The New York Times
April 10, 1999

Cuban Cigars Made Old-Fashioned Way

          By The Associated Press

          HAVANA (AP) -- The passion for Cuba's high-quality cigars has fired
          up in recent years. American politicians, actors, businessmen -- and a
          growing number of women -- are indulging in what, for many people,
          remains a politically incorrect habit.

          The current trend may be new, but the story of Cuba's world famous
          cigars is an old one, stretching back to the conquest of the New World,
          when Christopher Columbus arrived on the island to find the native
          shaman smoking strange brown leaves out of a wood pipe.

          Later, the Spaniards picked up the habit. Then they began rolling the
          leaves into long sticks that could be smoked without a pipe, and the cigar
          was born. By the late 1500s, tobacco was grown commercially in Cuba
          for export to the Old World.

          The process for making Cuban cigars today remains much the same as it
          was more than four centuries ago. Now, as then, the best tobacco is
          grown in broad fields in the island's west, where farmers lovingly tend the
          tobacco plants' thick green leaves.

          Rather than use damaging pesticides, nets are sometimes placed over the
          plants to keep out insects. In some cases, cheesecloth is draped over the
          leaves to keep out the burning rays of the sun.

          Once the plants reach maturity, a process that takes two to four months,
          leaves of up to a foot long and almost as wide are picked by hand in the
          primary growing region of western Pinar del Rio province.

          Workers sort through the leaves, selecting the best ones. They will later
          be used to make the Cohibas, the Partagas, and the Romeo y Julieta
          cigars favored by tobacco connoisseurs the world over.

          Finally, the leaves are hung to dry in special curing warehouses.

          Once dried to a brown, crinkly texture, the leaves are packed in bales
          and trucked to the numerous cigar factories of Havana. There, workers
          unpack the leaves, sort them again, flatten them and deliver them to the

          Cigars are rolled by hand by workers sitting along rows of tables. The
          roller saves a higher quality leaf for the outer, final layer of the cigar or

          Cuban authorities project that Cuba's 25,000 tobacco workers, involved
          in everything from cultivation to final packaging, will produce 200 million
          cigars for export this year. That's 25 percent more than last year.

          Spain remains Cuba's biggest export market for cigars, receiving about
          42 million annually. France is second, followed by the tourists who buy
          boxes of cigars when they visit Cuba.

          Switzerland, Britain and the countries of Asia also big markets for Cuba's

          The most important potential market is only 90 miles away, but out of
          bounds: the United States. Officials of Cuba's state-run tobacco
          companies estimate they could sell 50 million to 60 million cigars to the
          United States annually if the three-decade-old U.S. trade embargo
          against the communist island were lifted.