The first cigar I ever smoked was when I was studying abroad in Florence. My friend Kath had been given one as a present: we lit it up along with a lot of giggling, took turns with a puff each – and suddenly I felt horribly sick. No one had ever told me not to inhale.
That evening spent holding my stomach in disgust remained my only education into the world of cigars for the next eight years, and although I knew their importance in Cuba, I wasn’t planning to pay much attention to the things during my visit. But cigars, and the mysteries surrounding them, are an intrinsic part of a tourist’s experience in Cuba – and I could never have guessed how much they’d suck me in.
Cuba’s obsession with cigars
Maybe it’s because of the jinetero culture in Cuba, but within minutes of stepping out onto Havana’s humid streets I’d heard the word ‘cigar’ more often than I ever have in my life. The barrage of cigar references is unbelievable, and it comes from every walk of life.
One of the first things each of my different casa owners told me was that they’d help me out with buying authentic cigars. Fellow guests in Havana told me the merits of a cigar factory tour, and came to dinner with their recently purchased puros which they planned to smoke that evening. Every Cuban man I passed on the streets would strike up a resounding chorus of “hey lady, you want cigar?” It became the background theme tune to my entire month in the country.
So what makes Cuban cigars so popular? I watched the cigar tourists in fascination, bartering with shady looking men in the street and joyfully lighting up fat cigars while leaning back in bars and cafés, sipping on mojitos. I never indulged in this activity, simply because it would never be an indulgence for me. I don’t know the first thing about cigars, whether Cuban or not – although I knew the perils of buying cigars on the street, in case they were fakes.
I had naively made the decision that the Cuban locals wouldn’t be as obsessed with cigars – it’s a gimmick for the tourists, surely! – but I was mistaken. I saw people smoking while riding their bicycles; men taking long puffs at their domino games; well dressed women in central Havana waiting for a photo opportunity, a fat cigar hanging casually from their fingers.
I also couldn’t help noticing the stained teeth of a few of my casa owners, which belied their interest in the things, too.
I basically got caught up in the cigar love – even as a complete outsider from it – and I started thinking. The cigars smoked by Cubans had to be real; they wouldn’t be caught dead with fakes, would they? But as for the fake cigars sold to unsuspecting tourists by savvy touts – where did those come from? Surely there had to be just as big a market for making fake cigars as real ones?
From the streets to the farmland
I headed to Viñales after Havana; a small, unassuming town that’s cemented itself firmly on the tourist trail exactly because of its simplicity. Tourists revel in the anti-Havana, going for horse rides and long country walks along orange mud tracks, and enjoying a sense of peace and quiet – a direct contrast to the never ending noise and chaos of Cuba’s capital.
Viñales is also home to abundantly fertile farmland: it’s located in the Piñar del Rio province, which produces 70% of Cuba’s tobacco. For tourists interested in the tobacco process, it’s an obvious place to come. Particularly when you realize that a huge portion of the local income stems directly from tourism.
We were on a horse riding tour when our guide pointed to a small thatched roof in the distance.
“That’s a secadero – a tobacco drying house,” he said, as I immediately translated for the rest of our group (hello, new career as a Spanish-English translator).
As we rode our horses towards the plantation, the guide gave me a rundown of how the tobacco industry works from a Cuban farmer’s perspective. Complete with a requisite shady political slant to it.
The Cuban tobacco harvest
Tobacco is planted late in the year and grown for three months, during the wet season, before it’s harvested and stored in the drying house for at least three more months – although it’s often longer, as they wait until the yearly rains come to remove it.
This is when the government steps in. Representatives visit each plantation and take 90% of the harvest in order to make official Cuban branded cigars, leaving the farmer with 10% of their own tobacco to use how they see fit.
That remaining 10% still has rules applied to it, though. All the cities in Cuba are where the government’s branded cigars are sold, so the fincas can only sell their homemade cigars in Piñar del Rio, giving them only two types of clients; the Cuban locals, and the tourists who visit fincas and feel compelled to buy real, unbranded, eco-produced cigars from a farmer who handrolls cigars in front of them.
Unsurprisingly, a large part of these farmers’ profit comes from the latter – which means that even though they’re farmers first and foremost, they have to be acutely aware of the tourists in Viñales. The thirty or so farms in the region all have to tempt tourists in and sell their homemade cigars in order to really make a profit.
Michel, the owner of this plantation, was quick to explain that his tobacco, even though it’s the ‘worst’ portion of his entire harvest, is treated in a very different way to the government’s stock.
“They put the tobacco through a factory. It’s processed with chemicals and nicotine and other things. On the farms, we make a mix of water, fruits like pineapples, lemon, sugar cane, cinnamon and rum – and we boil the tobacco in that mix for about 30 minutes, then it goes back to the secadero.”
