In front of a machine that measures the quality of the cigar for the perfect tasting, Orquídea González says she is proud to work in an industry that, in the midst of the pandemic, manufactured Cuba’s second export product.
“I love making tobacco. I’ve been here my whole life because this is an art. Not everyone knows how to make tobacco, just as not everyone knows how to make a painting,” says González, 55, as he inserts each piece into a metal tube to compress the air, which marks the smoker’s exact levels of aspiration with a needle.
“If it’s less than 40, the shot [aspirada] is excessive, if it’s over 80 it’s a blocked shot”, he explains, keeping an eye on the needle.
El Laguito, a factory opened in 1966 in western Havana to manufacture the cigars of the leader of the Revolution, Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and those he gave as gifts to foreign leaders, opened its doors on Thursday to show the work. handmade from its winders.
In these facilities, Cohiba was born, the most refined brand of Cuban tobacco and whose name comes from the word used by indigenous Taínos, originally from the island, in allusion to the rolled tobacco leaves that they smoked and haunted Cristóbal Colón and his men for five centuries.
Rolling your own tobacco is a custom that persists among peasants in the province of Pinar del Río, where a large part of this leaf is produced.
– “Different from all others” –
In this mansion, the Lanceros was created, Fidel’s favorite line and a product still produced by Cohiba, although the commander stopped smoking in 1985, at the age of 59.
“Despite all the difficulties we have” plans remain to manufacture “about two million (cigars)” in 2022, says Oscar Rodríguez, director of the El Laguito factory.
The export of Cuban cigars grew 15% in 2021 in Cuba, totaling US$568 million, despite the negative effects of the pandemic, which forced almost a year of confinement, according to Habanos SA, a corporation that brings together national brands.
This is good news for the battered Cuban economy, which is going through its worst crisis in three decades, with daily blackouts.
In the pandemic, this company “did not stop for a single day” until it became “the second export sector in the country”, concluded Rodríguez.
According to Cuban officials, the top five markets for their cigars are Spain, China, Germany, France and Switzerland.
Deftly manipulating the ‘key’ – a curved razor – and the gum, dozens of workers put the finishing touches on the cigars after they have been rolled.
Sixty percent are women, following the tradition of this factory, founded by several of them, such as Celia Sánchez, Fidel Castro’s companion in arms in the Sierra Maestra, who determined that the workers there were single mothers or women with fewer opportunities.
During the pandemic, Norma Fernández, another founder, died. She rolled all the cigars for the leader of the Revolution.
“It was a privilege to say: ‘I made cigars for the president,'” recalls Orquídea, who lived at the time working in this factory, which occupies a luxurious mid-20th century mansion, close to the place where Fidel dispatched and received foreign personalities.
Caridad Mesa, 55, started out 26 years ago as a cleaner and is now in charge of quality control of each cigar at the end of the process.
She takes care of “the quality, the weight, the length, the outline of the wrapper, the thickness”, she says, in front of the boxes full of cigars that passed her attentive eyes and in front of a large photograph of Ernesto Che Guevara.
These cigars, which cover a wide range depending on their quality, can each cost between 30 and 200 dollars both in Cuba and abroad.
“Cuban tobacco is different from all others because of its flavor and that gives it the land of Pinar del Río, where the best crops in the world are grown”, says Orquídea, assuring that the best leaf in the world is produced there.
© Agence France-Presse