It was just another visit to a cigar store in Havana. The newly constructed shop in the Comodoro hotel, one of the city's premier hotels, was overseen by two people, who guided their guests into the humidor to show off the selection of top Havana brands. Off in the corner, a middle-aged man worked diligently rolling cigars.
At first glance, he seemed like just another roller who supplies freshly rolled cigars to passing tourists. Within a few minutes, it was clear that this man with an inviting smile and sure hands was more than just a simple roller. He was, in fact, one of the key figures involved in creating Cohiba and Davidoff cigars and the former personal cigar roller for Fidel Castro.
"I was both director and a roller at the El Laguito factory, from its beginning in 1963 to 1970," says Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, 54, as he rolls a torpedo-shaped cigar. "You understand that Fidel was the most threatened leader in the world, that there were a lot of assassination attempts against him, all the attempts made by the CIA. So, I was put in charge of making cigars for him. It was all very secretive."
Castro himself said that Cohiba, his favorite cigar, was invented by a friend of one of his bodyguards. That friend was Rivera. Rivera says it happened by chance in the early 1960s when his friend gave one of his cigars to Fidel. It was shaped like today's Cohiba Lancero, and Castro was interested in the cigar's elegant shape. He was even more impressed with the cigar after smoking it. "From that time on," Rivera says, "Fidel smoked nothing else, and I made cigars for him."
At the time, Rivera was working at the La Corona factory in downtown Havana, near the capitol building. He sourced his tobacco there and made a few cigars a day according to a personal blend, which became the basis for Cohiba and, later, Davidoff. "I was a roller of the first rank," he says proudly. "I had been a tobacco man since I was a little boy. After I started making the cigars for Fidel, I rolled them in my house, and for a while I did it in La Corona, only for Fidel."
Government officials quickly decided to give Rivera carte blanche to make Castro's cigars, which soon became a coveted diplomatic gift as well. Rivera says that Castro was the only one with the authority to give the cigars away. He soon began working closely with one of Castro's secretaries, Celia Sanchez, to create an official brand for Castro.
"We decided on Cohiba," he recalls, pointing out that the brand was first used in 1966; until then they were given away unbranded. It wasn't until the early 1980s that Cohiba was actually commercialized. "Our native peoples called the tobacco plant 'Cohiba.' It was also used to describe something that was done with a lot of care. In its production, the tobacco was carefully selected for [its] aromatic and flavor characteristics. The farms we used were the finest in the country."
El Laguito, the factory where most Cohibas are still produced, is located in the suburbs of Havana. It was started as a rolling school for women, but Rivera, who was involved at every level, remembers having about 20 rollers at the beginning to make cigars. Production began at about 650,000 cigars. "Within a few years, we realized that we had enough production to commercialize something," he says. "So we contacted Zino Davidoff and asked him to discuss such a project."
Davidoff visited in 1969, and Rivera spent three days with him,trying different blends and discussing every aspect of producing Davidoff cigars in Havana. About a year later, the first Davidoffs left the doors of El Laguito. "I met with Davidoff, talked with him and exchanged the first impressions with him," Rivera recalls. "We conducted some negotiations to put the brand name on our cigars. At that time, he wanted to buy the factory, but that was against the policy of the government."
The last Davidoff Havana was made in 1990, after the Cubans and the Swiss company severed their relationship. Rivera says that the blends for Davidoff were slightly different than those for Cohiba, but that the sizes were the same until Davidoff began making the chateau series cigars (Margaux, Latour and others) at La Corona.
In 1970, Rivera decided to leave El Laguito, and Avelino Lara, who retired last year, became the new director. "Things changed, so I left," Rivera says. "I believed that things had to be done optimally, or I wouldn't do it. I went back to the farm to work a piece of property that I owned, and I forgot all about cigars."
Rivera wouldn't elaborate further about his departure, but it must have been a difficult time for a man who began rolling cigars at the Por Larrañaga factory in 1957. Since 1970, he hadn't had a thing to do with cigars until he began rolling cigars at the Comodoro earlier this year. He was filling in for a friend who was on a trip to Hong Kong.
"I just came in to help the man out," Rivera says. "But I am really happy to be back with cigars."