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2008 Holiday Host Guide: On A Roll

Jack Smith

In Cuba, it is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. After all, in a country where the economy runs on the black market and promiscuity is promoted as a tourist attraction, people tend to be understanding. To ask permission, on the other hand, is to call attention to yourself, to arouse suspicion, and, very likely, to result in your being escorted onto the next plane off the island—or worse.

I knew none of this when I landed in Cuba, and if I had eluded the grasp of the Cuban bureaucracy, I had done so unknowingly. Nobody had told me I would need special permission to go where I was headed, and it had never occurred to me to ask. What could be so secret about a tobacco field, anyway?

But this was no ordinary tobacco field. We were motoring west out of Havana toward Pinar del Río, the richest of Cuba’s tobacco-growing regions and the source for such renowned brands as Cohiba, Bolivar, Punch, and H. Upmann. The security measures surrounding Cuba’s cigar industry might strike Americans as paranoid—for a reporter to speak with a factory manager, for instance, requires government clearance that is apparently impossible to obtain—but my fellow passenger explained the situation in a way that made it seem sensible, sort of. "Tobacco is to the Cubans what oil is to the Arabs," said Gareth Jenkins, an Englishman who resides in Provence, France, and is a frequent visitor to the island. "It’s their primary natural resource, and one that is easily sabotaged. Tobacco sales account for far less than the $2 billion the country earns from tourism or from nickel mining, but it’s the key to so much of the country’s mystique. What would Cuba be without cigars?"

Our destination aside, the ride west was an enjoyable one, in the way that rides through Cuba always are. Ever since we had left Havana, the roadsides had been thick with hitchhikers of all ages, male and female—reminders that in Cuba hitchhiking is not only legal, but encouraged to the point that government vehicles with empty seats are required to stop and pick up any men, women, or children waiting by the side of the road. The closest thing to mass transit is the numerous flatbed trucks that carry a dozen or more passengers, all of them standing in the back with only a rope serving as a tailgate to keep them from tumbling out onto the highway.

About two hours out of Havana, our driver wheeled his brightly painted, Russian-built Lada off the blacktop and plunged down a dirt road and through the jungle. From both sides, the leaves of banana trees smacked against the windshield like the streamers in a car wash—thwack! thwack! thwack!—until the car rolled into a clearing dominated by a spacious longhouse, a structure with open walls and a thatch roof. Here, waiting for us, stood a slender, elderly gent with tanned, wrinkled features beneath a straw hat. This, explained Jenkins, was Alejandro Robaina, Cuba’s most famous and most revered plantation owner. Like the tobacco fields, the 89-year-old Robaina was well guarded: As we rolled to a halt, a pair of burly young men bearing machetes stepped in front of the car.

"Oh, by the way," said Jenkins, "things might go better if you say you’re British."

For Jenkins, Cuba is a holiday destination, a rum-laced never-never land where ancient Chevrolets and Packards, their valves and lifters clicking like giant cicadas, roll slowly past decaying, colonnaded cityscapes, and pulse-pounding salsa rhythms pour into the narrow alleys and avenidas from every bar and restaurant.

For citizens of the United States, including me, Cuba falls into a different category; it is officially a hostile dictatorship, off limits to American travelers and trade. Since 1962, for the most part, the United States has not exported products to Cuba (limited food and medical exports have been allowed since 2000)—thus the presence of so many Chrome Age American cars on the streets of Havana. Cuban imports into the United States, including cigars, are also forbidden.

It is difficult to say whether the embargo has suppressed or stimulated the demand for Cuban cigars, but it seems to have done little to stifle their production. Last year, Cuba produced an estimated 150 million cigars in about 220 different widths, lengths, and shapes, representing the 27 premium brands of Habanos S.A., a joint-venture company owned by the Cuban government’s Cubatabaco and Altadis, part of the Imperial Tobacco Group of Great Britain. (In 2007 the world’s top exporter, the Dominican Republic, shipped 177 million cigars, and Honduras, number three on the list, exported 84 million.) The Cuban statistics are not exact because Habanos declines to release sales or production figures. Likewise, access to the country’s most skilled torcedores (cigar rollers) and tabacaleros (tobacco growers and dealers) is zealously guarded.

Secrecy has not always served the Cuban cigar industry well. In recent years it has become fashionable for foreigners to say that the country’s cigars are overrated and not what they used to be. The best rollers, say some aficionados, fled the country decades ago for Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, or the Dominican Republic, taking with them the time-honored techniques of cigar making and the seeds from which to grow Cuban tobacco plants. They also took with them such vaunted brand names as Partagas, Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, and H. Upmann, all of which Cuba continues to use for its cigars.

