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Cuba's 21st Century Factories

The world's most storied cigar producer is creating modern manufacturing sites for its premium hand-rolled products.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

Cuban cigar factories are changing for the better. What they are going to look like is going to be hard for some to believe, or even understand. They will be well-appointed buildings and comfortable workplaces where tobacco and people are efficiently managed in the best way possible to produce the best possible cigars.

At least this was the idea I had when I visited two new factories in Havana late last year.

I saw the factories, one in Nuevo Vedado and the other in Boyeros, two neighborhoods outside old Havana. The buildings were still just freshly painted shells, but the plans, according to Fernando Lopez, the head of all Cuban cigar factories, was to "create modern and efficient factories in which to make cigars." Some of the buildings' interiors were already constructed, with everything from marble floors to the latest in ventilation, humidity and temperature control, as well as bright and clear lighting.

Images of clean and well-run factories in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua ran through my mind. Lopez described what the new factories would become as we walked through the building sites. It seemed slightly surreal strolling through the expansive modern interiors after more than a decade of visiting historical, decaying cigar factories, the norm in Cuba. I had to keep pinching myself as a reminder that I was still in Havana.

The fabrica in Nuevo Vedado formerly was used to make Partagas cigarillos, also called minis, while the building in Boyeros was used to produce H. Upmann cigarettes. The former will become the H. Upmann factory while the latter will comprise the consolidation of the La Corona and Por Larrañaga factories. Meanwhile, the Heroes del Moncada factory is due to be closed. The four old factories will no longer produce cigars. Apparently, very little from them will be moved to the new plants, other than the workforce. The ancient factories were too decrepit to merit repairing; the Cubans thought it was better to start from scratch.

It won't be the same visiting the new José Martí and other factories when they are finally finished this spring. The old factories have a place in my heart. It always has been like taking a time machine back to the 1950s in Havana. You walked through run-down buildings with their stained walls and floors, crumbling wooden work benches, and dim fluorescent lighting. The air in these factories was so dense with tradition that it was almost hard to breathe; they were saturated in human toil and historic craftsmanship combined with a good dose of mature tobacco.

A visit to José Martí or any other Havana factory for a keen cigar smoker was almost like a trip to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for a devout Jew. There was nothing like it. The history, and the sense of tradition in those old cigar temples, enhanced the visitor's appreciation of a great hand-rolled Cuban cigar. I only hope that other Americans have the chance to visit Havana very soon to catch a glimpse of the old ways.

The fact remains that the working conditions in José Martí and a number of other Havana factories were always less than ideal for making quality cigars. I am no industrial engineer, but it has been pretty obvious that the flow of materials in such factories as José Martí and La Corona was not optimal. A lot of the inefficiency was due to the layout of the buildings. "These factories were not designed for the production of cigars today," says Evis Placer, the vice president of logistics for Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars. "The rooms are small and there is just not enough room to do things properly."

Moreover, I have to believe that the workers, from the men and women who take the tobacco out of bales to those who roll cigars, are going to be a lot happier. Therefore, the factories should make better cigars. As picturesque as some of these old factories are, the working conditions are difficult, particularly in the hot, humid summer. Cigar rollers must feel more like members of a chain gang rather than talented craftsmen who make one of the greatest handmade products on earth. Whether it has the same image or not, a new, professional environment is bound to give workers more confidence in their work.

Another reason that many of Cuba's best cigar workers will take more pride in their work is that many brands will soon be produced in one unique factory. So, in many cases, several cigar brands will no longer be rolled in various factories.


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