A visit to the cigar factory is one of the essential tourist experiences of Havana; even for me, a non-smoker, it reveals a lot.
Standing behind the Capitol is the 166-year-old Partagás Factory in a brightly painted colonial building; the location promoted by most of the tourist guidebooks and hotels. Simply approaching the building marks you out as a target for the locals who offer “cheap Cuban cigars” as an alternative to the state-controlled retail prices. As workers in the factories are entitled to a cigar allowance as well as their wages, I had naively believed that this was the source of the roadside market. There were too many such offers for this to be true however.
I’d planned my visit to the factory for one of the days when the weather forecast was for rain, and so strode boldly through the doors towards the end of my week there. And was stopped by a large female security guard.
Did I want the factory or the shop? Her response to my answer was to point me to a notice on the wall. A sheet of A4 paper inserted into a cellophane cover, and taped at an angle intended to make the reader’s life interesting, informed me that the factory was closed for renovations, that I must go to another factory (whose location was meaningless to me), but that tickets could only be purchased through hotels.
It struck me that this was evidence of the mindset of a communist state. One of the city’s most visited attractions had been allowed to decay to the point of closure, and though an alternative existed it was made difficult for the consumer to access. Surely a capitalist wouldn’t risk the loss of so much revenue?
This experience was repeated in a number of other major attractions; the Capitol building and the National Theatre were both walled off behind high fencing whilst building works were underway (yet each was large enough to have kept part open surely?), and the viewing gallery at the top of the Jose Marti memorial was inaccessible because armed guards ensuring that preparations for the May Day parade went smoothly were turning people away before they could get within 50 metres of the structure.
The following day, armed with a ticket from my hotel (that I could wave at a taxi driver so that at least they knew where I was going) I made it to another factory. Set in a run down side street, this lacked the grand façade and indeed anything that identified it to the passer by. My driver offered to wait for me, and when I told him that I’d walk into town after my visit, gave me one of those looks that questioned my judgement.
And so into the factory, where I was immediately told that taking pictures in the working areas was forbidden and that I must lock my camera away in their security room before being allowed upstairs. The place looked and felt like a prison.
But then Augustine arrived and provided a very informative tour of the facility, which produces all of the Cuban cigar brands under one roof; workers being given their recipe each day as to whether they are making Monte Cristo or Romeo & Juliet for example. These brands were once owned by different manufacturers but now all are state owned.
Every cigar is blended, wrapped and trimmed by hand; meaning that repetitive strain injury is common. The production area, which is reminiscent of an old classroom with rows of wooden desks, is noisy due to the loudspeakers which blast out the news in the morning and classic stories in the afternoon (hence the names of some of the brands), and the air is smoky as workers can help themselves and smoke all day if they wish. Addicted to the tobacco, the free allowance is unlikely to be sold on.
So what about those street alternatives? Fakes made with cigarette tobacco and banana leaf. It may be a communist state, but there are plenty out to make a fast buck.