Adding insult to injury, just last year a prominent tobacco grower and cigar maker from the Dominican Republic, Emilio Reyes, told the American magazine Smoke that his family regularly sells tobacco to Cuba, where it is rolled into some of that country’s most prestigious brands. Further, Reyes contended, unlike cigar makers in his own country, Cubans no longer bothered to ferment their wrappers, causing the cigars to produce an inferior, harsher burn.

The Cubans say this is all propaganda, a deliberate smear campaign orchestrated by jealous rivals. Of course the Cuban cigars people smoke in the States are a disappointment, say the island’s cigar makers: The cigars are fakes! In Canada, where it is legal to sell Cuban cigars, the police estimate that 80 percent of the cigars sold as Cubans are counterfeit or have otherwise arrived in the country illegally. It may be, as some industry observers assert, that Cuban cigars are the world’s most frequently counterfeited product.

Even in Cuba, counterfeits are ubiquitous. It is impossible for a seemingly affluent traveler in Cuba to stroll a block outside his hotel without hearing a chorus of "Psst! Cigars?" in his wake. Counterfeit Cubans are hustled literally in the factories’ shadows, where they are made from the fillers and wrapper leaves rejected inside. The authorities impose hefty fines for selling counterfeit cigars, but the country’s widespread poverty—the average Cuban earns $15 to $20 per month—makes the practice worth the risk. The stakes are higher for the ill-advised American who hopes to slip past U.S. Customs with a box of genuine Montecristos hidden deep in his luggage. Penalties include confiscation, a fine of $55,000 per violation, and, if the Treasury Department decides it is warranted, criminal prosecution. In fact, the Trading with the Enemy Act makes it illegal for an American to consume any Cuban product—namely, cigars and rum—anywhere in the world.

Cigars are not the only goods sold on Cuba’s black market. It would be difficult for the natives to get by without dealing por la izquierda, or "on the left," as the Cubans call the black market. They will buy and sell almost anything underground: milk, rice, beans, and other staples, along with such forbidden delights as lobster, cuts of beef, and satellite dishes.

The resiliency of the island’s black-market culture demonstrates how far Cubans are willing to go to circumvent Castro’s dicta. But because the wheeling and dealing often occurs in plain sight of uniformed police, it also reveals the elasticity in government control of the island.

The permissiveness extends to the most elemental level of Cuban society, regardless of whether, as President George W. Bush has contended, the Cuban government promotes sex tourism. It is true that, in 1992, Castro said Cuban prostitutes, although outlawed, were the world’s best-educated and cleanest because the country has the lowest rate of HIV. In fact, in 1998 the government launched a sweeping crackdown on prostitution, and measures to diminish the practice continue today.

Nobody can say what a post-Castro Cuba might look like, but one constantly encounters clues that life here could change suddenly in the not-too-distant future. Since the summer of 2006, when Fidel, now 82 years old, handed over control of the government to his 77-year-old brother, Raúl, the worldwide press has been full of reports of reform in Cuba. For the first time since the revolution of 1959, Cuban citizens are allowed to buy such "luxury" items as computers and cell phones and to patronize the bars, hotels, and restaurants formerly reserved for foreign tourists. In the agricultural sector, unused land has been redistributed to private farmers. As a practical matter, few Cubans have been able to take advantage of these reforms. The prices of cell phones and tourist hotels are far beyond the reach of most Cubans, and farmers must first meet government quotas before working surplus plots. But if a more liberal Cuba comes, could rapprochement be far behind?

In Havana’s squares and in the bars and restaurants, Cubans speak openly and optimistically of how life might be if the U.S. trade and travel embargo were lifted. At Floridita, where Hemingway was known to quaff daiquiris one after another and where a vocalist was warbling through "Guantanamera" for the umpteenth time, the bartender looked toward the door, as if expecting a boatload of American tourists to burst in at any moment, and said, "We have the sun. We have the rum. We have the girls. What American in his right mind would not like to come to Cuba?"

That’s a good question. Since the Soviet pullout in 1991, tourism has become the country’s fastest-growing industry. In 1990 the island had only 12,000 hotel rooms; by 2007 this figure had grown to more than 40,000. New airports have been built to handle the expected crush of visitors, and the Ministry of Tourism recently announced plans to build 10 new golf courses and 30 more hotels. (It remains to be seen how the destruction caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which struck in late August and early September, just before this magazine went to press, will affect those construction plans.)

It is one thing, though, to build a hotel or landing strip and quite another to instill a culture of hospitality in a country where prices of everything are determined not by supply and demand but by the Ministry of Finance and Prices. Or where the largest tourism cartel, Gaviota, is operated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the Cuban military. ("The buffet opens at 1800 hours promptly. Line up single-file!") Guests entering the lobby at the Saratoga, billed as a four-star hotel, have to elbow their way past the doormen lounging in the entrance. The doormen are not hostile; on the contrary, they are likely to greet you warmly. They just don’t seem to know that a doorman’s job involves opening doors.

