Che's Habanos

During his Years in the Jungle, Cigars Were Che Guevara's Faithful Companion
| By Jesus Arboleya , Roberto F. Campos | From 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 His comrades remember him withdrawn in a corner of the small boat crammed with men, stoically enduring shortness of breath, thirst, hunger and the fear of capsizing in the bad weather.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.

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.

On those occasions when he remained in camp, Che had the custom of saving his habanos and smoking them during the night, as he wrote or read about the most diverse topics. This humble ritual included sipping unsweetened tea, an undrinkable beverage by Cuban standards. By day or on campaign, he regained the habit of smoking a pipe. The wooden bowl protected the tobacco from the jungle humidity, hid the glow of the combustion and allowed him to smoke the butt to the end.

Once his mission to the Congo ended, he began a journey that would eventually take him to Bolivia. Just as before, Fidel Castro continued to be Che's tobacconist of last resort, and he sent Che the last Cuban cigar that he would smoke in his life. According to Tamayo, one of the few survivors of the ill-fated Bolivian crusade, the event took place in the Andean mountains on March 22, 1967, when Guevara received a box of Churchills from the Cuban leader and consumed his share while dividing the rest among his troops.

The gift, sent via sophisticated clandestine channels, included three bottles of Havana Club, prompting Che, who was not prone to drinking hard liquor, to make a rare exception and accompany his luscious cigar with a sip of the choice Cuban rum.

Never again would he enjoy wrapped tobacco. From that moment he could obtain only the pressed leaves, which he smoked in his pipe, that the guerrilla fighters would buy in the poor country stores or from the peasants. He always followed the norm of dividing equally the tobacco and cigarettes, but he never smoked the latter, preferring to trade for leaves with those who preferred cigarettes.

In the hardest times the smokers spent months unable to obtain tobacco and would stuff their pipes with any dried leaves, at the risk of burning their tongues. But Che never complained of shortages of books or cigars, Tamayo claims. His only references to them were to mention the suffering of the others, although obviously he too endured these scarcities.

He bought tobacco for the last time in La Higuera, a hamlet lost in the Andes. It was here some days later that he was assassinated (Editor's note: He was executed by a Bolivian military officer) after being captured wounded. All of the witnesses agree that the 39-year-old Che faced death calmly and courageously. In the schoolhouse converted into a makeshift cell, one of his captors fulfilled his wish and handed him some tobacco. Smoking constituted the last pleasure of his life.


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