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A Chat with Miguel Barnet

The renowned novelist, poet and statesman has been called Cuba's Truman Capote
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009

(continued from page 2)

Q: What do you think about this campaign around the world against smoking, which includes cigar smokers?
A: It is something that will pass. It is an economic campaign more than health. Sure, there are health issues. But smoking cigars is safe. I cannot be against smoking cigars because I am not a fundamentalist. If I go into a restaurant and find 25 people smoking cigars, that is not nice. They should go to a special room. But there are two smells in my life that I like. One is gasoline and one is cigars.

Q: Why gasoline?
A: I was raised near a gasoline station. And when I woke up and had my breakfast, I had the smell of gasoline. And it is now in my blood.

Q: I understand the love of cigar smoke. Don't you find it interesting that cigars can symbolize wealth to some people? In the States, some people think of cigar-smoking business magnates.
A: Cigars represent wealth? Where? In Cuba, it doesn't symbolize wealth. It symbolizes one of the most adorable passions of people. To me, a cigar is a symbol of Santeria (an Afro-Cuban religion) and a black man giving smoke as an offering to the gods. And it also symbolizes the white farmer who grows tobacco in the fields and takes the tobacco leaves and makes cigars to smoke himself. So it doesn't symbolize wealth to Cubans. It symbolizes identity.

Q: I guess cigars are evocative to all of us, but in different ways.
A: It is evocative because it is authentic and indigenous. Whereas, sugar came from India. Columbus brought it to the island in his fourth trip, and it was bad for our economy. We were the most productive country for sugar and that brought many problems for us. We were not able to grow many other products because sugar took over our economy. It made us a very expensive country.

Q: At one time, you were almost slaves to sugar.
A: Yes. Almost slaves to sugar. But tobacco is from here. It is magic. Tobacco talks to our gods. It is a gift from them.
Q: Could you speak a little about the role of tobacco in Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion here in Cuba? You are one of the world's experts.
A: For Cuban worshippers, Afro-Cuban religions here such as Santeria, Palomonte and others, the smoke of the cigar is like purifying water in the Bible. Christians use water for the baptism, but Afro-Caribbean religions in Cuba use smoke as well. Not only that the leaves of tobacco cure wounds. So tobacco by all means is a blessing.

Q: So are we are blessing the gods when we smoke cigars?
A: We are blessing the gods with the smoke of the cigars. And the gods are very wise. They are very wise because they do not force or oblige us to inhale the smoke. They want the smoke for themselves. When you exhale the smoke, you are blessing the gods at the same time as blessing yourself.

Q: What do the gods give us back when you smoke cigars?
A: Hope for your way of life.

Q: We have something similar with incense in the Catholic and Anglican Church.
A: That is very industrial. We have the cigar. We are a privileged country. I was not raised in the Catholic Church but the Episcopal Church, but as an anthropologist, I went to do my research on Afro-Cuban religion. That is how I learned the importance of cigar smoke to these religions.

Q: So what about just normal people smoking cigars? They are blessing the gods without knowing it.
A: They know. But they don't want to admit it. Deep in their heart, they know.

Q: Is that why when strangers meet who are smoking cigars they become instant friends? You are bonded somehow?
A: Yes. This is true.

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