A Conversation With Fidel
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied.
“To the Palace.”
“The Palace of the Revolution.”
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.
The Interview with Fidel Castro
Shanken: How important are cigars to Cuba?
Castro: It is one of our most important export items. It is also one of our main sources of revenues. It is also an important factor for us in the domestic market. In addition to that, we have the hard currency which comes from exporting cigars. Cigars are one of the four or five most important items of export that we have. First, it’s sugar, then nickel, fish, tourism. These are the main items that provide revenues. Biotechnology is gaining ground as well as the pharmaceutical industry. And now cigars are more or less in the fifth place. Historically it has been very important.
Castro: 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: You are right. Lots of things go into making Cuban cigars, both in cultivation and in the manufacturing. To tell you the truth, it is very hard work, especially growing quality tobacco. It requires a lot of operations. The cultivation and choosing the right leaves for the cigars are really an art. And then making cigars is really beautiful. It also very much relates to the history of Cuba and to the struggle of independence for Cuba. Many of the people who migrated to Cuba later worked in the cigar factories, and they were very active in the struggle for independence during colonial times.
Castro: I should explain that. I got used to smoking in my early years. My father was a cigar smoker, and he really appreciated a fine cigar. My father was Spanish, and he originally came from Galicia. He was from the countryside. I remember when I was a teenager in high school. I was about 15 years old. I had lunch with my father when he presented me with a cigar. So he introduced me to cigars and he also taught me to drink wine….
Castro: He used to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Spanish wine. And he taught me about both things. He liked wines from Rioja. I always smoked cigars and, on very few occasions, cigarettes. But I always kept the habit of smoking cigars. So I was always a cigar smoker, as far as I can remember, since I was 15 years old until I was about 59 years old. That’s about 44 years of being a cigar smoker. On two occasions in my life I didn’t smoke. Once was during the Revolution because there was a great movement against cigars as a result of an uprising of the peasants on the plantations, and tobacco production went down. There was a great spirit against cigars. In order to be in solidarity with them, I quit for some time. But that was the only reason. Soon production recovered, and I started smoking again. Later I did not smoke because of reasons of health. Many people in our country were against smoking. I didn’t not smoke because I didn’t like cigars. I was very much in the habit. But there was a whole national movement against smoking.
Castro: I can’t remember exactly. It was ’84 or ’85. No. It was on Aug. 26, 1985. It was when there was a general health issue in Cuba against smoking. At first, I thought that I would simply try not to smoke in public for this campaign against smoking, and I did not make a commitment to it. I used to be with a cigar in my mouth all the time. I always had a cigar. When I was with a foreigner in a meeting like this, I would be smoking my cigars. Pictures would show me smoking cigars, or in an interview on television I was smoking cigars. And then the interview would be shown on television here, and you can imagine what people would think watching me smoke my cigars. Then I came to a decision that to really launch a campaign against smoking, I had to set the example and quit smoking. That was why I quit smoking. As I had a very strong motive, it was easier for me. I not only had a strong commitment; I had a strong motive. So, it was not so hard for me to stop smoking. People used to ask me if I still smoked when I was alone because it seemed impossible to them that I could quit smoking cigars after all those years. I must be smoking at home.
Castro: I said, look, in order to smoke, you need some accomplices. You need somebody to buy the cigars for you. You need somebody to hide the ashes that are left around. You need at least three, four, five accomplices who know that you are smoking cigars. They would know that you are doing something like that. They would know that you are smoking behind closed doors, and I wouldn’t want three, four or five people knowing that I was deceiving others. So I chose not to do that.
Shanken: Not even a puff?
Castro: No. No.
Shanken: Not even a little puff?
Castro: Not one….A few days ago, I was in a meeting with a large Spanish firm. It was Tabacalera [the Spanish tobacco monopoly]. And they were analyzing different cigars and all that. And I did not try any cigars, even though it might have benefited our economic relations with them. I remember the quality of cigars and how a great cigar should be. (He picks up a Cohiba Esplendido.) They should not be too compact. And they should burn very evenly. Even if you light them in one corner, they soon come to an even burn. With other cigars, if you do that, they continue to burn unevenly throughout the smoke.
Castro: It wasn’t this one [points to the Esplendido (Churchill size)]. It was the smaller one [the Corona Especial]. I’ll tell you something about the Cohiba. The Cohiba did not exist as a brand in Cuba. But one man who used to work for me as a bodyguard, I used to see the man smoking a very aromatic, very nice cigar, and I asked him what brand he was smoking. He told me that it was no special brand, but that it came from a friend who makes cigars and he gave them to him. I said, let’s find this man. I tried the cigar, and I found it so good that we got in touch with him and asked him how he made it. Then, we set up the house [the El Laguito Factory], and he explained the blend of tobacco he used. He told which leaves he used from which tobacco plantations. He also told us about the wrappers he used and other things. We found a group of cigar makers. We gave them the material, and that was how the factory was founded. Now Cohiba is known all over the world. That was over 30 years ago.
