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Castro and Che lighting
Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado,
interviewed Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana on Feb. 3, 1994
at the Palace of the Revolution.The interview focused on cigars,
but touched on the United States trade embargo and President Castro's
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.
Shanken: Is there any Cuban export that carries
as much prestige today?
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.
Shanken: It's also a craft with great tradition.
When you feel it, when you smell it, when you look at it, you realize
that great dedication has gone into the creation of every cigar.
People have spent their lives making the cigars--some of the rollers
have been making cigars for 30, 40, 50 years. To an aficionado,
cigar making is like one of Beethoven's symphonies.
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
Shanken: When you build a warehouse or a road,
it's hard work, but it's much different than making a cigar. Cigar
lovers appreciate the craft. Other people, nonsmokers, have no idea
about the labor and passion that goes into tobacco farming and cigar
Shanken: For many years, the world saw photographs
of you smoking a cigar or holding a cigar in your hand, as you did
just a moment ago...as you are now doing. (Castro picks up a Cohiba
Esplendido with his right hand.) For the past seven or eight years,
you have stopped smoking cigars. Don't you miss them?
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....
Shanken: So he was a wine lover.
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
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.
Shanken: In what year was this?
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.
Shanken: I question that, too. It's hard to believe
that you've stopped completely.
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: You are saying that you do not smoke even
in the privacy of your home by yourself?
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.
What I used to smoke was the Cohiba, which was
the one that was developed in the last 23 years. It was the 23 years
that I smoked after the victory of the Revolution. It was the Cohiba
that I preferred.
Shanken: Which size did you prefer?
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.
Shanken: Was it the generic name for cigars or
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
Shanken: When Cohiba became a brand, was it made
exclusively for you?
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.
Shanken: You sound like a businessman.
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.
Shanken: This brand today is considered by many
cigar lovers to be the finest brand of cigars in the world.
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.
Shanken: I accept that you don't smoke cigars now,
but do you ever dream about cigars?
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.
Shanken: I think tonight you may again dream about
Medical research is inconclusive regarding the
health hazard of smoking cigars, if they are not inhaled. Why does
the Cuban government take such a hard-line position against smoking
cigars? I understand cigarettes, which are inhaled and may cause
lung cancer, but why cigars?
Many intelligent people around the world, including
doctors, smoke cigars. They understand that there are risks. And
many doctors say that the risks of smoking a cigar are no greater
than riding a motorcycle or speeding down a mountain on skis. So
why are cigars lumped together with cigarettes?
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.
Shanken: It's a noble sacrifice.
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
Shanken: There are many educated people who are
willing to take whatever the calculated risk is because they love
cigars so much.
Castro: It's a person's right. They know how they
feel about it--not to drink, not to smoke, whatever.
Shanken: Have you spent much time in the Vuelta
Abajo or visiting the cigar factories?
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
Shanken: Do you remember signing a box of 50 Cohiba
Lanceros? It was recently auctioned at a charity dinner in London
to benefit medical relief for Cubans. Do you know how much the box
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.
Shanken: Let's move on to something a little more
serious. The embargo. How has the production of cigars for export
been affected because of your inability to get enough fertilizer,
gasoline, tarpaulin and other resources for the growing of tobacco?
You could export more cigars by lowering the standard of quality,
but apparently you are not. I've been told that quality is your
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
We have a very traditional cultivation. Many of
the cigar-tobacco growers used to walk like this because of the
number of hours they spent working in the fields. (He stands and
walks hunched over like a field worker.) We should say that the
tobacco growing takes many man hours. In terms of how much they
are paid, it is not very fair. It's almost like slavery, but you
cannot make a life out of it. But if you mechanize it, like the
blond tobacco for cigarettes, you can make a living. But you cannot
mechanize tobacco for cigars because it would sacrifice the quality
completely. Tobacco for cigars is not a question of quantity. It
has to be planted in a certain place, and it is a selected product.
It is economic. It is not something to be exported as a raw material,
but to be exported as cigars. This makes it worthwhile in terms
Shanken: Trinidad. We understand that it is a brand
of cigar that is your own personal brand, which you give to diplomats
and friends as presents.
Castro: No. I principally give Cohibas for presents.
Shanken: You don't give Trinidads?
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
Shanken: The El Laguito factory has a brand called
Trinidad, which they say is for you to give as personal gifts. It
has become a legend.
Castro: I am not fully aware of that brand, but
I assume it is like the Lancero in size from Cohiba.
