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Cuba Quandary

As Cubans Increase Cigar Production, the Quality is Starting to Suffer
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

As the eyes of the world watched Pope John Paul II travel through Cuba in late January, workers furiously produced cigars in the Fernando Perez German factory in the heart of Havana, just behind the capitol building. The expansive rolling room where such cigars as Partagas Serie D No. 4, Montecristo A and Cohiba Esplendidos originate was packed to the walls with benches full of men and women assembling cigars. Many of the workers looked as if they were in their late teens or early 20s, new arrivals to what until recently was one of the most tradition-bound professions in Cuba.

As always, a man at the front of the room read to the rollers over the loudspeaker the day's news from the official state newspaper, Granma. Everyone was intently listening to the stories of the Pope's mission in one of the world's last bastions of communism, but their focus was mostly on the fresh cigars they were rolling. The month before, they and thousands of other Cuban rollers had reached the nation's 1997 goal of rolling more than 100 million cigars for export. This year the government plans to make a mind-boggling 160 million. Like just about every other cigar factory in Havana, Fernando Perez German (which was known as Partagas until the early 1960s) proudly displayed in its entrance a certificate from the state-run Union of Tobacco Workers that cited the factory for helping make 102 million cigars in 1997.

On a different floor of the factory, cigars were being sorted by wrapper color, fixed with the proper bands and placed in boxes. In one room, thousands of pine and cedar boxes were being dressed with colors and designs of just about every brand conceivable, from Partagas to Hoyo de Monterrey. The boxes carried the appropriate factory code on their underside--"FPG," for Fernando Perez German. The code also indicated when the cigars were placed in their boxes--ONSU--or January 1998.

However, a few thousand boxes in the room seemed slightly different from the rest. Covered with the packaging for the Partagas brand, they carried the code "FP9" instead of the normal "FPG." Was this a new code? Was it a new factory? No. It was a simple yet large-scale printing mistake. All hell broke loose when I pointed out the problem to one of the heads of quality control in the factory. She asked various people to look at the mistake and then told them to correct it. This didn't change the fact that thousands of boxes with "FP9" were still being filled with cigars. "That's just a minor mistake," said one Cuban cigarworker. "We are not going to reject them for something like that."

Minor mistakes, however, may be adding up to a major problem for Cuban cigars. Just about every flaw imaginable can be found in Cuban cigars at the moment, from ugly wrappers to tightly rolled bunches to raw filler tobacco; yet, at the same time, some of the best cigars in years are being produced, perhaps some of the best ever. For instance, the quality of the wrapper tobacco currently used on the cigars is outstanding, with a dark, rich and oily look.

However, it's this outrageous quality versus quantity paradox at the moment that has people's heads spinning. Everyone from the Cubans themselves to serious cigar aficionados are asking if huge production increases set for this year and the future can be accomplished without ruining the quality and image of the Cuban cigar industry. Many say it doesn't look promising.

The Cubans are pushing themselves to the limit to meet massive production quotas set by the Ministry of Agriculture. From new plantations to new factories to new workers, everything possible is being done to increase cigar production to historic levels. If the Cubans reach their production goal of 160 million cigars by the end of the year, it will be the first time that they have surpassed 120 million since the early 1980s. If they reach 300 million by 2000 (a goal they revised from 200 million just a few months ago), it will be the first time in a century that they have attained such stellar production levels--and this is with a massive proportion of completely handmade, large-sized cigars, instead of the small ones that dominated the market until a few decades ago.

Cuba has apparently solved its tobacco-shortage problems of the mid-1990s. Last year's crop suffered a little during the production cycle, but this year's crop, much of which had been harvested by late January, looked fabulous. An early February storm, however, slightly changed the situation. Turbulent winds up to 100 miles per hour and torrential rainstorms ripped through most of the key tobacco growing areas, including the Vuelta Abajo and the Partido, as well as raising havoc in Havana. Although a large part of the crop had already been picked, the remainder was hit hard, especially the wrapper crop growing under the cheesecloth shades, called tapados.

"My crop was not affected very much, maybe five percent," said Alejandro Robaina, the legendary grower of wrapper tobacco near the town of San Luiz in the Vuelta Abajo. "However, it was a different story for those who planted later." News reports on Cuban television showed tapados shredded into bits, as well as leveled fields of tobacco. A quick trip in mid-February out to fields near the towns of Pinar del Río and San Juan y Martinez confirmed these reports; many of the tapados were torn down, tobacco plants were growing slightly askew and new plantings were underway. However, the handful of workers I spoke with said that the damage was minimal.

Though problems may have been averted in the fields, the Cubans still face them in the factories. "I am fed up," said Luigi Fasolini, a retired journalist from Milan and a longtime Cuban cigar lover, as he stood in a cigar shop in Havana in late January. "The quality is just not there all the time. The Cubans are making too many cigars. They have too many new rollers. I buy a box for $300 or $400, and four or five of the cigars are unsmokable because they don't draw. I am not complaining about the blend of tobacco. It's the construction of the cigars that I am worried about. I am going to start smoking more cigars from other countries or I am going to stop smoking altogether. It's just too frustrating."

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