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A New Era for Cuban Cigars?

Recent improvements have occured throughout Cuba's cigar industry
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

The top two executives of Habanos S.A., Oscar Basulto and Jaime Garcia-Andrade, are sitting in a boardroom at their offices on Third Avenue in Havana's Miramar neighborhood, smoking huge cigars. In their hands, they clinch dark brown Salomons that measure just over 7 inches long by a 57 ring gauge. The cigars resemble small mortar shells more than superbly aged, handmade Cuban cigars. The room fills quickly with rich, pungent smoke as the perfecto-shaped cigars produce perfectly formed white ashes.

"Does it smell bad?" Basulto asks, only half-joking. The straight-talking Cuban has jointly headed Habanos, the global distribution and marketing organization for his country's cigars, with Garcia-Andrade for almost three years. Basulto also serves as the head of Tabacuba, the umbrella organization that oversees all Cuban tobacco interests, from growing to production.

"No, it's fine," I say. I'm pondering my next question, a possible curve ball that will make them focus on the American cigar market. "Are there plans for when the American market opens to Cuban cigars?" I ask, not wanting them to relax too much with their cigars.

"Yes, the idea exists, but it remains to be seen when this will happen," Basulto says, just a hint of impatience creeping into his answer. "But what do you think of the cigar?"

Garcia-Andrade, a Spaniard, also ignores the U.S. market question, and comments, "A bit of patience is required with this format." He takes a deep draw and blows out a huge cloud of smoke across the table toward me, finally getting to my question. "The idea is to sell good cigars to the American consumer. It is as simple as that."

Basulto adds, "In any case, we can produce whatever they want…don't you think this cigar is perfect for after dinner? Does it draw OK?"

Despite recent discussions in the U.S. Congress about loosening travel restrictions to Cuba or even dropping the embargo, Cuban cigar executives seem focused on one thing now: the quality of their cigars. Whether they are Habanos officials, factory managers, rolling room supervisors, rollers or even tobacco growers, nearly everyone in Cuba involved with cigars wants to discuss quality. It's not just lip service. The Cubans have built new cigar factories in Havana, created stocks of aged tobacco, and established rigorous quality controls as well as focused attention and resources on the best tobacco plantations in the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's prime cigar growing region.

These moves signal a complete change in the attitude in the cigar industry in Cuba. Many interested parties, especially Garcia-Andrade and Basulto, acknowledged that the former structure of cigar making was not conducive to making a high-quality product. They admit that previous goals of producing hundreds of millions more handmade cigars had been ill advised and that the cigars' quality had suffered. Their goal now is simple: create a new era for Cuban cigars.

"We don't want to talk about production figures or numbers anymore," says Garcia-Andrade. "We are only interested in quality. That's what matters above all to us."

Walking the streets of Havana and talking to the locals, I found it almost hard to believe the positive changes that have occurred in the last two years with the Cuban cigar industry. For most Cubans, life continues to worsen, or at best, remains stagnant. The island's economy is sluggish: tourism, one of the country's biggest revenue sources, is down 10 to 15 percent according to international press reports, although some tourism executives in Havana privately put the decline between 25 and 35 percent.

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