So it is too soon to say whether Cuba will ever become what it once was: the most freewheeling tourist draw in the Caribbean and the most exciting destination in the Western Hemisphere. But any day now, a whole generation of Americans might enjoy their first legal taste of what has been forbidden fruit: Cuban cigars. The question is, will they have been worth the wait? One way to learn the answer now is go to the source.

At the Partagas Factory, in the middle of downtown Havana, nubile virgins roll cigars on the insides of their thighs. So goes the popular tale, which may be why the hot, humid factory is one of the city’s most popular attractions. Alas, the nubile lasses must have taken the day off on the morning I joined a passel of tourists from South Africa, Australia, and Holland for the grand tour. In their place were row after row of men and women in blue jeans and short-sleeved shirts, who sat rolling loose bunches of brown leaves into tightly packed and perfectly formed cylinders on the tables in front of them.

Somewhere on the premises a man was reading the morning’s news into a microphone, a practice that dates to the mid-19th century, when cigar makers formed the core of the island’s labor class and news readers were enlisted to alleviate the tedium of rolling the leaves. At the same time, the readings ensured that even the illiterate workers were educated about happenings in the world outside the factory.

One of the first things you learn at the Partagas facility—besides the fact that nobody rolls cigars on their thighs—is that, contra the naysayers, one of the vital steps in Cuban cigar making involves stacking the tobacco leaves into heaps as tall as 4 feet to promote at least two stages of fermentation, which sweats out excess odors and gases from the leaves while reducing the nicotine level. The first fermentation generally lasts about a month, the second 60 days or longer. A few of the most expensive cigars require their outer wrappers to be fermented a third time, for more than two years.

Some Cuban factories attempted mechanized cigar making in the 1920s, but they abandoned it long ago as a means of producing premium cigars. However, one new technique uses a mechanized suction device to measure a cigar’s draw, thereby assuring the smoker of uniformity. "So you see," our tour guide said brightly, "Cuban cigars are not only as good as ever, they’re better."

In the United States and Europe, cigars have been emblematic of capitalism since the late 1800s, when savvy cigar makers began branding their merchandise with decorative bands and packing them in protective boxes of cedar. To Cubans, rum—produced in mass quantities by factory owners (see "Adding Cuban Rum to the Mix," page 314)—evokes the specter of imperialism, while cigars represent the working class. They serve as a reminder of the time when every farmer rolled his own cigars and tobacco was central to Santeria, a religion that blends old African rituals with Catholic rites and animal sacrifices and that is still practiced on the island.

More recently, some of Cuba’s rollers have earned international acclaim. At 64 years old, José "Cueto" Castelar might be the country’s most famous torcedor. Castelar’s shop, which the state has given him to showcase his talents, is tucked away in El Morro, the imposing 16th-century fort that guards the entrance to Havana Bay. The store’s walls are festooned with three oversize cigars—36, 49, and 67 feet long—that coil their way around the shop like pythons. "Each one was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest cigar: the first in 2001, the next in 2003, the longest in 2005," said Castelar.

Castelar has been rolling cigars since he was 12. "It was different then," he said. "We had hundreds of small shops making cigars. But rolling was always a good job."

Indeed, the factories did not hire just anybody. Castelar first had to take a test to see if he had the talent for rolling. Then, after several months of instruction and practice, he was apprenticed to a veteran roller in La Corona factory, a few blocks from the Partagas facility. There he gained fame for his mastery of two especially difficult cigar shapes: the double figurado and the liliputana. "The figurado was hard to roll because it tapered to a point at both ends," said Castelar. "Today it has been mostly replaced by the corona, which is much easier to make."

The liliputana, with its delicate sheen, is difficult to roll because it is so small—not much longer than a cigarette. "It was once the favorite of the queen of Spain," Castelar said. "In all Cuba there were only two torcedores who could roll the liliputana—myself and one other guy. Now there is only me, and I do very few because there is so little demand for them. After me, it will disappear."

Another must on any cigar connoisseur’s Cuban itinerary is La Casa del Habano, a cigar club in the upscale Miramar section of Havana. From the outside, the club resembles a temple carved from granite. Inside, La Casa looks like an exclusive men’s club—marble floors and cedar paneling—except that, instead of being hung with portraits of solemn bankers and aristocrats, the walls display photos of past and present club regulars that include Ramón Castro, Fidel’s older brother, and Compay Segundo, one of the Cuban musicians celebrated in the documentary The Buena Vista Social Club.