Shanken: Where does the name Cohiba come from?
Castro: It is a native name. It was the name the native Indians gave to cigars.
Castro: I am not sure exactly. So the new brand was created based on the experience of a tobacco grower who used to make cigars for himself. And in my view, it was the best cigar available. I did not like any others after that. When I was a student before the Revolution, I used to smoke different brands. Sometimes I used to smoke Romeo y Julieta Churchill, H. Upmann, Bauza, Partagas, but ever since I found Cohiba….It was so soft—and it was not an overly compact cigar. It was easy to smoke.
Castro: At first when the tobacco grower used to make it, he used to make it for himself and the bodyguard. And then for some time, he used to send me the same cigars, but I found it so good that I thought it could be a new brand. I thought that it would be worthwhile setting up a new factory to make this cigar.
Castro: I thought it was worth its own factory. All it needed was a name. And based on the type of cigars from that man, I had the factory established.
Castro [holds a Cohiba Esplendido]: This particular cigar is too tight in my opinion. The Cohiba should be easy to smoke. And it should burn very evenly, almost like a cigarette. I don’t know much about the new Cohibas, but that was how the old ones were.
Castro [laughs loudly]: Well, I have had dreams about cigars. Sometimes I used to dream that I was smoking a cigar. The funny thing is that it doesn’t happen to me anymore. I think it happened to me in the first five years. Even in my dreams I used to think that I was doing something wrong. I was conscious that I had not permitted myself to smoke anymore, but I was still enjoying it in my sleep.
Castro: It seems that we are having a real conversation here. We have the publisher of a magazine on cigars and a citizen of a country whose economy depends on the production of cigars. [Everyone laughs.] I think that we based the decision on the conviction that cigars are bad for your health. That was when we launched our campaign. I think that cigarettes are more harmful than cigars. Even if a cigarette has a filter or not, people inhale them. I have never in my life inhaled a cigarette or a cigar. I simply enjoyed a cigar after lunch. You have to improve your digestion. I enjoy a cigar because of its aroma, its taste and watching the smoke. Of course, don’t forget that my lung capacity was always good because I always exercise and I never inhaled smoke. I have preserved my health. Cigars are less harmful to your health, but according to doctors, many people who don’t smoke are affected by smokers who sit nearby to them over a period of time. Anyway, we couldn’t make a different policy for cigars or cigarettes, and I think that it is proof of the ethics of our country because from an economic point of view we want people to smoke cigars. Also, I couldn’t be seen in magazines or anywhere else smoking cigars.
Castro: I did it for reasons of health, even though my health was OK. It was a moral duty to contribute to the campaign against smoking. The World Health Organization had a campaign against smoking, and we were the first ones to support it. One day, in the same place that we are sitting now, a representative of the WHO came here to present me with two medals—one for not smoking and the other one for the government programs after the Revolution, which have turned Cuba into one of the countries with the best health ratings of Third World countries in the world. So, you see, I can’t smoke anymore. My commitment is very strong. It is final. It is a kind of commitment that I can’t change. Anyway, I may not smoke. I agree with you that there are many things that endanger men’s lives such as traffic accidents or diseases. And many things can be done for health that are unrelated to cigars.
Castro: It’s a person’s right. They know how they feel about it—not to drink, not to smoke, whatever.
Castro: Yes. I have visited the Vuelta Abajo very often. I like it there. [Tobacco growing] is a very complicated and sophisticated cultivation process, one of the most complicated that I know. I forgot to mention something more about cigars. When I was in the mountains during the war, people used to send me cigars. Sometimes I would run out of cigars, and when I only had one left, I would put it in my shirt pocket and keep it. When did I finally smoke it? I would smoke it when I had very good news or very bad news. If it was good news, I would celebrate with a cigar, but if it was bad news, it really compensated for the bad news.
Castro: I heard it was very expensive.
Shanken: £12,000 ($18,500).
Castro: I never heard how much it finally went for, but that is very impressive. I heard it was a record.
Castro: We feel that it is fundamental to maintain the quality of our cigars, which is an important legacy that we must preserve. And I think that the quality can even be improved. We are more worried about the quality than the quantity of cigars that can be produced. We feel that the best cigars come from small areas, certain regions and climates where the finest tobacco can be grown. The great cigars of Havana come primarily from the tobacco of Pinar del Rio. It is difficult in other regions. We are familiar with the different soils that give the best kind of tobacco leaves. For analyzing the locations, I have said that we have to do it like the wine producers. We have to preserve the uniqueness of our cigars. If you have a certain piece of land, let’s say 20 or 30 hectares, and it makes a certain excellent quality of tobacco, we should grow tobacco there. You shouldn’t go and grow it elsewhere. Many things contribute to this quality: the climate, the soil, the amount of sunshine. It is exactly like wine. The same things happen for the best-quality wines. However, there is more standardization of quality with tobacco than wine in my opinion. Wine can have an exceptionally fine harvest one year and then standard or worse the rest of the years.
