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Cigars and Cuba

Early days

It is well documented that during his inaugural voyage to the “New World,” Christopher Columbus sent Rodrigo de Xerez and Luis de Torres into the interior of a large island on 28 October 1492. This is the moment that started what we know as the history of the cigar.

There, the Spaniards met with the native people in what must have been a remarkable meeting of cultures, dress, languages and intentions. Included was an interchange where the explorers were invited into the village house (the caney) to speak with the chief of the tribe (the Cacique) and to meet the priest (the Behique). As a gesture of friendship, the sailors were presented with a gift of a roll of dry leaves called Cohiba.

After sharing a meal with his guests, the chief employs a Y-shaped tube called a tobacco, placing dried leaves into it, lighting them with a piece of wood called a cuaba and inhaling the bitter smoke into his nostrils. He offers the visitors both cohiba and tobacco, but they decide to pass, returning instead to the ship.

Columbus returned with the leaves, introducing it to Europe under the incorrect name of tobacco, mixing up the native names for the leaves and the pipe that was used to enjoy(?) them.

Spain assumed control of the island by 1511 and by 1515, Cuba had become a base in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the Caribbean, with the present site of Havana settled by 1519. In addition, African slaves were imported to the island to aid in the development of sugar cane, an important cash crop for the conquerors.

Cigars, more or less in the form that we know them today, were first made in Spain in the early 18th century, using Cuban tobacco. At that time, no cigars were exported from Cuba. By 1790, cigar manufacture had spread north of the Pyrenees, with small factories being set up in France and Germany.  The Dutch, too, started making cigars using tobacco from their Far Eastern colonies. But cigar smoking only became a widespread custom in France and Britain after the Peninsular War (1808-14), when returning British and French veterans made fashionable the habit they had learned while serving in Spain.

Production of "segars" began in Britain in 1820, and in 1821 an Act of Parliament was needed to set out regulations governing their production. Because of an import tax, foreign cigars in Britain were already regarded as a luxury item.

Soon there was a demand for higher quality cigars in Europe, and Spanish cigars were superseded by those made in Cuba, which was then a Spanish colony, where cigar production had started during the mid-18th century. Cigars, European smokers discovered, traveled better than tobacco. The cigar probably arrived in North America in 1762, when Israel Putnam, later an American general in the American War of Independence (1774-1778), returned from Cuba, where he had served in the British army. He came back to his home in Connecticut, where tobacco had been grown by settlers since the 17th century, with a selection of Havana cigars and large amounts of Cuban tobacco seed.

Cigar factories were later set up in the Connecticut area, processing the tobacco grown from the Cuban seed. In the early 19th century American domestic production started to take off and Cuban cigars also began to be imported in significant numbers. But cigar smoking did not really boom in the United States until around the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, with individual brands emerging by the late 19th century. By then the cigar had become a status symbol in the United States.

The 20th Century

In 1898, when the Spanish-American War brought Cuba under United States control, American firms began to dominate island industries, including the Cuban cigar industry. The explosion of entrepreneurship in the Cuban cigar industry just after the turn of the century led to the issuance of the Cuban Warranty Seal in 1912 to try to bring some sanity to the proliferation of brands, styles and sizes. Cuban exports remained strong through World War I, but declined considerably afterward:

(The record for this period came in 1906, when 257,776,000 Havanas were exported. The biggest drop came in 1921, when thanks to new tariffs, exports dropped almost 61% to just 59,440,000!)
In the 1920s, the introduction of the cigar-making machine in the Por Larrañaga factory led to a crisis in the industry, as rollers saw their jobs threatened. A boycott of the machine-made products led to the removal of the machines in 1937 until 1950, but American companies interested in this technology and in traditional, hand-rolled cigars began importing large amounts of Cuban leaf into the U.S. for production there instead of in Havana. These cigars, made of all-Cuban tobacco, were known as “Clear Havanas.”

In Cuba, even harder times were ahead as German submarine attacks in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II made Havanas almost unavailable in Europe, their principal market. But after the war, the popularity of Cuban cigars was reinvigorated by the image of the cigar-loving British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and by machine-made cigars, which satisfied the European desire for inexpensive smokes from Havana.

With its markets restored, the Cuban cigar industry moved ahead until 1959, when the Cuban Revolution changed the political situation and the tobacco industry was nationalized.
Revolutionary forces took control of Cuba on January 2, 1959. The Cuban cigar price list effective as of January 1 showed 140 brands in production for export, offering 999 in-production shapes and another 186 shapes not in production, but available for sale (1,185 total).

In 1960, the Cuban cigar industry was nationalized and in 1962, “Empresa Cubana del Tabaco” known as CUBATABACO was formed and the number of marques declined to less than 40.
Between 1959 and 1973, a total of three new brands were introduced (Diplomaticos, Davidoff and Quai d’Orsay). None were introduced from 1974-81, then Cohiba and Dunhill started in 1982.
There was little additional activity until 1989 when three machine-made brands were introduced for sale in Eastern Europe: Belinda, Cabañas and La Corona.

