You have to wonder what is going to happen with Cuban cigars as Cuba reels from two successive devastating hurricanes in August and September and tries to find its way through a volatile and shrinking global economy. As one tobacco grower said to me in October, "We have been living in a hurricane for 50 years, but this is the worst period ever."
I was in the countryside in western Cuba in early October, and I was surprised how normal it seemed in the tobacco growing areas of the Semi-Vuelta and Vuelta Abajo. As I drove down the main highway between Havana and the Pinar del Río, the center of prime tobacco cultivation, the only obvious effect of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav were the buildings without roofs and the tangled remains of 100-foot-tall, high-voltage electrical towers. The roadway itself was rough outside the town of San Cristóbal and the damage continued as we drove west. Some crops, such as plantains and mango trees, looked ripped from their roots with just bare stalks showing in muddy fields as we sped by in our rusty Hyundai.
"The vegetation grows back quickly," said the tobacco grower, as we drove along the highway. "But the situation is very, very bad for most people in the countryside."
According to local and international press reports, the damage from the hurricanes could reach $3 billion to $4 billion. More than 2 million people were displaced and 300,000 to 400,000 houses destroyed. The agricultural land in the paths of the hurricanes was stripped of any crops, including well-established fruit trees and other long-term crops. These damage estimates do not include the impact of Hurricane Paloma, which struck the southeast coast in early November. Gustav and Ike caused extensive damage to other agricultural crops grown in tobacco country. One press report said that in Pinar del Río more than 25,900 metric tons of agricultural crops were lost and another 1,184 tons were damaged. This included about 32,283 acres of root vegetables, 7,239 acres of grains and 1,341 acres of fruits. There was very little food, water or electricity for the first few weeks following the storms.
Luckily for the cigar industry, there were no tobacco plantings of any type at the time of the storms. Tobacco seedlings are usually grown in October and transferred to the fields in November. But some estimates say more than 5,000 tobacco-curing barns were either flattened or severely damaged. Interestingly, the worst damaged were those that were built after hurricanes in 2002. Apparently, the builders did not know how to construct them properly or they were made in haste.
In addition, some press reports said 800 tons of tobacco was spoiled in curing barns because it was temporarily stored there due to a shortage of warehouses. Most of that tobacco was for filler, however, since wrapper had long since been shipped to Havana.
Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars, said in late September that Cuban cigar production would meet 2009 demand. That's about 110 million to 130 million handmade cigars, depending on whom you get your information from. "We think that for at least the next year we should not have great difficulties with the supply of cigars because, luckily for us, we have a reserve of raw material," said Habanos vice president and commercial director Manuel Garcia in a September 24 Reuters article.
The 2008-2009 crop is a big question mark. I visited Cuba's most famous tobacco growers, the Robainas, near the town of San Luís, and they already had about 200,000 seedlings growing in an area outside of their barns. "The damage has not been that bad in San Luís and San Juan y Martínez," said Hiroshi Robaina, who runs the family's small wrapper farm. That is ground zero for great tobacco leaf, especially wrapper. "We still plan to grow a normal crop," Robaina said. The Robainas' tiny, two- to three-inch-high plants were being watered with a sprinkler in an enclosure measuring about 150 by 50 feet that resembled a greenhouse. The walls were made of chicken wire to keep animals from damaging the baby tobacco, and the roof was white synthetic gauze to deflect the bright sun. Most of the tobacco was either Corojo '99 or Criollo '98. No Capero No. 1 was planted this year. Capero was the new super tobacco that the Cuban tobacco institute developed a couple of years ago. It was thought to be a rigorous tobacco that produced large leaves and was resistant to potent diseases such as blue mold and black shank.
