dirty suit of clothes or eating the same pittance and sharing the same living conditions as the troop did not signify a great sacrifice for me."

Congolese journalist Godefroid Dihur Tchamlesso, then liaison between Che and Laurent Kabila's troops, remembers that he distributed cigars as an incentive to the best fighters and punished the undisciplined by suspending their rations.

To resupply the troops with everything from ammunition to cigars, it was necessary to cross the immense Lake Tanganyika in fragile boats under a hail of enemy bullets from air and sea craft. Occasional shortages led Che to divide the cigars into pieces, and he even recommended--no one knows if he was serious or jesting--to save the smoke in bottles in order to inhale it later. In critical times Che and Emilio Aragones, the troop's most die-hard smokers, stuffed their pipes with African tobacco, a leaf so strong that it invariably made them dizzy.

One of his subordinates reports that Che once gave him a 40-centimeter cigar and recommended that he divide it into 40 equal pieces to be smoked in a pipe, so it would last for 40 days. After that time, Che told him, he was authorized to come back for another.

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