Smoking out Cuba's cigar trade

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      Roberto is your stereotypical Cuban. The machete on his belt and his cool attitude toward the government's control of his tobacco production flaunt his machismo. But the pink ribbon wrapped around his straw hat and the way he lets his baby goats suck his fingertips show his sensitive nature.

      A sweet-smelling, hand-rolled cigar flaps from his mouth as he speaks. The cigars in Cuba are so good, Roberto says in rolling Spanish, even the cats and dogs smoke.

      Though I've told him many times that I don't smoke (and that when I do, I regret it), he throws a cigar in my lap. “Por favor,”  he says. “You'll love it.” 

      Roberto is a tobacco farmer in Cuba's Viíƒ ±ales Valley, a region almost 200 kilometres west of Havana. Tobacco and coffee fields fill the valley, interspersed with dirt roads and mogotes, loaf-shaped limestone mountains with vegetation on the outside, caverns and bats on the inside.

      I am visiting his farm on horseback on a day trip with a friend, four European tourists, and a local guide. We're sitting in a small clearing in a rough, Cuban version of a gazebo, with 10 cages of bleating baby goats stacked in front of us. Squawking chickens run in circles at our feet. A massive triangular tobacco-drying hut with a pointed grass roof about 45 metres high stands behind us next to Roberto's much smaller one-room home.

      No one else in the group speaks Spanish, so despite my limited skills, I have been appointed translator. I assume this is the reason Roberto directs the majority of his winks in my direction.

      Roberto and his workers do all the labour on his farm by hand, he says. They trim the tobacco plants once a year, pick the leaves three or four times a year, and then dry them between March and July. The process is labour intensive and requires a delicate touch.

      We stoop our heads to fit through the drying hut's entrance, which seems to be made for dwarves. It's dark inside, with more chickens fluttering about. Smooth, partially dried tobacco leaves””brown, yellow, and green””hang from horizontal poles suspended just above our heads. A musky tobacco scent tantalizes the nose but is surprisingly subtle.

      The group leans close to listen to Roberto but looks to me for explanation. Every year, Roberto's farm produces about 500 packets of tobacco, he says, each of which yields about the same number of rolled cigars. When the harvest is ready, the government takes 480 of the packets and Roberto is allowed to keep 20 for himself. The government sells its share, mostly overseas, for just under a million dollars, Roberto says, and pays him a fixed price, the equivalent of just $80 for his entire year's work.

      That's the way it is in Cuba, he says.

      Cuba has been under the communist rule of Fidel Castro since he and his party took control during the 1959 revolution. Following Marxist principles of equality, the government controls the salaries of most Cubans. It is, therefore, illegal for Roberto to make extra money by selling his share of his crop. Near the end of our visit, though, he tells us we can have five cigars for US$5 if we “forget we know him” .

      No one takes Roberto up on his offer, which pricks his pride and causes him to sulk. But we make it up to him by each tipping a dollar or two before we leave.

      Our group seems cautious, aware of Castro's watchful eye and restrictions. According to my Lonely Planet Cuba, when you leave the country, customs requires an official receipt with every tobacco purchase. But most likely, none of us smoke, so if we wanted to buy cigars it would be for gifts””and the cigars packaged neatly in decorated tubes and boxes that are available in the many tobacco stores and fíƒ ¡brica de tabacos in Havana make for better gifts.

      Fíƒ ¡bricas de tabacos are cigar factories where tobacco from all over the country is sent, sorted for quality and flavour, and dried; cut, shaped, and rolled into cigars; tested for quality; and then packaged and shipped overseas or sold locally.

      The one I choose to visit, Fíƒ ¡brica Partagíƒ ¡s, is located in an old but elegantly detailed Spanish-style building in the heart of downtown. According to our tour guide, it has been open for more than 160 years, employs 800 workers, and produces about 20,000 cigars a day. As we walk through the first floor of the factory, we see workers hanging the tobacco to dry. When the tobacco first arrives, the workers select the best of it, wet the leaves again, remove the spines, and dry the leaves again, our guide says, adding that the tobacco is ready for production when it is slightly moist and rubbery. He then leads us up creaky wooden stairs to one of the factory's two rolling rooms.

      Afraid of encountering sweatshoplike conditions, I'm relieved when I enter a smoky but bright workroom with a wall of windows and salsa music playing loudly. Almost half of the employees rolling cigars also have one in their mouth. Many of the workers, most of whom seem to be between 20 and 40 years old, are singing and a few are dancing. One is applying mascara to her coworker's eyelashes.

      The workers sit in two long sections, with about 15 rows of four rollers each. Two workers per row roll leaves for the inside of the cigar, placing them in boxes with cigar-shaped moulds, which they squeeze tight and leave pressed under a wooden block for about three hours.

      The other two cut leaves into a fan shape for the outside of the cigar, roll the pressed tobacco into the fan, trim the edges, then finish by covering one end of the cigar with a small, circular piece of the cut leaf. This piece is smoothed onto the cigar using natural glue from a Canadian tree, our guide says, but he doesn't say which one. It has no taste or smell, and therefore doesn't affect flavour.

      The rollers' hands move methodically, obviously accustomed to doing the same movement over and over. Our guide tells us that they have to fulfill a quota of about 90 to 105 cigars each per day.

      The workers' training period lasts nine months, during which they get paid 80 Cuban pesos (about $3.40) a month. Their salary increases after that depending on how many cigars the roller can produce in a day.

      Though he doesn't specify the wage, I'm sure it's not much. The average Cuban makes about $9 to $14.50 a month, according to my Lonely Planet. Working for so little seems unfair, especially when our tour ends in the factory's store and I see some cigars selling for US$40 each.

      But like Roberto, I accept that this is just the way it is in Cuba.

      I buy five US$4 cigars for friends, knowing they will enjoy the novelty more than the taste. I leave behind a group of jolly, well-dressed tourists who have been in the factory's store puffing some of Cuba's finest since before my hourlong tour began. -

      ACCESS: Using Cuban currency can be very confusing, especially with recent changes. In the past, tourists mostly used U.S. dollars, so many prices are still set in that currency. Castro's ban on the American dollar took effect in November 2004, however, which has now made the Cuban convertible peso the official currency for foreigners. Canadians should bring Canadian dollars to exchange since the convertible peso is only available in Cuba. Adding to the confusion, locals use a completely separate currency, the Cuban peso. It has a similar name but is worth much less than the Cuban convertible peso. Tourists will likely only encounter a Cuban peso if they have been ripped off.

      A bus leaves daily from Havana for the town of Viíƒ ±ales and takes close to four hours. Ask at your hotel about arranging a horse trek through the valley. It should cost about US$5 an hour plus tip for the guide. You can choose how many hours you want to go for. Be aware that it's hard to find a guide who speaks English.

      The Fíƒ ¡brica de Tabacos Partagíƒ ¡s in downtown Havana [Industria No. 520, (7) 862-0086] usually has tours every 15 minutes between 9:30 a.m and 3 p.m., Monday to Friday, but schedules can change so it's best to confirm ahead. The tour costs US$10 per person and lasts about an hour. Smaller cigar factories in Havana also offer tours, but schedules can be even more unpredictable.