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Cuba Quandary

As Cubans Increase Cigar Production, the Quality is Starting to Suffer
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

Cigar merchants are equally anxious. "I don't know what to say," said one Cuban cigar agent based in continental Europe. "I am very concerned with the quality. How can the Cubans maintain quality when they are producing so much?"

A London cigar merchant added, "We have more large-sized and popular-shaped cigars than in years past, but we still receive boxes of cigars that I simply cannot sell because the quality is not there, whether it has bad wrappers or poor construction. What can I do about it?"

Even Cubans in the industry in Havana have their concerns. "I don't want to be quoted," said one cigar shop manager, "but the quality from some factories is very good, but in many others it isn't. When you talk about the quality of cigars, you really have to discuss it on a factory-by-factory basis."

Quality was a hot topic during a daylong mid-February seminar in Havana attended by cigar merchants and consumers from around the world. Speaker after speaker asked how Cuba could maintain the quality of its cigars when production was increasing geometrically.

To give the Cubans some credit, key members of the island's cigar industry are not completely blind to the quality issue. Officials at Habanos S.A., the government's global cigar marketing and distribution arm, said that they were attempting to install better quality control measures. "We have definitely increased the quality control," said Ana Lopez, head of marketing for Habanos. "We have heard from the consumer and clients that they are concerned, and we know that there may be some problems. But we are doing the most we can to fix this. For example, we are now going to the factories and checking the quality of the cigars before they are shipped out. We want to reinforce the quality. It is one of our main points for this year. We must maintain quality."

Still, various sources in Cuba concede that enforcing a high level of quality control is very difficult. For instance, Habanos has been trying to persuade the ministry to integrate the production, distribution and marketing of cigars, but its efforts for the most part have fallen on deaf ears. Interestingly, a similar suggestion was made about three years ago by former Habanos head Francisco Padron, and after he was rebuffed, he resigned in protest. (He now teaches at the University of Havana.)

"Some sectors in the government obviously see cigars as an important source of revenue, and they don't want to lose control of that source," said one cigar man in Havana. "They don't want Habanos in control."

The government is certainly putting production in top gear. Just five years ago, fewer than one dozen factories produced cigars for export. The count now tops 30. Most of the new factories are facilities that had made cigars for the domestic market, but were switched to export poduction. How the factories' production methods are improved for export is unknown. Local-market cigars have always been of lower quality, both in craftsmanship and tobacco, than those for export.

In addition, thousands of new rollers are being introduced to cigar factories. Nearly every factory has a rolling school with 100 or more students learning the craft. Most instructors say it takes nine months for a roller to learn, but they admit that some are put to work after a couple of months if they show promise. Some factory officials say that rollers with just over a year's experience can qualify for rolling the illustrious category-seven sizes, which include such difficult-to-roll cigars as double coronas, torpedos and Churchills. Just three years ago, this would have been unthinkable. The same people say that it used to take up to three or four years to do the same. Are the new students' abilities so much better than before, or do the factories need to increase their production regardless of the rollers' talents?

"I am very impressed with the quality of the young rollers," said Natari Fernandez, head of quality control for the Romeo y Julieta factory. "They do their work with the same skill and love as the older rollers before them. I am sure that the quality is as good or better than before."

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