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An End and a Beginning

Emilia Tamayo, the Cohiba factory manager, steps down as a flood of new cigars hits the market
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

"My last day is on Friday," said Emilia Tamayo, the head of El Laguito, the home of Cuba's most famous cigar brand, Cohiba. The strong 55-year-old woman looked vulnerable, almost like a child asking for forgiveness after doing something naughty. We stood together in the reception area of the Hotel Nacional in Havana for the start of a dinner during the sixth annual cigar festival on February 25.

It seemed slightly strange that she would no longer be in charge at what is arguably the best cigar factory in Cuba. Tamayo explained that she needed more time to spend with her family and she believed that she had already accomplished a lot in her small factory. But she was melancholy as she spoke of her retirement. Maybe she was upset that the production of Trinidad was moved to a factory in Pinar del Río. Or perhaps she was upset that her dream of producing all of the cigars in the Cohiba range would never be realized? One never knows the real reason for why things happen in Cuba.

Regardless of why she left El Laguito, Tamayo brought a professionalism and dedication to the world of cigar factories here. She ran the Cohiba factory as if it were her very own. That pride of ownership never wavered from the day she took over in 1995. "What do you think of my beautiful factory, Suckling?" she would say, beaming proudly when I would arrive for a visit. "This is like my own house. Only a woman can do something like this. It's a woman's touch that can make a factory even more."

In fact, Tamayo was the first woman to manage a Cuban cigar factory. She served as a role model to many other Cubans in the country's cigar sector. She never professed to be a tobacco expert. She left that to her team of technicians and workers, her "family" as she called them. She was simply the matriarch of El Laguito. Under her management, Cohiba became more than just a gift for diplomats; it became an icon for the island and for the world of luxury consumable goods.

Over the last decade, I occasionally wrote critical articles about her factory and others on the island. She always was one of the first to complain bitterly about it when I traveled in Havana. "You know that I never had anything against you," she said, sitting in her small,

second-floor office in a building next to the colonial-style factory just a few weeks before this year's festival. "But I took it personally when you wrote negative things about my factory and others. It really upset me."

That's what really impressed me the most about Tamayo. She really cared. "I will always love what I did at El Laguito," she said a few weeks before the party at the Nacional. "It was really like my own." It still amazes me how many Cubans like Tamayo still deeply care about their cigars, from the poorest tobacco farmers amid the red soils of the Vuelta Abajo to the heads of the industry in their spartan offices in Havana. Daily life in Cuba is no bed of roses for any Cuban, but many still have a deep pride in their country and for their work—especially those in the cigar industry.

Perhaps that's why there is so much excitement recently in producing new cigars and new humidors. Sure, the wrappers on many of the new cigars leave a lot to be desired. There is apparently a shortage of high-quality wrapper leaf. You need to go through five or six boxes of a particular size and brand in a Havana cigar shop to find dark brown, oily ones. But the new cigars coming on the market are exciting just the same. Their quality is getting better. If Cuba's factory overseers can get their hands on some better wrappers this year—and the prospects look good—we should have some superb smokes in a year or so.

It's almost hard to keep up with all the new releases. Since the beginning of the year, Habanos S.A.' the global distribution organization for Cuban cigars, has announced a new size, or vitola, for Montecristo—Edmundo—as well as a new limited-edition Montecristo humidor. In addition, special humidors popped up in Havana cigar shops in February for San Cristobal de la Habana and H. Upmann. And there are some new vitolas for the highly successful Edición Limitada. The Edición Limitadas have become annual releases for a handful of special cigars in a limited production. Colleción Habanos, Edición 2003 also is now available, the third in a series of small-production cigars that sell in a box resembling a bound book. There's even talk of a new brand and the reintroduction of green wrapper cigars called candelas.

"We have generated some expectations in our consumers for these new products," said Fernando Domínguez Valdés-Hevia, the co-president of Habanos. He said that the new products were all due to a philosophy of "quality and innovation" for Habanos based on "a strategy of value and image." In other words, consumers should expect to see many more new sizes, new humidors and even new brands as the Cubans and Spanish upgrade their cigar business. (The Spanish tobacco giant, Altadis S.A.' owns half of Habanos.)


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