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Written by Staff

Friday, 19 September 2008

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Cuba suffered $5 billion in damage from back-to-back storms, and tobacco - one of the few crops that can earn the cash the country needs to bounce back - was hit hard.

Cuba - Alejandro González spends his days touting the intricate craft of tobacco growing to tourists here on the western reaches of the island that produces the world's premier cigars.

But when Hurricane Ike blew through Cuba eight days after Hurricane Gustav's pass, Gonzalez, 35, a tobacco engineer/plantation guide at the Hoyo de Monterrey cooperative, joined an intense effort to move delicate tobacco leaves from their drying barns to stronger buildings in hopes of shielding them from the storm's fury.

Even so, more than half the crop was lost, González says. More than 3,000 tobacco leaf drying sheds and 8,600 homes for tobacco workers in the region, which lies about 112 miles southwest of Havana, also were destroyed.

''It was very, very bad,'' he said in halting English.

According to the daily newspaper Granma, Gustav alone destroyed 3,414 curing barns and damaged another 1,590. In a blow to one of Cuba's top exports, more than 800 tons of tobacco products were damaged by Gustav. The hardest hit city was Consolación del Sur, where 1,836 of the existing 1,857 curing barns were destroyed.

The Cuban government estimates losses from the two storms at $5 billion. As the island struggles to rebuild, one of the few crops that can earn the hard currency it needs to bounce back has sustained damages that experts say could linger for years to come. Cuba made $402 million from tobacco in 2007.

It is possible that the scarcity of Cuban tobacco will pump up prices.

Not counting the United States, Cuban cigars account for 80 percent of the world market. Cohiba, Robaina, Quintero, Partagas and Romeo y Julieta brands, among others, are all hand-rolled from premium tobacco in a process that has changed little over hundreds of years. Besides being widely hailed as the world's best, the Cuban cigars have taken on an extra mystique in the United States, where the long-standing trade embargo makes them forbidden fruit.

Like much of the rest of the island, tobacco production in western Cuba is in a time warp, with locals riding horse-drawn wagons that vie with oxen and ancient Buicks on the highway. A drive along the main highway these days shows countless roofless barns and debris tossed about the rolling terrain.

Rice, coffee, yuca and other crops also were damaged in the double storms.

But cigar-making is a point of national pride for the ailing communist nation, which has few bragging rights after five decades of economic hardship under the Castro regime.

''This is the best tobacco in the world,'' said González, a reed-thin Creole descendant who studied agronomy for eight years and foreign languages for another four.

He grows theatrical as he describes the painstaking work of tending the seedlings, nurturing the young plants and curing the leaves in a many-faceted process more akin to winemaking than growing a typical field crop.

It starts with the land and the climate: The rustic rolling hills of Vuelta Abajo, as the area is known, have ideal soil for tobacco, and the region's humid weather provides the best growing conditions.

Tobacco is planted in the fall, beginning in October, and harvested in the spring, around March. Some plants, cultivated for filler, are grown in the full sun, for flavor and aroma, while those that will be used for the cigars' outer wrapping are nurtured under cotton cloth to keep them tender and moist.

Oxen are still used to work the fields, in part because they don't compress the dirt as heavy machinery would. Women do most of the handling of the plants, on the notion that softer hands are better suited for the delicate process.

The leaves are hand-harvested over many days. After the leaves are picked, they are sewn onto Eucalyptus sticks, which provide some flavoring. They are then dried for two months in a special barn.

Many of those barns are now gone.

Carpenters from other provinces, the Cuban papers said, are being organized into brigades to rebuild the barns in the worst-affected areas. Still, government papers say the losses could have been worse: In 2002, Hurricanes Isidore and Lili claimed 11,000 curing barns.

''Each one of those barns has 400 to 500 quintales. A quintal is 100 pounds,'' said Ramón Serafín, who lives in Hialeah but owns a cigar shop in Tampa.

``How many of those did they lose? The probably had reserves in the factory, but what are they going to do when the reserves run out? That's when they'll see a shortage.''

When the leaves finally get to the cigar factories, such as the Fabrica de Tobacos Francisco Donatien, in the center of Pinar del Río, the provincial capital of the tobacco-growing region, the leaves are painstakingly crafted into stogies. They are hand-rolled, with each worker expected to produce 110 cigars a day.

While Cuban cigars are widely regarded as the best, shoppers who try to buy them on the cheap through informal channels may end up getting ripped off. ''They are banana leaf,'' warns González, who disdains the fakes because they undercut the image of the industry ''and it's bad for Cuba.'' The real Cubans are usually sold in cedar boxes with government stamps.

González claims he can spot a fake at a distance. On a recent afternoon, inside a drying barn, he twirled a Cohiba in his fingers and held it to his ear, listening for the crinkling sound that goes with a good cigar.




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