Capero grew beautifully. I remember seeing the huge leaves earlier in 2008 on the Robainas' farm. I had never seen such large wrapper leaves in Cuba. They resembled Connecticut-seed wrapper leaves more than anything Cuban. Plus, the plants produced three or four more leaves than Corojo or Criollo seeds. However, big and more is not always better, as the Cubans found out. Apparently, when the Capero was fermented in the late spring, the leaves were too thin to withstand normal Cuban tobacco processing. "There was nothing left," said Robaina. "The tobacco was useless in the end."
It's sort of ironic that the Cuban government was interested in promoting the use of Capero because it does not produce flowers and, therefore, seeds. The Cubans have been very unhappy that seeds of Corojo '99 and Criollo '98 had found their way to fields outside of Cuba. So they were hoping they could better control the trade of tobacco seeds with Capero. But nobody in or outside of Cuba is going to want to plant Capero now.
The Robainas, like other tobacco farmers, have more important worries than unsuccessful tobacco hybrids. The day I was at their farm, they were elated that 300 liters of diesel had arrived at their door. "We can finally do some work with the tractor at the farm!" Robaina yelled, when he heard the news during lunch. "It's been really hard to find diesel and just about anything else since the hurricanes, including food."
The Robainas seem to be some of the lucky farmers. Most of the campesinos on the island are struggling to make ends meet. I stopped at a small filler tobacco farm on the outskirts of the town of Piloto about a half hour's drive east of the town of Pinar del Río. There was very little there other than a couple of wooden shacks and a small dilapidated pink mortar house. It was called Finca Vista Hermosa. Interestingly, the peeling pink house was the birthplace of the great cigarmaker of Nicaragua, José Orlando Padrón. He has never been back to Vista Hermosa since he left the island almost 50 years ago. His cousins are now working the land.
But they, like others in the hurricane-affected region, were contemplating whether they were going to plant tobacco in 2008. "We are still thinking about [it]," said a woman on the plantation. "We are not sure we can manage this year."
They were hesitant to commit to planting tobacco primarily because they had no place to cure the leaves after the harvest. Their two curing barns collapsed during Hurricane Ike, and little or no wood was available to rebuild them, not to mention carpenters or nails. The large wooden structures had been at Finca Vista Hermosa for as long as the family could remember. Even Padrón, who lives in Miami, remembers the barns. "It must have been one hell of a storm," he told me when we smoked a cigar in his offices in Miami before I left for Havana. In fact, the two storms were the worst to hit Cuba since 1944. Most farmers in the Semi-Vuelta are now planting food such as beans or vegetables. It was doubtful that they would plant tobacco. They need to grow products that they can eat or sell in farmer's markets throughout the island.
But what about the rest of the thousands of workers who are involved in the process of cigar marking from leaf processing to rolling to boxing? The hurricanes had very little effect on Havana, as far as I could tell. So the half dozen or so factories in the center and outskirts should have no problem producing cigars as long as the tobacco reserves hold out. Almost all the production of those factories is earmarked for export. The other 50 or so factories throughout the island are a big question mark.
In the meantime, Habanos has raised prices on Cuban cigars about 10 percent due to increased costs. As one Habanos representative said, "Everything is more expensive now on the island, from gasoline to food. It costs more to make Cuban cigars. What are we supposed to do?" Just as an example, low-grade gasoline has increased to about $1.40 a gallon compared to half that just a year ago. Prices for extra food staples, other than what the government hands out as rations, are about the same as supermarkets in the States are charging.
There's no way to gauge the long-term impact of this crisis. I lit up a new regional cigar that was made exclusively for the Italian market. The belicoso-shaped smoke (5 inches by 52 ring) delivered plenty of cedar and spicy character with a full body and a smooth texture. It was an outstanding cigar, 90 points, non-blind. The small torpedo smoke was just one of more than two dozen regional cigars released last year in the global market. More releases are expected this year.
There's no predicting the demand for these cigars, given the global economic situation, but despite Habanos' confidence, there are also real question marks about the future supply of Cuban cigars for 2009. Cuban-cigar smokers might be wise to stock up on their favorite Habanos over the next few months.