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Hoping for an end to the silly Cuban embargo

Up bright and early on a Monday morning to visit the plantation where the best "wrapper" leaf is grown in the shade of cotton-netting to produce the blemish-free leaves used to cover all cigar - whether hand or machine made.

We leave Havana through the beautiful, Beverly Hills-like barrio of Cubana Can, a broad avenida of stately, highly protected homes in perfect order. This is where the ambassadors live and it's obvious that they represent the top of the status heap in this otherwise poor country. We pass a rather large and dull church whose iron doors are closed and when I inquire about role of the churches in Cuba, my guide, David Sanchez, from Golden Arm, the publicity wing of the tobacco sector, informs me that they function, and in his opinion, sometimes too well. He then proceeds to tell me the story of Project Peter Pan.

Apparently, when Castro won the revolution, many parents were terrified that their children would be raised under Communism and literally gave them to the church, which, with the aid of the CIA, spirited them off to America. According to David, 100,000 children were taken to America where, "they grew up traumatized" - reaching adolescence without families, but now too American to return.

About and hour and half from the city, passing through country which might be any undeveloped island nation - small, multi-colored houses in modest disrepair, distant palms, scooters, bicycles, old cars, fields with ragged, weedy borders, people waiting in clusters for buses, clutching plastic bags and parcels - we arrive at the shade-tobacco farm. The soil here, rich in ferrous material, is a bright orange-red, and it is this soil which produces the best leaf.

The International Cuban Tobacco Co. - or ICT - sells 100 million machine-made cigars to wholesalers each year, and each and every one of them, plus the millions of hand-made cigars, are started, by hand, in either green houses or protected flats, and then transferred one by one, every 1 foot 6 inches, in rows precisely three feet apart. They grow in shaded enclosures to prevent the heat of the sun from either darkening or thickening them. For this labor intensive aspect of the work, thousands of workers come annually to such farms from all over Cuba, joining the locals, to live in large dormitories from November through March of each year.

Cuba lies on an east-west axis in the Caribbean. The western end, called Pinar del Rio, is where the sandy, well-drained soil produces every type of leaf - wrapper, binder and filler. It is the Champagne of the tobacco terroir. In the center, the Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos regions are where much of the machine product comes from, and in the East is Guantanamo (Gitmo to you).

Each plant has approximately 16 leaves. The bottom, called maсanita, is where the filler is made. The second-position leaves, working from the ground up, are called Libre pied, above them, centro ligero, then at the next highest stage, centro fino, centro gordo, until finally, the three leaves at the top are called the corona. Each set of leaves has its own qualities, which contribute to the final taste of the marque. Generally the mid eight leaves are used as binder or wrapper and the Corona can be either, depending on the quality.

These leaves are further categorized as either Volado - those which give the cigar "combustibility" - or Ligero - the strength of the taste. Together, these two form the filler. The leaves they call Seco - and which also contribute the aroma to the cigar - are used for binder and wrapper. By differing the quantities of these types of leaves, the specific taste of each marque is established and maintained.

As the leaves ripen, they are individually picked, beginning with the bottom, laid flat on pole litters and covered with cheesecloth. These litters, called pariguelas, are then carried to the drying shed, where teams of women thread them onto long poles. Each pole will carry 64 pairs of leaves. One woman, working diligently, can make 50-60 poles a day, for which she receives a two cent bonus per pole.

The women work in a section called a barradera, two women per barradera, from seven in the morning until five at night, six days a week. Like all other Cubans, they receive free education and health care, and in this industry, they also receive a two-week supply of food each month. This is a coveted job in Cuba.

The women were tranquil and relaxed, joking with the supervisor and studying us curiously, but, like poor people everywhere, they never relaxed the steady, constant pace of their work either.

As the leaves are hung to dry, gradually the ammonia leaches out. In some of the drying houses, there was enough of it in the air to make one's eyes tear. Gradually, over several weeks, the leaves will change from bright green to the dun color that we recognize as tobacco. As they dry, they are initially soft and elastic, but become more brittle as they shed water, and so as a final step, water is sprayed on the floor of the drying sheds to moisten them enough to be worked into cigars.

Tabac Cuba is the government agency that produces and manufactures all the cigars. It gives them to Habanos s.a., another government agency, which then wholesales them around the world in partnership with Imperial Tobacco (once Altadis). With the money made from the sales, Habanos underwrites the next year's crop with cash, for which it is repaid with cigars. These cigars are then sold, bringing an infusion of world currency into Cuba. It's a clever way to foil the American embargo, among other things, and also an example of the resourcefulness that has allowed Cuba to survive.

On the way back to the city, we stop at San Antonio de los Baсos, a pretty town clustered with colorful old trucks we had noticed on the way out. It is the capital of this particular state, and not far away there is an international film school, which we have no time to see. I photograph many trucks (and their drivers who insist on stepping out and posing.) People are curious, friendly, but dignified about coming over and seeing what this little knot of strangers in their midst is about.

For lunch, we drive to an amazing ruin of a building in downtown Havana. A feature film unit is working in the street, and several crew-members give me nods of recognition, lifting their chins and smiling as we enter the virtually devasted foyer of what was once a private mansion. Plaster is crumbling, the inside walls are stained and dirty, and the film company has set up a production office on the ground floor.

We climb a broad marble staircase to the third floor, past a poem of Fidel's written carefully on the wall which says something approximating, "We will never surrender. Without our country we have nothing. Without our country we have no life. We have no bread for our children. We have no education." It goes on to list all the requisites for existence given to them by their land.