Fourteen years after the introduction of Cohiba, however, a series of new brands began introduction in 1996. Cuaba started that year and Jose L. Piedra was revived as an export brand. Vegas Robaina and Vegueros followed a year later, then Trinidad in 1998 and San Cristobal de la Habana in 1999. The Edicion Limitada started in 2001, the Coleccion Reserva in 2003 and even a new machine-made brand, Guantanamera, was introduced in 2002.

A new firm to control the distribution of Havana tobacco products worldwide (except in the United States, where the import of Cuban products is prohibited), HABANOS, S.A., was created in 1994 and has aggressively expanded the availability of Havana cigars from the ancient tobacco shops of London to the remote islands of the Pacific Rim.
Havana Factory

The Havana cigar factory today is much as it was when the art of cigar making was standardized in the mid-19th century and the production of cigars became industrialized. There are only eight factories making handmade cigars in Cuba today (compared with 120 at the beginning of the century). The names of the factories were all officially changed after the revolution to what were considered more ideologically sound titles, but most of them are still commonly referred to by their pre-Revolutionary names, and still display their old signs outside. The best known are H. Upmann (now called Jose Marti), Partagas (Francisco Perez German), Romeo Y Julieta (Briones Montoto), La Corona (Fernando Roig), and the elite El Laguito, which originally opened in the mid-1960s as a training school. Each factory specializes in a number of brands of a particular flavor. The Partagas factory, for instance, specializes in full-bodied cigars, producing six brands including Bolivar, Ramon Allones, Gloria Cubana and, of course, Partagas. Factories also often specialize in making a particular range of sizes.  The procedures in the various factories are essentially the same, though the size and atmosphere of each factory differs. The grand El Laguito, for instance, is an Italianate mansion (built in 1910) and former home of the Marquez de Pinar del Rio. It is located in three buildings in a swanky residential suburb. The rather gloomy three-story Partagas factory, on the other hand, which was built in downtown Havana in 1845, is rather more down to earth.

Laguito was the first factory to use female rollers, and even today the majority of the 94 rollers there are women. The 200 rollers at the Partagas factory, the biggest for export production, turn out 5 million cigars a year. No matter which factory you go to, the walls of all of them display revolutionary slogans and portraits of Castro, Che Guevara, and others. Other slogans announced "La calidades el respeto al pueblo" (Quality is respect for people) or "Tu tambien haces calidad" (You have to care about quality).

United States embargo against Cuba

The cigar became inextricably intertwined with U.S. political history on 1962, when United States President Kennedy, intending to sanction Fidel Castro's communist government, imposed a trade embargo on Cuba. Americans were thus prohibited from purchasing what were at the time considered the finest cigars on the market, and Cuba was deprived of a large portion of its customers. According to Pierre Salinger, then Kennedy's press secretary, the president ordered him on the evening to obtain a thousand H. Upmann brand petit corona Cuban cigars; upon Salinger's arrival with the cigars the following morning, Kennedy signed the executive order which put the embargo into effect. Cigars (and tobacco leaves) imported prior to the embargo are not considered contraband, and are known as "pre-embargo Cubans."
In the United States, authentic Cuban-made cigars often carry a mystique among some aficionados for being perceived as "the best smoking experience" of all cigars, and for being "forbidden fruit" for Americans to purchase. Some aficionados consider Cuban cigars to be superior in quality to similar cigars made in other countries such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In fact, many of the major brand name cigars from these countries are manufactured under the supervision of Cigar Family members (see Families in the cigar industry below) who descended from those that formerly operated cigar factories in Cuba.

Most well known Cuban brands

Created in 1845, Partagas combined experimental farming, fermenting, and blending methods, as well as an enormous amount of advertising to become a household name throughout the world.

Cohiba has become one of the most sought after and talked about cigars in the world. Although Cohiba is one of the youngest brands to come out of Cuba, its origin is questionable to say the least. However, one thing is certain; the name Cohiba comes from the Taino Indian word for “tobacco.”

Although this powerhouse of a cigar provides smokers with quite a punch, this is not how the name came about. Trying to appeal to the British market, creator Don Manuel Lopez named the brand after a popular character from the Punch and Judy puppet show; a show broadcast in Britain in 1840. This character was also the mascot of the well known Punch magazine. The marketing scheme was a success.

Romeo y Julieta
 Inspired by the Shakespeare classic, Inocencio Alvarez Rodriguez and Jose Manin Garcia created the Romeo y Julieta cigar brand in 1875. It began as a small, unknown brand, until it was sold to “Don Pepin” Hernandez.

The brand was founded (possibly in Great Britain) by José F. Rocha around 1901 or 1902, though the brand was not registered in Havana (Cuba) until 1921, under the ownership of Rocha's firm, J.F. Rocha y Cia.
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