Some farmers spend a few months on the fermentation process: others, like Michel, spend as much as a year. But there’s clearly a reason. I watched Michel as he pinched together slim rolls of tobacco leaves and rolled them deftly across a piece of wood. He barely even glanced down to check what he was doing.
I asked him how many cigars he makes, in general. He laughed at the question.
Getting my first insights into the Cuban tobacco industry from a tobacco farmer immediately made me biased about which method of cigar production I preferred.
Walking through the earth the tobacco is grown in and talking to the farmers who harvest it (not to mention standing in the drying houses where the government snatch away the best looking leaves) made me certain that the natural, home rolled cigars were basically guaranteed to be better. By the sheer process of their creation, if not by their taste.
But despite this, I still really wanted to see how the process worked in the bigger cities – where the real, infamous ‘Cuban cigars’ come from.
Visiting a cigar factory in Santa Clara
The biggest and most visited cigar factories are in Havana, but when I arrived in Santa Clara I found my way to an unobtrusive building which I knew housed a factory. I pushed past a small metal door and faced a lone woman at a wooden table inside, who didn’t look impressed to see me.
“Hola… Hay turs por la fabrica aqui?”
She nodded slowly, but it took about twenty minutes of scuffing my feet against the cement floor and exchanging awkward nods with a security guard for a woman to introduce herself as a guide.
As we walked out onto the factory floor, she told me I couldn’t take any photos. I tried to protest, but apparently the government doesn’t allow it – which immediately rang internal alarm bells about what I was going to find. Did the Cuban government run their cigar factories like sweatshops?
Actually, the place seemed pretty decent. I probed my guide for facts as we moved between the rows of workers, all of them diligently rolling tobacco inside cut leaves, molding and pressing and moving each new cigar to a neat pile on the side of each desk.
She told me there are 250 workers in the Santa Clara factory altogether, but around 100 people come to work each day. They work eight hours a day, six days a week, with two hours free for lunch and a break, and of the 27 official Cuban brands they produce Montecristo, Partagas, Romeo & Julieta, Punch, and Robaina cigars.
I didn’t get to try any of these cigars, of course. Walking around the factory floor with the guide was very much a ‘these are the things I’m allowing you to see’ kind of experience. No touching, no photos, no smoking – and when I spent more than six or seven minutes chatting to the two women carefully twisting dials on the eccentric looking quality control machine, my guide abruptly cut in and forced me to leave.
Apparently too much talking isn’t permitted, either.
The Partagas cigar factory in Havana
By the time I got back to Havana for my final few days in Cuba, I knew I had to visit one of the major cigar factories to see how it compared to my other cigar experiences – even if Lonely Planet had likened the tours to being on a conveyor belt.
I waited in the reception area of the Partagas factory until there were enough native English speakers to constitute a group, then I trooped dutifully up several flights of stairs along with a middle aged couple from Yorkshire and their gangly teenage son, a guy and girl on their honeymoon, and our female guide.
The workshops looked the same as they had in Santa Clara. Fragments of tobacco leaves littered the floor, trodden underfoot by rows of people at wooden desks with headphones in their ears. Hemp bags hung from the backs of wooden chairs, overflowing with tobacco; bodies brushed past newspaper cuttings glued to the sides of desks. Big fans turned slowly overhead, but the air was still thick enough to warrant a lot of bare chested men.
There was no chance of talking to any of the workers in this factory, though. Our group of tourists was separated from the Cubans by a wall of empty window frames, and as we walked past each row of people, looking in at them like zoo animals, things felt all kinds of wrong. Whenever a Cuban glanced up and caught my eye, I wanted to look away: overtly aware that I was invading their space, and probably shouldn’t be there at all.
The Cuban cigar conundrum
The cigar is a luxurious product, designed purely for enjoyment, and it’s absurdly popular – people around the world are so infatuated with cigars that some will visit Cuba specifically for cigar tourism. But it’s not just the tourists who love Cuban cigars; the income generated by the cigar industry in Cuba is a huge part of the country’s economy, so it makes total sense that the government exploit every stage of the cigar making process for some sort of gain.
So what does that government gain mean? It means that farmers aren’t allowed to reap the true benefits of their hard labour; that factory workers are subjected to constant objectification; and that tourists buy into the hype to such an extent that they’re fleeced on street corners, spending exorbitant prices on fakes.
Before coming to Cuba, I’d hoped to eventually understand the global obsession with cigars. I definitely didn’t manage that – but I did realise that Cuba’s government is just as eager to sell the cigar experience as the cigars themselves. Even down to prohibiting photography inside the factories, yet offering multimedia DVDs for sale, complete with high res images and a short film.
I didn’t buy the DVD, and I didn’t buy the official, branded Cuban cigars. The only tobacco I took off the island with me was rolled on a wooden bench by a man with tattooed hands and a straw hat. And I’m really glad he’s the one who got my money.