In general, if tobacco is grown in the same soil, you can grow the same-quality tobacco leaves. It of course depends on the cultivation and technique, but this is a question of if you can grow more or less tobacco. It is also not a matter of the variety, as it is with other crops like wheat, which is a matter of producing more quantity. In this case, you have to find the best variety of tobacco to produce the best quality of cigars. That is our policy. In the case of the finest export cigars, we are taking measures that guarantee and improve the quality of the cigars that we are producing.
Castro: No. I principally give Cohibas for presents.
Castro: No. I don’t give Trinidads. I give Cohibas. I have been advising the people who are in charge of tobacco production, Cubatabaco, that they should come up with new brands and new blends. This would help the situation with the conflicts over the brands [with similarly named cigar brands from such countries as the Dominican Republic and Honduras]. If we have the best raw material, we have the best soils and the best know-how, why shouldn’t we create new brands?
Castro: I am not fully aware of that brand, but I assume it is like the Lancero in size from Cohiba.
Castro: I don’t know about that cigar. I always had the Cohiba like this (points to a Lancero) and sometimes a little smaller. It is really unfortunate that the American cigar smoker cannot purchase cigars from Cuba. But I will tell you an anecdote about that. You know that [President John F.] Kennedy was the one that set up the blockade. Every time a friend of his came back from Cuba, he made sure that he brought back some Cuban cigars.
Castro: That’s very interesting.
Castro: Yes. Che used to really enjoy smoking. I think he appreciated it as much as he appreciated Argentine beef.
Castro: That would have been insanity! That would have been crazy. I always wanted them to create new brands.
Castro: Now that would be an interesting thing. As I told you, when I was in the Sierra Maestras [mountains of Eastern Cuba] during the Revolution, and I had good moments, I would smoke my last cigars. Perhaps something like that would bring back my old habit from the days of the Sierra Maestras, but I would have to ask for permission from the World Health Organization. I wouldn’t want to lose my medal.
Shanken: I know the issues are great and complex, but do you see the day soon when America and Cuba will work together as neighbors and friends as they did many years ago?
Castro: I hope that day will come sometime, but no one will be able to say when that will happen. It is not an easy thing to happen. As for our side, we do not have any particular objections, nor do we lack the will.
Castro: No. No, not at this time.
Castro: It is difficult to answer. It doesn’t stand up to logic. Perhaps it is because we are too close geographically to the United States. Perhaps [because] we have resisted the blockade for over 30 years. Perhaps it is a matter of national pride for the U.S. government that has turned us into an exception and has given us the honor to be its only long-standing adversary. I think it is not logical. I don’t know what history will say though.
Castro: How can we take the first step? We are the ones whom the blockade is imposed against. If we had a mutual blockade, then we could take the first step. But how can we? The first step should be taken by the U.S.
Castro: That is the pretext that they use, and for many years they have used many different pretexts. At one time when we were in Africa, they used to say if the Cubans withdrew from Africa, then the relations would improve. That pretext was left behind. Later they said that when the links with the Soviet Union were cut off, then our relations would begin with the United States. Now the Soviet Union is not supporting us anymore, and nothing has changed. They keep on moving the goalposts back. Before it was Latin American subversion, the situation in Central America…and when they talk about reforms in Cuba, it is a precondition that we cannot accept because it has to do with independence and the sovereignty of our nation. It would be like if we were to give a precondition to the United States that it must change something in the Constitution in order for us to open up relations again. That’s absurd.
Castro: There are not any missiles any more.
Castro: Those thousands of Cubans whose economic situation were affected by the Revolution were people who had experience in business, and thanks to the Revolution, they were given facilities in the United States that they would have never received if the Revolution had not been victorious. Those people are wealthier now than they were in Cuba. That they owe to the Revolution.
Castro: It is a struggle between Goliath and David. Let’s see if they wish one day to leave David alone. You say that Clinton smokes cigars?
Castro: Then I guess President Clinton and I will not be able to smoke our peace pipe or cigars in the White House.
Shanken: The American press repeatedly refers to the very poor conditions here in Cuba. The enormous shortages. The human suffering. Some are convinced you will fall soon or your government will be overthrown or perhaps you will step down. Like a great Broadway show, you have had a long run. Is it time to give someone else a turn? Do you have any such plans?
Castro: I wish I could. I wish I were free to do what I want to do. In easy times, you know, it is easy to talk about that, but in the hard times that we are living now, I would be shrugging off my responsibilities to my country if I did this. It would be like deserting the front line in the heat of the battle. I could not do that. I am not the owner of my life anymore. The most I can do is accept the responsibilities that I have been invested with by my fellow citizens and try to carry out those responsibilities for as long as I have them. But believe me I would enjoy now to be free to do what I would like to do; however, it is not possible for me to have the freedom in the hard times that I am living in now.Perhaps I could even smoke cigars again without all these very important obligations.