Cuba: Castro’s cigar factory continues the tradition of excellence
Orquidea Gonzalez, a Cuban worker, sits in front of a machine that controls the quality of cigars and says she’s proud to continue the tradition and contribute to an industry that has become Cuba’s second-biggest export during the pandemic.
“I love making cigars. This is where I’ve lived my life and it’s an art. Not everyone knows how to make cigars, just like not everyone knows how to draw a picture,” enthuses the 55-year-old worker.
His job is to measure the suction power of each cigar in a metal tube to ensure the smoker gets the perfect hit.
“If it’s less than 40, the (suction) level is too high, if it’s more than 80, it’s too low,” she explains, looking at the needle of the machine.
The El Laguito Manufacture was inaugurated in 1966 in West Havana to produce the cigars of Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and those he offered to his high-profile guests.
This is where Cohiba cigars were born, the most prestigious Cuban brand, whose name refers to how the Tainos Indians, the island’s indigenous people, referred to the rolled tobacco leaves they smoked that had so surprised Christopher Columbus when he arrived.
Rolling your own leaves is a tradition that lives on among farmers in the western province of Pinar del Rio, where most of Cuba’s tobacco plantations are located.
– Taste –
The Lancero, the favorite cigar of Fidel Castro, who finally decided in 1985 at the age of 59 to quit smoking, continues to be produced in this factory and under this brand.
“Despite all the difficulties we are facing,” the goal is to produce “nearly two million” cigars, or about 9,000 units a day, in 2022, explains Oscar Rodriguez, the director of the factory.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Cuban cigar exports grew 15% in 2021 to a total of $568 million, according to Habanos SA, which includes all national brands.
Good news for the Cuban economy, which is going through its worst crisis in thirty years, with bottlenecks and daily power cuts.
During the long months of the pandemic, the factory “didn’t stand still a single day,” making cigars the “country’s second-biggest export,” stresses Mr. Rodriguez. Spain, China, Germany, France and Switzerland are the main buyers of Cuban cigars.
Deftly wielding a curved blade and a sticky substance, dozens of workers put the finishing touches to the ends of the just-rolled cigars.
About 60% of the workers are women, according to the tradition of this factory founded in particular by Celia Sanchez, Fidel Castro’s companion in arms, in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra (East). It was about giving single mothers or struggling women a chance.
Norma Fernandez, another founder, died during the pandemic. It was she who rolled the revolutionary leader’s cigars.
“It was a privilege to be able to say: + I made the president’s cigars +,” recalls Orquidea Gonzalez, who already worked in the factory in an elegant 1950s villa.
Caridad Mesa, now 55, began working as a cleaner in El Laguito. Thirty years later, she is responsible for flushing out the smallest flaw in cigars.
You have to control “the quality, the weight, the size (…) the size,” she explains in front of boxes full of cigars, which she examines with a sharp eye under a portrait of Ernesto Che Guevara.
Covering a wide range of models, Cohiba cigars can range from $30 to $200 apiece both in Cuba and abroad.
“Cuban tobacco stands out from all the rest for the flavor that comes from the land of Pinar del Rio, where the best tobacco plants are grown,” emphasizes Orquidea Gonzalez, for whom there is no doubt that it is the best tobacco in the world is.
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