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James Suckling

The Good News in the Bad News

Posted: Jul 6, 2010 12:07pm ET

I am not sure why over the last three weeks the international press has been full of stories about the decline of the Cuban cigar.  The stories have not been about a drop in quality, but the downturn in the sales and production of the famous smokes.

The drop in sales is an old story that I wrote about earlier this year. I wrote that exports of Cuban cigars last year dropped to $360 million, down 7.7 percent from $390 million in 2008, and down considerably from the $402 million exported in 2007.

My sources in the Cuban cigar industry tell me that the value for exported cigars is slightly up the first six months this year, perhaps as much as London’s Financial Times noted in yesterday’s story of 4.3 percent.  The story didn’t say that volume was also up a little, just under 1 percent, according to my contacts.

What's strange are the figures that are being thrown out for annual export volumes. A story in the June 22 issue of The Guardian was a complete joke. It stated “the number of cigars produced for export plunge from 217m in 2006 to 73m last year.” First, Cuba has never in the last half century exported 217 million cigars. Second, my estimate for exports last year was between 80 million and 90 million cigars.

A number of stories quoted figures from Guerrillero, the mouthpiece of the tobacco growers of Pinar del Río, the famous tobacco town and region of Cuba. Guerrillero states in the first paragraph of its June 23 online story that the conclusion of this year’s tobacco harvest was marked by plans to decrease the planting and processing of tobacco. It wrote that the tobacco yields were better than last year.

Nonetheless, I spent some time on the Guerrillero’s Web site and found out that the harvest was down in Pinar del Río in 2010 from about 22.4 million “cujes” to 26 million in 2009. The latter was slightly up from 2008.

“Cuje” is a confusing measurement for Cuba tobacco, but what I gather it denotes the number of leaves on a pole used in the tobacco curing barns. Each pole (or “cuje”) usually has 100 leaves, and are stacked in any large curing barn. Pinar del Río has just over 7,000 curing barns, according to a story in Guerrillero.

All the stories noted that the declines–whatever are the accurate figures–come primarily due to the global economic recession and the general difficulty cigar smokers have finding public places to smoke.   I think that is something all Cuban cigar lovers understand.

But there is a silver lining in the dark clouds (sorry about the cliche!). I am sure that smaller production in the fields of Pinar del Río as well as Cuba’s cigar factories will result in better quality. And that’s always good news.


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