Monday, May 21, 2012

Iconic Cuban cigar goes un-smoked at home

Posted on Sunday, 05.20.12

Iconic Cuban cigar goes un-smoked at home
McClatchy Newspapers

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba -- The elderly cigar maker sits at a rustic table
next to a tobacco field and a barn filled with hanging rows of aging
tobacco and meticulously selects the brown leaves, rolling the most
tender ones carefully for the center of the world's most celebrated
tobacco product: the Cuban cigar.

But here in the province that's the heart of the tobacco-growing region,
as in Havana, it's largely tourists who light up. Very few of the Cubans
themselves smoke cigars. The economics of smoking, given the locals'
low, government-set salaries, put cigars out of reach for most people,
making the iconic Cuban cigar something that's produced for foreigners -
for export and for tourism.

Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who for years was always
puffing on a Cuban Cohiba cigar, gave them up in the mid-1980s. A
ferocious anti-smoking campaign by the government in the last 10 years
also has had an impact. But it's really about the cost.

Rolando Robaina, a taxi driver from Vinales, a town in the tobacco
region, gives his visitors two cigars as a goodwill gesture on a trip
from Havana, then offers to sell them more. As for himself, "No, I don't
smoke," he said.

"The only people I've ever seen puffing on cigars have been in cigar
factories, and even in Pinar del Rio, someone might smoke for the
theatrical side of things," said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist
at the University of Florida who's an expert on Cuba and has been there
a dozen times since the 1990s. "It's a luxury good."

John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and
Economic Council, said it came down to: "Do you have money for lunch or
for a cigar today?"

With salaries that average $17 to $20 a month, even a cigar that costs
the equivalent of a dollar in Cuba's currency is out of reach. There are
low-quality cigars available for less, but they aren't popular.

Archibald Ritter, a Cuba expert at Ottawa's Carleton University, said
that until about 10 years ago cigars were included in every Cuban's
monthly ration card - five a month at reduced prices.

"People would get the ration and then re-sell it," Ritter said.
"Everybody became buyers and sellers. It was sort of an ironic and
counterintuitive approach - turning people into mini-capitalists."

Cigars are one of Cuba's few exports, along with nickel, sugar and
shellfish, but they've been a constant source of revenue, as well as of

"It remains a status symbol," said Jose Azel, a professor at the
University of Miami.

Cuba exported about $240 million in cigars last year, according to
Rafael Romeu, the president of the Association for the Study of the
Cuban Economy, a Washington nonprofit organization. That's only 4.5
percent of Cuban exports.

"It has more of a symbolic role," Romeu said. "It's a brand for Cuba."

And a brand that's especially coveted in the United States, where Cuban
cigars have been the high-profile product in a 50-year economic embargo
of communist Cuba.

"There's always the nature of a taboo," said Gordon Mott, the executive
editor of Cigar Aficionado, a New York-based bimonthly magazine. The
magazine, which always features a story or an item on Cuba, is a big
proponent of the Cuban cigar.

"Based on our tasting reports, Cuban cigars are better today than at any
point in the last 15 years," Mott said.

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