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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

Editor's note: Che Guevara was an Argentina-born revolutionary, political theorist and major force in Fidel Castro's insurrection in Cuba. As a student, he trained as a doctor, but developed into a Marxist-Leninist in the atmosphere of Peron-controlled Argentina. Taking up with Castro, Guevara became one of Castro's most trusted lieutenants and was responsible for turning him to communism. After the takeover of Cuba, Guevara became a minister in the new government and wrote revolutionary tracts. In the mid-1960s, Guevara left Cuba to foment revolution in the Belgian Congo and Bolivia, where he was captured in 1967 by military forces and executed, at the age of 39. In death, Guevara became a folk hero to leftist student movements around the world. What follows is an examination of the young revolutionary's relationship with the cigar. The authors are employees of Prensa Latina, the Cuban news service.

For Ernesto "Che" Guevara, cigar smoking was not a luxury, but very much a part of the business of revolution, a spiritual complement to lessen the hardships of a life filled with difficulties and dangers.

In his writings, he advised guerrilla fighters to include among the few and precious items to carry in their backpack: a hammock for resting, a plastic cover as shelter from the rain, a blanket to protect against the cold mountain nights, salt to conserve essential foods, lubricant for the weapons, a canteen with fresh water, basic medicines and tobacco, "because a smoke in times of rest is a great companion to the solitary soldier."

This he discovered in the odyssey that culminated with his landing on Cuban shores in 1956. Besieged by violent attacks of asthma, he made the voyage from Mexico with Fidel Castro. His comrades remember him withdrawn in a corner of the small boat crammed with men, stoically enduring shortness of breath, thirst, hunger and the fear of capsizing in the bad weather.

Under these conditions he set ashore in a mangrove swamp. "I came here to fight, not to be nursed," he blasted to one who tried to help him. Wounded in the first ambush, Dr. Guevara gave himself a prognosis of death and, recalling a story by Jack London in which the protagonist prepares to die, he leaned against a tree thinking that all would end too soon. Fortunately, he erred in his medical assessment and would later be able to continue until reunited with the survivors of the scattered troop.

His asthma continued unabated and forced him to march in the rear. Despite his pride, a fellow soldier would carry his backpack, and at times even his spent body, over his shoulders. Ultimately there was no choice but to leave him behind, hidden in the woods, with little aid, in the hope that he would recover and serve as guide to a group of fresh recruits that was expected to join the troops.

A peasant suggested he smoke "campana" flowers, which, according to country wisdom, relieves shortness of breadth. That didn't work, but it did induce him to try his first cigar, which he smoked in a moment of joy upon rejoining the main guerrilla force. The month was December 1956. Che Guevara was 28 years old.

Times were rough, and Che thought up excuses to justify the utility of his discovery. He said then that cigar smoke was effective in repelling some "very aggressive mosquitoes." He went so far as to claim that smoking helped soothe his asthma attacks, but Oscar Fernandez Mell, a guerrilla doctor who accompanied him on many of his adventures, says that these were only excuses, since Che, who had conducted advanced medical research on allergies, knew that to be untrue.

In fact, he was captivated by, in his words, "the fragrance of the Cuban leaf." He became entrapped in that peculiar relationship that serious smokers establish with their softly glowing habano, in which their minds drift from memories to dreams. Cigar smoking became a habit that the Argentine-born revolutionary enjoyed for the rest of his life, the first Cuban custom that he made his own, his first step toward embracing the culture of the country where he founded a family, where the legend of his name began.

Toward the end of the campaign, he led an invasion force across the island aimed at capturing the provincial capital of Santa Clara. For some greenhorns Che was not only their guerrilla commander but also their smoking mentor. Leonardo Tamayo, his 16-year-old aide, recalls that Guevara taught him to smoke by passing him his cigar butts, "because Che did not wet the cigar when he smoked," Tamayo says.

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