Miguel Barnet, 69, is one of Cuba's most distinguished writers and poets as well as a member of the island's National Assembly. He is also the president of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), an organization with more than 8,000 members. He is an outspoken intellectual, having studied first in the United States and later at the University of Havana. He is best known for his testimonial novel Biography of a Runaway Slave, Biografía de un Cimarrón in Spanish, but he has written dozens of other novels, poems and articles, including a number of stories for Cigar Aficionado. He's been called the Truman Capote of Cuba.
He is a personal friend and one of the most open-minded and brilliant men I have met on my travels to Cuba. He likes nothing better than smoking a good cigar with friends (his favorite smoke is the Trinidad Reyes) and discussing life in Cuba as well as abroad. Last year in Havana, we met at his house one afternoon shortly before two hurricanes that devastated the island, and the world-changing U.S. elections. Yet, his words remain thought- provoking and true. Below is part of the conversation.
James Suckling: What is your favorite work as a writer?
Miguel Barnet: Do you want to know the truth? My favorite thing in my life and the one people enjoy the most is my writing of poetry. I have 12 books of poetry. Poetry is the most passionate writing I do. It is very difficult. It is not so difficult to write novels. One thing is literature and another thing is poetry. Literature is a work of an artist and also the work of a technician and a historian. But poetry is the work of a witch. Poetry is fantasy.
Q: Is it like music, then?
A: It is like writing music. The only mystery in life, in my opinion, is your artistic creation. Religion is not a mystery. Once you talk to God or different gods, you can talk to them. That lacks mystery. It exists. But when you create poetry or music, you always feel a big surprise. You are always astonished. That doesn't happen in novels.
Q: Do you see yourself as a poet or writer?
A: I am the combination of the hawk and a turtle. The hawk looks at life from high and the turtle from the surface. I am a mixture. My extraordinary feeling I have is when you have created something new. And that is my greatest ambition. It is my goal. What I created when I wrote The Runaway Slave. It is a hybrid of history, anthropology and a novel. It is a testimonial novel.
Q: I have heard people say that you are the Truman Capote of Cuba, but you actually created that writing genre before Capote. Correct?
A: I began writing Cimarrón exactly the same time as Capote wrote In Cold Blood. He called his work an anti-novel. I didn't call mine that... I called it a documentary novel. Cimarrón was published in 1966. A few months after I finished writing Cimarrón, I started to translate In Cold Blood into Spanish.
Q: I forgot that you did that! Did you ever meet Truman Capote?
A: Yes. I met him in Venice once. I showed him the book in 1967 and I thought he would be happy to meet me and say, "How wonderful." But he was not even interested. I said, "This is the Cuban translation of your book." He didn't even say thanks. Anyway, I liked him very much as a writer. He was a great writer. Maybe he spent too much time going to parties and trying to impress people? But I remember in his memories that he said that he was at a party with Jackie Onassis and she said, "Truman, get up and tell us a story." And he answered that he was not a clown or an actor, but a writer. That I liked. But people know more about Truman Capote's life than his work. It was like that with Hemingway.
Q: It is fascinating that you are also a politician, a senator.
A: I am not a politician! I am a revolutionary. That is different.
Q: But what is interesting is that you are an author and poet and you are actively involved in the government. We don't have anything like that in America. Maybe we should?
A: I am sorry for you. I am really sorry for America. I would love to see someone like Quincy Jones or Gore Vidal to be part of the U.S. Senate. The Cuban parliament is very big and they try to put [in] outstanding people in art, in music, in poetry, in religion . . . people who are not Marxists but progressive people. I am not an orthodox Marxist or part of the Communist Party. I just try to be a progressive person, but I don't have to hide that I support the Cuban revolution. I am proud of that.
Q: The revolution is changing.
A: Thank God. We want changes to improve our system. And I am convinced that these changes will take place and they are important for our people. But I am more of an anthropologist and poet than a politician. We need some [changes] to be fast and some to be gradual. The most important is changing the way people think. We need to be more universal and cosmopolitan. It is a question of establishing a respectful and common dialogue with the world.
