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 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 Times, The Washington Post, Time, 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.
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, by Cigar Aficionado European Editor James Suckling, 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.
Marvin R. Shanken
Editor and Publisher