Today the cigar on everyone’s lips—figuratively, not literally—is the Cohiba Behike. If price is any indicator, the Behike, released in 2006, may be the finest cigar ever made. Cohiba’s El Laguito factory in Havana produced only 100 boxes, each with 40 cigars, and these were sold, before they were even rolled, for $18,869 per box, or about $470 per cigar. Are they worth it? Nobody at La Casa del Habano this afternoon could say for sure. "I don’t know anybody who’s ever smoked one," said Carlos Robaina, who represents Habanos worldwide. "All 4,000 were rolled by one woman at the factory, and she won’t tell how she made them."

It is likely, though, that before all of the pricey Cohibas are consumed, some will wind up at La Casa del Habano, if only for safekeeping. On one side of the club is a ponderous metal door that opens to a vault that looks just like one you would find in a bank, except that its 96 deposit boxes are made of cedar and together contain close to a million dollars worth of cigars.

"Some of these belong to Americans who fly all the way to Havana just to enjoy their cigars," said Robaina, who, after swearing Jenkins and me to secrecy, pointed out a few of the familiar names affixed to the lockers. "Wherever you go, it seems there is political correctness, but you know, the elite will always want cigars," he continued. "You can tell people not to smoke, but they will anyway. It’s like telling a child not to play."

La Casa del Habano is an amiable setting, redolent of tradition and the easygoing camaraderie of cigar enthusiasts. But if we were looking for the heart and soul of Cuban cigars, said Robaina, the place to find it was at his family’s vegas in Pinar del Río.

Only, as we would learn the next day, once the plantation hands had put away their machetes, nobody just stops by the Robaina estate, especially not when the proprietor, the legendary tabacalero Alejandro Robaina, is on hand and holding court.

Jenkins was beside himself with glee as we approached and introduced ourselves to Robaina. "Can you believe our luck?" the Englishman asked as our host beckoned us to join him and a half-dozen other guests. The table was laden with platters of lobster, chicken, beans, and rice, and bottles of the local Cuban beer and 15-year-old rum. "Some people travel from thousands of miles away to meet this man," Jenkins said.

Long acknowledged as the elder statesman of Cuban cigars, Robaina in 1997 became the only Cuban allowed to market a line of cigars under his own name—Vegas Robaina. He is best known, however, for growing the tobaccos that form the outer leaves—the most flavorful part of a cigar—for such brands as Cohiba. On this afternoon, though, he was smoking an unlabeled cigar from his private stock. "Would you care to try one?" he asked. "You must warm it first before lighting. A cigar is like a woman: It is always better when it is warm."

The line was a crowd-pleaser, and a grin creased Robaina’s features as his guests laughed loudly. As for the cigar, it was smooth and mild with contrasting hints of pepper. There have been years, our host acknowledged, when Cuban cigars were not so enjoyable. He blamed that lack of quality on Cuba’s Russian political and economic sponsors, who rarely smoked cigars and therefore had little appreciation for them. They preferred that Cuba invest its manpower in the production of sugarcane, a heavy industry that involved heavy machinery. "The machines crushed the earth," said Robaina. "It was not suitable for growing tobacco."

Fortunately, he said, that all changed with the departure of the Russians. No less important, he said, Cuban cigar makers, who have long compared their products to wine, have finally taken a cue from vintners in Bordeaux and Napa. "For a long time we were preoccupied with quantity, growing as much tobacco as possible," said Robaina. "That’s what our government quotas were based on."

But the government has experienced a change of heart. This year it began paying the growers based on the quality of their crops. The change does not affect Robaina; he had been the exception in the old system. "My vega does not have to meet any government quota," he explained, smiling modestly.

As for the notion that the best rollers fled Cuba long ago and now toil in foreign lands, Robaina dismissed it with a laugh. "Anybody who says that does not know much about cigars," he said. "A roller is like an athlete: He cannot go on forever. By the time he is 45, 50 at the most, his career is over. That is why rollers have apprentices—not just to pass on the techniques of rolling, but to help the older rollers."

This observation led, inevitably, to a ribald discussion of virility and the many more ways that a cigar is like a woman. Then the conversation turned to the fineness of the rum at Robaina’s table, the embargo, the future supply and demand for Cuban cigars, and looming trademark battles—once the U.S. embargo is lifted—over such prestigious brand names as Cohiba, El Rey del Mundo, Montecristo, and the others that non-Cuban cigar makers have appropriated. "The people who will make the most money won’t be us," complained one of Robaina’s guests, a cigar salesman from Colombia. "It will be the lawyers; they’ll be in court for years arguing over who can use what name."

"If this is so," Robaina observed with a philosophical shrug, "I hope the lawyers spend their money on Cuban cigars."

Copyright 2014 Infiniti
Photo by Pietro Carrieri
Photo by Pawel Litwinski
Photo by Aldo Ferrero
Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions