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The Good and the Bad

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

The sub-director of quality at the H. Upmann factory in Havana was not happy. I was walking down the aisle of one of the rolling rooms of his well-lighted factory, where about three dozen student cigar rollers were working. I stopped in front of one, grabbed a petit corona off his bench and declared in bad Spanish that the cigar would not draw.

If I had called his sister a whore, I probably would not have had a more furious reaction. "What are you talking about?" he asked, with a look of shock and disgust. He was holding back his rage. I thought he was going to take a swing at me and I began looking which way I should duck, or how I might block his punch.

"Look at this mareva," I said, pinching the four-inch cigar about midway with my thumb and index finger. It's the usual cigar that trainees make during their first three or four months of rolling. "There's a knot here. It won't draw."

I handed the sub-director the cigar. He held it in his hand and thought for a moment and then gave it back to me. "Smoke it," he said defiantly.

"It won't draw," I said. I took the cigar, bit the end off it and started to draw on it. The sub-director took his disposable lighter and placed it at the end of my defective smoke. It drew perfectly! I was a complete cabrón—or ass as they say in Cuban. I told him that I just said that so I could try a fresh cigar, but we both knew that I had made a complete ass out of myself. And I was sorry.

But my intentions were good. Too many bad Cuban cigars have been made in the recent past. I am not saying that the days of plugged cigars are over for Cuban smokes, but the situation is a hell of a lot better. It wasn't that long ago that you would encounter 10 out of 25 cigars in a box of Cubans that were completely unsmokable.

The working conditions at the new Upmann factory, which was opened in November 2003, illustrate why cigar production is improving so quickly. Workers just seem more conscious and disciplined than in the past.

I remember visiting the old Upmann factory, located behind the Partagas factory in central Havana, a few years back, and thinking that the rolling rooms resembled more of a family block party than the key part of an industrial complex. The music was blaring, people were dancing in the aisles and hardly anyone was paying attention to their work. It was hardly the environment to make serious cigars.

Of course, I didn't begrudge them. Any joy in their lives would obviously be a good thing considering their difficult living conditions. I know some workers in Havana who spend three or four hours each day getting to work on the dilapidated public transportation system. Food, electricity and hot water can be scarce at the best of times. But workers in a factory—even in Cuba—can be happy, content and hard-working if they are given the opportunity.

And that's what I have seen at the Upmann factory on recent occasions as well as in the new La Corona factory that opened last year. Workers looked happy. All the work areas—whether leaf selection, blending or rolling—were well lighted, clean and organized. The plants had good food in their cafeterias and readily available medical care. The employees were better off working in the factory than going home and dealing with all the problems of day-to-day life in Cuba.

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