It appears that many families now live in this space, which once housed only a doctor and his family. The son of that family, Enrique, now operates one of the best restaurants in Havana, La Guarida, established in what have must been a private apartment inside the house. He explains that in 1995-96 a "window" was established that allowed people to open restaurants in their homes. There were once about 250, but since that window has closed, the number has dwindled to 73. When he says this, he's corrected by a colleague who informs him that a certain restaurant has just closed so the number is now 72.

Enrique employs 40 people, and his enterprise exists in a netherworld neither entirely legal nor illegal. He is frustrated and somewhat bitter that his entrepreneurial skills are not appreciated and that the government does not appear to respect industry such as his. "I was trained as an electrical engineer," he tells me. "When I learned that I could make $2 a month doing that, I decided to open a private restaurant."

I questioned people about why the government was repressive in this manner. Being a Socialist myself, I can fully support public ownership of energy, light, heat, power, communications sectors, which form the basis for modern life, but I cannot see the threat to the state or public order by supporting an entrepreneurial class. No one I ask can give a coherent answer to that question, which is met with disparaging, disappointed shrugs of the shoulder and shakes of the head, but later I read that Castro never has liked brokers or entrepreneurs because he feels that they create economic relationships and lead to material excess. From this side of things it appears that anyone who sticks too rigidly to an ideology, be it free market or Marx, is bound to get in a lot of trouble.

Later that night, I dress to attend the Festival Habanos, at the Karl Marx theater in the old Yacht Club of Havana, where Habano s.a. will premier their new line of "modern" Monte Cristo cigars, rebranding them as Eagle, Regatta, Master and Junior - slightly less expensive cigars for a younger market. It is an advertising, promotional evening, featuring expensive, glossy film clips of horses, sailing yachts, motorcycles and Formula One cars, intercut with beautiful photos of the new sizes and shapes of the cigars. It is well and professionally done, and during each set of film clips, a modern dance troupe from the National company of Cuba performs.They are dazzling - fast, precise, complicated choreography is done effortlessly and impeccably. As someone who has sat through too many such, usually self-important, dance numbers, I am appreciative, then thrilled, then moved by the quality of the dancers and the mйlange of skin colors and races dominating the stage.

In a moment when the word "depression" is now being used by the U.S. press, there is something archaic and out of the moment about these films, which represent speed, power, and wealth in a style which "feels very Nineties," according to James Suckling, European editor for Cigar Aficionado magazine, who I met with for smokes and snacks after the event in the private bar of the club.

Just before that, I am introduced to the audience (celebrity-bait moment) and, in Spanish, welcome everyone to the 11th Festival of Tobacco. I tell them that I'm happy to be in Havana and proud to be a "little star" in the grand sky of cigars. In English, I finish by saying, "This is a long way to come for a good smoke. It's my hope that my country's silly embargo will end soon." This brings down the house and I receive many congratulations.

In the bar with my friends from previous days, Mikey, Gonzalo, Oscar, Jose, my guide David, and James, we chew the fat, as professionals do the world over. When I tell James that I am going to be blogging for the San Francisco Chronicle, he replies, "Good, you're legal" and then explains that, contrary to my understanding that it is legal to visit Cuba but not spend American money here, George W. Bush changed the law to make even visiting the country illegal and that I was subject to a $10,000 fine. He proceeded to tell me a story about his friend, actor Matt Dillon, who paid just such an amount.

"However," he points out, just as my spirits are sinking, "under the General License of the Office of General Asset Control you are completely legal. Just tell them. Tell them you've been to Cuba, and remind them, 'of course, you know, etc." He also suggests strongly that I should not attempt to bring back a single one of the numerous and highly valuable cigars I've been given, and he confers on my behalf with the Habano people for an alternative. (Coy talk for something else.) Together they readily concoct a plan which will allow me to cross the border in all innocence and perhaps receive my cigars in another country or even in another lifetime.

James highlights the idiocy of U.S. policy on this matter by telling me the story of a customs official who apologetically cut his cigars lengthwise when he was in transit through the United States en route to Europe. The guard told him, "This hurts me more than it does you. I read your stuff, man." The guard then told him exactly where he could go in New York to buy good Cuban cigars.

It was James who answered my query about the repression of entrepeneurs by suggesting that the Marxist ideology of Fidel was somewhat rigid, and that after 50 years rules were in place administered by a bureaucracy that made everything different. He knew Enrique well, and as an example of what he called "the way around things," he observed that the legal limit for seating in a restaurant is 14 and that Enrique has seating for 28.

He expects that Raul Castro will be more liberal, and already people are pleased that they are now allowed to own cell phones and can visit the good hotels. This used to be prohibited on the grounds that one did not want to give the appearance of "classes" in Cuba - where one group could afford the indulgence of the best hotels and another could not. An admirable sentiment perhaps, but in practice one that built frustration and resentment. People are now hoping that the embargo might be ended; remittances begin again; and more importantly, that Cuba be allowed to buy American products (as it does now on a cash-only basis) on credit.

People are hopeful, but also cautious and a tad wistful. Mikey explains that he fears that should Cuba be opened up, the old and uncared for buildings, and even the mansions from the '30s and '40s which give Havana much of its character, will be torn down and replaced by high-rises; the effluvia of wealth will scrub the city of its funky and lovely character. On that pensive note the evening ends.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Hoping for an end to the silly Cuban embargo