The Forbidden World of Cuban Cigars & Capitalism

Cuba’s most popular export is the Cuban Cigar.  Because of the US embargo against Cuba, Cuban cigars, arguably the finest cigars in existence, are illegal for Americans to buy.   Cohiba, Montecristo, H. Upmann…all of these famous brands are produced by Habanos SA, the government owned tobacco company.

The process is still largely done by hand.  The factory that we visited in Havana did not even have a single computer.  Cuban woman in the accounting department were hunched over large sheets, balancing the books with paper and pencil.  Rather than a machine to add labels to the finished boxes of cigars, older Cuban men spread glue over labels and affixed them to ceder wood boxes by hand.  Of course, the cigars are all rolled by hand.

Cuban Cigar Factory, Havana

Cigar Factory Havana Cuba - No picture taking allowed

Yes, Cuba is a surprising place.  It is a world devoid of modern industry and American products.  All employees in these factories are state employees.  You know, like town hall officials back home.  Except they are rolling tobacco and exporting it to the world.  They are certainly skilled workers, and just like Cuban doctors, they have been placed into their jobs by a mixture of choice and government necessity.  Everything for the people.

Cuban Communist Billboard Havana

An Association of Fatherhood/Patriotism or Death

Yes, there is Patriotism, or there is Death.  It isn’t so much that you will be killed…it is more that without everyone working together, everyone will fail.  These billboards are everywhere along the roads in Cuba.  Its a lot of propaganda talk of being strong together, remembering the people’s revolution (“51 años” is posted everywhere, meaning 51 years since the revolution), and resisting the evils of the United States and capitalism.  But the truth is that capitalism does exist in Cuba.  It exists when the doctor takes a side job as a bellboy to earn foreign cash.  It exists in the buying and selling of property by arranging fake marriages through which property can change hands, quickly followed by a divorce (although this week, all of that will change).  And it exists when Cubans steal from their government jobs and sell the goods to tourists.

Cuban cigars are not cheap for tourists, even in Cuba.  The government knows that tourists want them, especially Americans who cannot buy them back home.  The cigar stores are modern, clean and dignified.  The prices are through the roof.  It costs literally hundreds of dollars for a box of Cohiba cigars.  Not to worry though, because the second you exit the nice, clean cigar store, there will be a Cuban waiting to greet you.  He will work in the cigar factory, and he will have a ring of friends who also work in the factory.  Together they have slowly stolen all the necessary materials to create a box of Cohibas.  They smuggle out the boxes piece by piece, the labels and the cigars.  They assemble the boxes, pack the boxes with stolen cigars and place all stickers and labels in proper position.  After all, these tasks are their day jobs.  A box on the street will cost you about $30, depending on your negotiation skills, and will be every bit as Cuban as those sold in the government run stores.  These are the entrepreneurs of Cuba.

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3 Responses to “The Forbidden World of Cuban Cigars & Capitalism”

  1. November 9, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    This is great stuff. Your entries always leave me wanting more.

    • Chandra
      November 9, 2011 at 11:03 am #

      This sounds like spam, but I trust that you are real 😉

      • November 9, 2011 at 11:06 am #

        I can also offer you a great deal on c i a l i s. Special import only Canada good deal superhero!