Q: You mean America?
A: Yes. I am talking about America. Not the rest of the world. It is very necessary. We have to establish a dialogue with America and it has to be very fair. It was like that under the Carter administration. If not, you are pushing Cuban revolutionaries to the extreme.
Q: There has been no dialogue with the Bush administration, but maybe that will change after the election?
A: I don't want to talk about the election, but I hope so. I am just hoping for changes. We Cubans love the American people. We study the literature, the poetry, movies . . . everything.
Q: Wouldn't the best thing the United States could do is to allow Americans to travel there?
A: That would only be the first step. The embargo, or as we call it, the blockade, has been terrible for the Cuban people and the Cuban economy. According to Cuban statistics, we have lost $9.9 billion as a result of the so-called embargo. But we are talking politics and I told you that I am not a politician. I am only a revolutionary.
Q: Do you think that the embargo has done anything to promote democracy in Cuba?
A: The only thing that it has provoked is anger and suffering because it is absurd. It is totally crazy that we have this wall, or whatever you want to call it, an ideological wall, between the United States and Cuba. It's stupid. We always had good American people living here. I was part of it. I went to an American school and in a way was part of the American colony because I was a soloist in the Anglo-American church choir. So I find it really stupid. The first step is to lift this ban of not letting Americans come to Cuba. The embargo is different. It can be softened gradually, but they are not going to change it overnight. That is impossible. It has to be step by step.
Q: A lot of Americans come anyway.
A: I don't know. I don't want to feel guilty. If Americans come here and then they go back and are discovered, they are fined. I am blind to that. They are welcome to come as far as I am concerned.
Q: What about internal changes in Cuba?
A: We are gradually making changes. They will come. It will better our socialist system. We don't want gross capitalism here, savage capitalism. It would be a very poor capitalism because we do not have industries. We only have tourism and some sugar and nickel. We want a new socialism of the twenty-first century. I won't be able to describe it, but it will be better. You know, we have many things free to the public, like health, education and others.
Q: People talk about China as a good example of how Cuba could change.
A: We just have to be creative, and we Cubans are very creative. You just have to give something to a Cuban, even a piece of wood or a fragment of iron, and they will create many wonderful things. We have this tradition that did not exist before. Cubans are very creative in many terms, economic as well. I trust the Cuban people.
Q: Let's forget politics and talk about cigars. You didn't start smoking cigars until late in life?
A: I used to smoke cigarettes. But they were very harmful for my health. I always had a sour throat and colds. So one day a few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a gift. A wonderful box of Trinidad Reyes, and I began to smoke Trinidad Reyes. And I discovered the gay part of life. Now every time I come back to my house from work or from dinner or from the theater, I read and smoke a cigar. It is normally a novel or poetry. Now I am reading the [autobiography] of Bill Clinton.
Q: What do cigars represent for Cuba?
A: Cigars are the symbol of Cuba. They are a great symbol. We are the ones who developed the cigar industry. Our Indians, the indigenous inhabitants of the island, developed it. Almost all the tobacco that we produce is sold abroad, so we don't lose anything with cigars. Not even health. It is a mistake to think that a cigar is not healthy. It is healthy because it helps you to meditate and to create fantasies. As I said, when I come back home to my house after a long day of work, I smoke a long cigar. It is like thinking about the next novel I am going to write. That doesn't happen with cigarettes. Cigarettes are short, bad poetry trash. Cigars make you feel comfortable, relaxed, better. And it is also a very, very collective experience. When you gather together with friends and smoke, you can think of many things. Very seldom when three or four people get together to smoke cigars, men and women, very seldom do they quarrel. There is always harmony. It creates harmony.
Q: It is like a peace pipe.
A: That is right. That is why I appreciate cigars so much. I thank my friend who introduced me to this wonderful habit.
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.
Q: There is no other product that does that.
A: Cigars are very special.
Q: What do you mean by special?
A: They are already for me a close friend, a quiet friend.