Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for decades and was the longtime cigar-smoking symbol of the island nation, died on Friday at the age of 90. His brother Raúl announced his death on Cuban television.
Castro had been in poor health for some time, and had been largely absent from public view. In 2006, he underwent major intestinal surgery and handed over power to younger brother Raúl. In October 2012 he was said to have suffered a major stroke.
In Miami, people took to the streets in the early hours of Saturday morning as news of Castro's death filtered out. Many were shouting "Cuba libre," or "free Cuba."
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on his father's sugarcane farm in Birán, an agricultural town in southeastern Cuba located 500 miles from Havana, on August 13, 1926. He studied law at the University of Havana, and became a lawyer, and found himself at odds with Cuba's ruling class. He founded a Revolutionary movement that culminated in his troop's seizing control of Cuba on New Year's Day 1959, deposing president Fulgencio Batista.
Castro was initially hailed as a hero by many in the Cuban cigar industry before he led sweeping changes that made Cuba's cigar factories and famous cigar brands property of the Cuban state.
"I was in Cuba when Fidel Castro came down from the hills," said Frank Llaneza, the late maker of the Honduran Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigar brands, in a 2002 Cigar Aficionado story. "Everyone was very happy. That changed very quickly."
In 1960, Castro's troops nationalized the Cuban cigar industry, seizing factories and fields, and claiming Cuba's cigar brands such as Partagás, Montecristo, H. Upmann and endless others as properties of the state. Cuba would do the same to other industries, resulting in the exodus of many of the country's business owners, who lost their properties and assets to nationalization.
Castro sparred famously with the United States, which declared a full embargo on Cuban goods (still referred to in Cuba as "el bloqueo," or "the blockade") in 1962. The embargo remains in effect, although U.S. President Obama has issued executive orders lessening its effects, including allowing American travellers to return home with Cuban cigars and rum for personal consumption.
One of the legends about Castro was a CIA plot to kill him with an exploding cigar, as he was nearly always seen in his younger years with a cigar in his mouth. But he said he gave up smoking cigars at the age of 59 during an exclusive interview with Marvin R. Shanken that appeared in the Summer 1994 Cigar Aficionado magazine.
"The cigar has made our country famous. It has given prestige to our country. Cuba is known among other things for the quality of its cigars," Castro told Shanken during the interview.
When asked about his love of cigars, Castro said: "I enjoy a cigar because of its aroma, its taste and watching the smoke."
Castro held various titles over the years: prime minister (1959 to 1976), president (1976 to 2008) and first secretary of Cuba's communist party (1961 to 2011). While the names have changed, his rule over the country was considered absolute up until he transferred power to his brother—and many believed he still ran the country after that.
In 1994, Castro sat down for an extensive interview with Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Click here to read the interview.