Francisco Linares is a man who knows tobacco. The new head of Habanos, S.A. (formerly Cubatabaco), Cuba's exporting arm for cigars, was born in the Pinar del Río region, Cuba's prime growing area for fine cigar tobacco. He also worked for decades with tobacco workers' unions in the Vuelta Abajo.
Before taking the helm at Habanos, Linares was Cuba's minister of labor. He had only been in Habanos' office in old Havana 20 days when Cigar Aficionado editors met with him to discuss the future for Cuban cigars in the global market. A soft-spoken, reflective man, Linares wouldn't make any broad statements about his plans for Habanos; however, he said that his organization would continue policies established under the reign of former Habanos chief Francisco Padron, who left to pursue an academic career, teaching economics and business strategy at the University of Havana.
"We are going to recover our position in the world market and return to the historic levels we enjoyed years ago," says Linares. This year's harvest, according to Linares, went very well, despite wet weather in January, and the production will be average in size. Cuba has experienced a string of small harvests in the past three years due to poor weather and a lack of resources such as fertilizer and gasoline. Linares says that acquiring needed materials was less of a problem this year, due to an influx of money from Habanos' foreign distribution partners in key markets in Europe, the Far East and the Americas. He expects that 1995 year-end exports of fine handmade cigars will total 60 to 65 million, up from 50 to 55 million in 1994.
"By 1997, I am sure that we are going to reach a very important level of production," Linares says, although he won't give exact figures. "What is important is that we are going to be working closely with the Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade to increase production over the next few years. We can't increase exports unless we increase our production."
He is determined that these increases will not mean a decline in quality. "We are slightly worried with the demand in the world for fine Cuban cigars," he says. "We don't want to increase the market too much and then reduce the demand too much. Also, we don't want to effect the quality of our cigars in any way."
Linares already has spent time in the fields of the Vuelta Abajo and in the factories of Havana speaking to key members of the tobacco trade to emphasize the need to increase production while maintaining quality. "Tobacco workers remain the same as before," he says. "I speak to the man in the field and the rollers in the factories, and I have a very good impression of what they are doing. They are very noble people. They have a culture and tradition entrenched in tobacco."