Habanos Critical Thinking

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 His comrades remember him withdrawn in a corner of the small boat crammed with men, stoically enduring shortness of breath, thirst, hunger and the fear of capsizing in the bad weather.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.



Use these tips to walk into any situation with the tools needed to set aside intense emotions and make insightful decisions.

Do you react to situations based on your emotions or personal biases? Are you looking for ways to improve communication and the flow of ideas with those around you? There are skills that have the capability to greatly improve your capacity to make objective, effective choices and arguments, and those are critical thinking skills. Without these skills, arguments can often be one-sided. Criticism can feel like a personal attack on your character rather than an opportunity to open up dialogue and communicate productively.

Related: 8 Ways to Master the Art of Communication

Let’s take a look at how to develop critical thinking skills so that you can walk into any situation with the tools needed to set intense emotions aside and make insightful decisions.

1. Become a self-critic.

The very first and most important step for developing critical thinking skills is becoming a critic of your own thoughts and actions. Without self-reflection, there can’t be growth. You can break down your own thoughts by asking yourself why you believe something. When you do this, you need to clarify your thoughts by assessing this information objectively and finding a solid logic to what you believe, rather than just a muddled idea. Why do I believe this? Can I think of examples in my life when this proved true or false? Am I attached to this idea emotionally? Why? When we self-reflect, we are able to observe how we respond to a situation, in our minds and out loud.

Another aspect of becoming a self-critic is acknowledging your strengths, weaknesses, personal preferences and biases. When you know this information, you can understand why you approach certain situations from a specific perspective, and then you can step around that viewpoint because you are aware of its presence.

2. Active listening.

Thinking and listening are nearly impossible to do at the same time. To become a critical thinker, you need to be able to listen to others’ ideas, arguments and criticisms without thinking of your response or reaction while they are speaking. You can’t properly absorb the information someone is trying to convey to you if you don’t take the time to truly listen. Listening allows us to feel empathy. We hear someone else’s story, struggles, ideas, successes and passions, and how they reached them. When we hear their perspective, we can take that information and analyze it. When we use active listening skills, we can fully understand what someone is trying to tell us because that conversation continues until all parties can reiterate what the other is trying to say.

3. Analyzing information.

Analyzing information is paramount for critical thinking. No one thinks critically at all times. Sometimes our joy, anger, sadness or other emotions are too great, and other times we struggle to focus on the central issue at hand. To reach success, we need to analyze the information before us, whether it is information in our mind or being shared by others. We can break it down by assessing what is being said, and ensuring that we clearly understand what it is that needs to happen. Then we can dissect and appraise all arguments, including our own, and think about how the decisions would impact others, as well as the bottom line. When we can step back and analyze an argument, it allows us to approach it from an objective viewpoint.

4. Nonviolent communication.

Critical thinking isn’t much help if you can’t communicate in a nonviolent, productive way. When listening and analyzing different arguments, you first need the ability to recognize valid logic. Then you need to be able to communicate with other people in a productive way. The basis of nonviolent communication is compassion, observation and collaboration. When we approach any scenario with compassion, we are already in a peaceful mindset, rather than a defensive one. When we observe, we can observe our arguments and others without judgment and evaluation. We can detach our emotions from an idea. He doesn’t like my idea, so he must not like me. And collaboration naturally happens when everyone comes into the process with a compassionate, open mind, with the focus on solving the objective at hand rather than protecting anyone’s ego.

5. Developing foresight.

The ability to predict the future impact of a decision is foresight. Foresight is a critical component for success in all aspects of your life. When you move somewhere, you plan ahead to see what the job outlook is and the safety of a neighborhood. If you are moving a business, it is wise to examine the impact of that decision. Will it be too far for some of your talented employees to drive? Will you lose business because of the change? What will you gain? Every decision should be weighed carefully, with consideration of how the choice affects your bottom line, but also for the people who are working toward success alongside you.

Critical thinking requires the ability to reflect on one’s own beliefs, as well as someone else’s ideas, and then see the connections between those things. It requires the ability to actively listen to others, to assess, dissect and appraise arguments, and to separate intense emotions from the topic at hand.

Related:10 Ways Successful People Make Smart Decisions

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