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Cuban Comeback

Though Still Beset by Tobacco Shortages, Cuba Gears Up to Meet the Demand
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Benito Molina looks incredibly relaxed for a man whose cigar factory is running at a record pace. As he lazily smokes a Montecristo No. 4 in his office, the cigar rolling rooms of his José Martí factory are packed with workers busily crafting an array of hand-rolled smokes. It has been years since this cigar factory has seen so much activity. Not only is the quality of the cigars being produced very impressive, with their dark, oily wrappers and impeccable craftsmanship, but the number of new workers--almost all in their early 20s--is unprecedented. It's a new era for Cuban cigars.

The country will make 100 million cigars for export this year, boasts Molina, his Cheshire-cat grin pinching the cigar between his teeth. Besides such coveted brands as Montecristo and H. Upmann, his Havana factory is behind Cuba's newest brand, Vegas Robaina, launched in Spain in June. (See sidebar on page 117.) "That's an increase of 30 million cigars from last year," he says. "That's why we have been training more and more rollers, since we knew that there would be a big increase in the harvest this year and an expansion in the production of cigars. We have about 150 student rollers at the moment. They will help us reach our goal of producing 12 million cigars this year at José Martí. That's four million more cigars than last year."Molina's tale is similar to those told by other managers of export factories in Havana, all working at a fever pitch. New factories, new workers, new materials, new brands and new sizes--it's an all-new attitude and commitment from the management and workers in the cigar industry in Cuba. The nation's goal is to reach an annual production of 200 million cigars for export by the year 2000, says Fernando Perez Dil, manager of the Antonio Montoto (Romeo y Julieta) factory. "We are doing all that is necessary to reach that goal."

Mario Delgado, a director of the Union de Empresas del Tabaco, which oversees all tobacco products in Cuba, qualifies that: "What is true is that we are increasing the production. Whether we meet our goal of 200 million by 2000 depends on many things, such as future harvests and the market. We expect this harvest [1996-1997] to be superior to the previous one and so on. In addition, we want the traditional factories for export to reach their full capacity in annual production."

If the Cubans export 100 million cigars in 1997, it would be the largest amount shipped from the island since the 1980s. Cuban cigar exports dropped more than 31 percent between 1990 and 1994, according to figures supplied by Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution organization for Cuban cigars. Some sources in the cigar industry claim the decrease was actually double the percentage reported. Habanos said it shipped about 70 million cigars in 1996.

"We actually exported 72 million cigars last year," says Francisco Linares, head of Habanos. "I don't know why people are saying otherwise. I know what we exported. And we are going to export more. We are in a new era for Cuban cigars. We are in an era of continued increase in production and quality."

Whether the Cubans reach their goal of 100 million cigars this year or 200 million by the millennium remains to be seen. Despite upbeat comments and reports from the island, there are still problems with tobacco and cigar production, especially with the care and processing of the tobacco once it is taken from the fields. Although definitive figures were unavailable at this writing, Alfredo Jordan, Cuba's minister of agriculture, forecasted the 1996-1997 harvest would total roughly 43,450 tons of tobacco, an increase of 31 percent from the preceding year. Plantings of tobacco have increased across the island. About 76,000 acres were reported to have been planted this year in the Pinar del Río, which includes the prime growing region for cigar tobacco, the Vuelta Abajo. That's 27 percent more than the 1995-1996 season, when 60,000 acres were under leaf in the same area.

Besides the Vuelta Abajo, the region of Partido in the province of Havana is becoming more and more important for providing tobacco for export quality cigars--almost entirely wrapper tobacco. Although a large part of the crop from there is still used for export in bulk or domestic consumption, the plantings of wrapper tobacco are on the increase and the quality looks very good, according to sources in Havana. "Years ago, the quality of wrapper tobacco was always considered the best from Partido," says Fernando Pina, agricultural adviser for Habanos S.A., who lives in the town of Pinar del Río. "The wrapper tobacco is finer and more uniform in quality than the Vuelta Abajo."

The Cubans finally appear to have the growing and harvesting of premium tobacco under control again after nearly a decade of problems arising from everything from bad weather to lack of fertilizers and insecticides. However, the drying, fermenting and aging of the tobacco--and all other processes before the tobacco is sent to the factories--still needs improvement. Sources in the cigar trade both in Cuba and abroad say that tobacco yields--the percentage of raw tobacco transformed to a usable form for cigar production--are on the rise on the island but still nowhere near where they should be. "Just a few years ago we were lucky to get 3 percent of a wrapper crop due to poor handling and processing," says one source who is involved in the process. "Recently the percentage has been brought up to between 15 and 20 percent." By comparison, wrapper tobacco suppliers in Connecticut usually average about 80 to 90 percent. Of course, they are much better equipped and more modernized in their processing. Increases in filler and binder are even higher.

Yet some growers in the Vuelta Abajo and Partido are apparently getting near-perfect yields. Growers such as Alejandro Robaina, who is considered Cuba's best tobacco grower and recently had a new cigar brand named after him, gets very close to 90 percent yields. He has won numerous awards for his farming savvy. "This last harvest, my yields were 82 percent," says the 78-year-old tobacco farmer. "I hope to get even better yields this year. Other growers in the Vuelta Abajo could do the same. It's just that other growers or workers in the field do not take the same care as I do. You have to do everything necessary to produce a great crop and do everything at the right time."

Recent reforms in the ownership of tobacco farms could help improve the situation. Cuba has 30,000 private tobacco farmers; 12,000 are in the Vuelta Abajo. Until a few years ago, most of the best plots of tobacco land in Cuba were owned by the state or they were grouped together into large cooperatives with hundreds of members. Students were used for harvesting. The bottom line was that workers in the fields had little incentive or knowledge to care for the tobacco or process it later. Today, growers have the opportunity to buy land though governmental loans, which are paid in kind through tobacco harvests. The difference in quality and yields is quickly improving. "There wasn't much incentive to work more than eight hours a day and do the best you could," says Genoveo Fundora, a tobacco farmer who owns a few acres of land just outside the town of San Luis. "We work all the time now and the land is ours. We are proud of what we do. We wake at 5 a.m. and work until late at night--even on Saturdays and Sundays. It's our land now."

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