Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles about life in Cuba. Cedar County News publishers Rob Dump and Peggy Year took part in a “People to People” tour of Cuba along with other newspaper publishers from across the Midwest.
HAVANA, Cuba — One thing always seems to pop into people’s minds when they think of Cuba these days.
While on a recent seven-day tour of this Carribean island nation of 11 million people, we saw many tobacco fields, tobacco farmers and tobacco stores — but virtually no Cubans smoking those highly-sought after cigars.
If we did manage to catch a glimpse of one of the natives smoking, they were usually lighting up a Lucky Strike cigarette.
It seems the Cuban tobacco industry, like the now flourishing tourist industry, is designed to pump up the economy to capture foreign dollars, not Cuban Convertable Pesos from the locals.
Yes, the tobacco industry is big business in Cuba.
The government-owned tobacco factories export over $215 million worth of rolled tobacco a year. They also sell millions of dollars worth of cigars to the 3.1 million tourists vacationing in this tropical paradise each year.
The further west you go in Cuba, the more tobacco fields can be found dotting the countryside, giving the Cuban earth a reddish brown tint from above.
We got a first-hand look at how the tobacco is grown, dried and stripped when we traveled to the Province of Pinar del Río in north-central Cuba.
Our group spent two days in Vinales, a community of 27,000 surrounded by tobacco fields and limestone mounds, which combine to make a postcard perfect scene that’s been photographed more than Mount Rushmore.
We toured Ismael Benito’s 20-acre tobacco farm and watched as workers used oxen-drawn carts to bring in the harvest of the country’s second largest export crop.
The tobacco leaves are then sorted by hand and dried in old barns. The leaves are dried for at least 60 days. Some hang for up to four years to help develop just the right flavor.
This is a slow, dirty and labor intensive industry. Tractors and eight-row plows simply don’t exist here. There are plenty of able and willing laborers to do the work, though.
Benito is allowed to keep just 10 percent of the crop for himself. Cuba’s Communist regime dictates that 90 percent of his crop goes straight to the government.
Despite losing 90 percent of his crop to the government, he is able to make a tidy profit by selling hand-rolled cigars for $1 each to the bus-loads of tourists that stop by his farm each day.
Once they’ve been sufficiently dried, Benito’s tobacco leaves, and the leaves from other area tobacco farms are then shipped a few miles away to a tobacco stripping house in Vinales.
The sprawling, stifling hot government-owned stripping house employs 62 people who painstakingly go through a 124-quality-control-step process to make sure only the best leaves are used for their cigars.
The vein of the leaf is stripped and the tobacco leaves are sorted, The rejects are dropped into a pile and later swept up to be used for cigarette tobacco.
The leaves are then baled and stored until they are shipped elsewhere, usually to a government-owned factory in Havana.
The whole process is overseen by Alitta Caridad, a 39-year veteran of the stripping house.
In her nearly four decades on the concrete floor of the stripping house, she has seen her workers sort through drought-stricken leaves, barely finding enough quality to produce a bale. She’s seen plenty of abundant harvests, too.
She’s also watched as her workers, most of them women, have practically grown up in front of her eyes and started having children of their own. In fact, on this Friday afternoon, many of those children, could be seen sitting quietly by their mother’s sides waiting for them to finish work so they could go home together.
Caridad said this is a fairly typical scene as the school day usually ends 90 minutes to two hours before the work day does here.
The chidren don’t usually cause any problems she says, adding that the mothers keep them in line because they “get paid by how much they produce, so they can’t have their children slowing their work down.”