Shanken: It is the same size, but with a little
darker wrapper. Are you going to allow Cubatabaco to sell it?
Castro: I don't know about that cigar. I always
had the Cohiba like this (points to a Lancero) and sometimes a little
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.
Shanken: There are many Americans who buy Cuban
cigars when traveling internationally. It is estimated that 8 million
to 10 million Cuban cigars a year are smoked by Americans.
Castro: That's very interesting.
Shanken: On to another subject. Did you smoke a
lot of cigars with Che Guevara?
Castro: Yes. Che used to really enjoy smoking.I
think he appreciated it as much as he appreciated Argentine beef.
Shanken: After the Revolution, we have read that
the government decided to stop using the traditional brand names,
and that they would have one brand name, called Siboney, for all
export cigars. That never happened. Do you have any recollection
Castro: That would have been insanity! That would
have been crazy. I always wanted them to create new brands.
Shanken: If you and President Clinton ever get
together, would you smoke a cigar with him, symbolic of peace at
last between our two countries?
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.
Shanken: Have there been any private negotiations
to try to come to a mutual understanding that will result in the
elimination of the trade embargo?
Castro: No. No, not at this time.
Shanken: The American trade embargo against Vietnam
is ending. Russian and U.S. relations have been turned around. Even
Israel and Palestine are trying to get together. Why is it, in your
opinion, that Cuba continues to be embargoed? It is a question that
we all ask. What do you think?
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.
Shanken: There would be many benefits to both sides,
if you were willing to take the first step.
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.
Shanken: From what I read, the American government
is looking for Cuba to undergo political reform and improvement
in its human rights.
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.
As far as human rights, and I will try to keep
my answer brief, no one in the world has done more than Cuba has
done for human beings, for its citizens--no one else, in every sense.
The best evidence of that is that our health programs have saved
the lives of over 300,000 children, and we have been helping out
in other places around the world with our doctors, medicines and
knowledge, more than any other country in the world. So, I think
that no other country has as unblemished behavior about human rights
considering how much we have done for man. That is a legend. It
is a fabrication. It is an unjustifiable pretext.
Shanken: There are two issues that seem to come
up. The first is about the Soviet missiles [in Cuba] in the '60s
aimed at the United States.
Castro: There are not any missiles anymore.
Shanken: The second issue regards compensation
for the properties taken from private Cuban citizens at the time
of the Revolution. I would like to know your thinking as to whether
or not there is any way to satisfy the Cuban-Americans whose properties
were taken so that we can move on to the bigger agenda of living
together in a neighborly way?
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.
It would be to create a hope that our country were
in an economic situation which would allow it to compensate those
people whose property was taken. We cannot create that expectation
because we do not have the resources and, also, because of the blockade,
our country has been suffering great losses, several billion dollars'
worth. We are a small country, and the blockade has been very harmful
to us. Now we are suffering more with the demise of the Soviet Union
and the socialist states, with which we supported ourselves. But
we are still striving. We are putting up a fight, and we are trying
You can be assured that, if, instead of Cubans
there were Americans here setting the example that we are setting
as far as our capacity for struggle and resistance, the American
nation would be proud.
Shanken: Perhaps people in Washington will read
this interview and begin to think more about how this impasse can
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?
Shanken: Yes. He has smoked for many years. But
his wife, Hillary, has created a no-smoking policy in the White
House. So now he just chews cigars, it seems.
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
There are many things I would like to do. I wish
I were the problem. The problem is the Revolution, and the problem
is our ideas. The United States, or some people in the United States,
they do not just want Castro's retirement. They want the total destruction
of the Revolution. And that is what the majority of our people would
There is a new generation of Americans, and in
the history of America, many similar things happened. First, you
had the struggle for independence against the British with a long
struggle that had great repercussions on the world. There was the
Civil War in the days of Lincoln, which brought about great changes
in American society.
Now in the United States there is not a revolution
but an evolution. But there are still many injustices to be changed.
There are many people who are struggling in the United States for
equality and social justice. One of the countries in the world where
there are more social differences is the United States. The difference
between the average salary of the workers and the executive. The
executive makes 90 times' more than the average worker.
There are many injustices in the United States,
but that is your task to change and not mine. I would not set up
preconditions for relations based on these injustices. On a realistic
basis, we should respect each other, and, in the world, peace should
prevail. There was a great Mexican leader who said that respect
for other peoples' rights is peace. So peace should be based on