I wasn't sure if I was being stonewalled, or simply being politely told to mind my own business. But the two officials from the Cuban cigar global distribution organization, Habanos S.A., clearly did not want to tell me their export figures for 2001, when I interviewed them in early February. "We are not concerned with figures anymore," said Ana Lopez, the head of marketing for the organization. "We are only interested in quality. Quality is the key for Cuban cigars at the moment."
"I couldn't agree more," I told her. "But I have seen figures in the press saying that shipments last year were down 30 percent and I would like to confirm that." I was following up on press reports that said Fidel Castro had given out that figure, but it had never been officially confirmed.
"You know that we can't win, when we give out our export figures," she added, only half-joking. "If our sales are up, then people say that we are exporting too much, but if our exports are down, then they say that we are not exporting enough. Let's forget about figures, and let's focus on quality."
I did just that for a couple of days in Cuba. I looked at quality, literally from the ground up. I took a couple of trips to factories, such as Romeo y Julieta and El Laguito (home of Cohiba), as well as visits to various areas and plantations in the Vuelta Abajo, the prime growing region for tobacco.
What I found is that Habanos is right; a new emphasis on quality can already be seen, from better cultivation techniques in the plantations to more rigorous quality control in factories. However, quality is not achieved overnight, especially with tobacco and cigars. It is going to take time to get it right. The cigar industry in Cuba is like a supertanker in the middle of the Atlantic, going full speed. It's not an easy task to slow down and change direction, even for the most talented helmsman. For years, the Cubans have been steaming ahead with an ambitious plan to produce more and more cigars, but after a quick lesson in free market economics, they've realized they must change strategy. The downturn in the global economy obviously has undermined the Cubans' rapid expansion plan, since luxury products, like cigars, were the first to be hit. As a result, the growers and cigarmakers have received their new orders of "quality first." Maybe this is a slightly cynical view of their change of mind, but regardless of the reasons, Cuba's renewed emphasis on quality is a major step forward.
For instance, I spent an hour with Emilia Tamayo, the gregarious manager of the El Laguito factory, the home of Cohiba cigars. What I saw there convinced me that it makes sense to buy cigars made in her factory. Look for the initials CLE stamped on the bottom of boxes, which stands for El Laguito. Some of her pronouncements during my visit to El Laguito were obvious bravado, but I have been to her factory numerous times over the last 10 years and I have never seen it in better condition.
It wasn't a question of the 100 or so rollers doing their craft quietly and intently. Working on the ground floor of the small villa-cum-factory, they have always done that since Tamayo took over the factory in the early 1990s. What was really impressive this time was the increase in the number of people on the first floor of the factory, where workers carefully check every cigar, from the quality of the color and texture of the wrappers to the ease of the draw.
El Laguito is one of the very few of the 50 or so cigar factories in Cuba that have a machine that can test the draw of bunches, which is basically a cigar without the wrapper. So every cigar made in El Laguito is mechanically checked for its draw before the wrapper is applied and the cigar is finally placed in its box.
Furthermore, Tamayo says that, within the next year, she hopes to have a large percentage of the production of Cohiba produced only in her factory. "The remainder will be made at my friend Hilda's factory, Partagas," she said. "It's only right that another woman makes my cigars, because Cohiba is like my own brand."
In the past, Cohiba was made in various factories, primarily in Havana. Under those circumstances, Tamayo admitted that it was difficult to maintain the quality of the blend as well as the quality of the cigars. It's a problem with all the brands that are not made in a single factory. For instance, Montecristo is made in dozens of factories around the country. How in the world can the brand's quality be consistent? At the moment, Tamayo says that all Cohiba Lanceros, Corona Especials, Exquisitos and Panetelas are made at El Laguito. Most of the Robustos and Esplendidos are also made there. In all, the factory is making about 5 million cigars annually (500,000 are Trinidads).
Construction of a new building behind the factory, to house more rollers and workers, is expected to begin this year. This would enable the total Cohiba production of approximately 7 million to 8 million cigars to be made in El Laguito, Tamayo said. "I want my factory to be a model for other factories," said Tamayo. If all that she is predicting actually happens, El Laguito could certainly be just that.
My visit to the Romeo & Julieta factory represented the flip side of the situation. As well intentioned as the manager and other senior officials were, the quality control at the factory seemed antiquated at best. The couple hundred rollers seemed to have little or no supervision. Moreover, the dozens of tourists who were visiting the factory—most were package tourists who didn't smoke—only added to the chaotic atmosphere.
The final quality control was a joke. Granted, when I visited, the four or five people in the department were on their lunch break. But the systems for checking the quality of the cigars seemed incredibly inadequate. Most of the factory's system depended on weighing samplings of bundles of 50 cigars, and if the weight was under or over a certain level, the cigars would be unbundled and checked for construction flaws. It's clear that the quality control there could be more rigorous. How in the world can they take a serious sampling, with four or five people and simple scales for weighing, when the factory makes from 6 million to 8 million cigars a year?
At least the factory management wants to achieve better quality. The manager at Romeo y Julieta continued to speak about la calidad throughout our hourlong conversation. He said that the days when the government was pushing them to make more and more cigars were over. Quality was the key element for Cuba's cigars going forward, he said.
One of the keys to improving the quality of Cuban cigars will be improving the tobacco, both wrapper and filler tobacco. You can't make great cigars without great raw material. What I saw in the fields and in the tobacco barns in the Vuelta Abajo held great promise.
This year's harvest may be one of the best in years. I spent a morning at the plantation of Alejandro Robaina, near the town of San Luis, and the quality of the leaves was phenomenal. Still drying in the barns, the tobacco not only was perfect in texture, it was long and wonderfully formed. It was one of the Robainas' earliest completed harvests in years.
Hirochi Robaina, the 25-year-old grandson of Alejandro Robaina, was beaming with pride. It was his first harvest as the head of the family farm and he said it couldn't be a better way to start his new position. Of course, he knew that a lot of the success had to do with Mother Nature. "The weather has been perfect all year," he said. "Even when we thought late last year that disaster would strike because of a hurricane, but at the last minute, it changed direction and we have had very good weather ever since."
Not everyone, however, was rejoicing over this year's harvest. A small grower near the town of Piloto, which is off the beaten track (even though some of the best strong tobacco comes from that region), had already run out of gasoline to run the pump that supplied water from the nearby stream to his fields. Most of his crop of sun-grown tobacco barely reached his knees, and it was doubtful he would harvest even a fourth of his normal crop.
"All the tobacco plantations that are on the main roads, or near other tourist destinations, have all the gasoline, fertilizer and whatever else they need," he said. "But for tobacco growers like me, fat chance."
The inconsistencies that I found remain one of the biggest stumbling blocks in Cuba's drive to reestablish the quality of its cigars. However, the situation is obviously getting better. And that means better Habanos to smoke for all of us.