PINAR DEL RÍO.— On one side of the room, a grand piano evokes the maestro Chucho Valdés and beside it, on a turntable that reads: “The Bride of Feeling,” the figure of Omara Portuondo stands out.
On the other side, at the foot of a façade of the Partagás factory, there is a truck with the insignia of that legendary industry and in the foreground, in the middle of a fertile tobacco plantation, two men harvest the leaves that they will later load on a cart pulled by oxen.
All these pieces are carved out of wood and impress due to their realism, and much more so when one discovers that they are humidors to store and preserve cigars.
Craftsman Jorge Luis Milán explains that this is just a sample of Decuba, Arte en Maderas’ work, a project founded in 1995, whose creations have been sold in more than 80 countries.
“The aim has been to produce packaging that, in addition to its utilitarian function, expresses the tobacco culture and also Cuban culture,” Milán notes.
An Agricultural Sciences graduate, Milán explains that at the beginning, the project included only three people, who in the mid-1990s decided to come together to make cigar cases. Decuba is affiliated to the Cuban Cultural Goods Fund (FCBC).
“We started doing very simple things, however, we realized that there was a wide field of work, so we started to improve ourselves and train new artisans.”
With the help of a retired professor from the provincial arts school, a training process was initiated that continues today.
“Thanks to this, we have colleagues specialized in techniques which were almost extinct, such as marquetry,” Milán states.
FROM CUBA TO THE WORLD
A short time later, Decuba’s products began to gain popularity. In 1997, exports began through the Habanos S.A. Corporation and would later also do so through the FCBC.
In 2004, given the quality of this work, Habanos granted the project a license to use its tobacco brands in its designs.
More than simple wooden containers for preserving cigars for prolonged periods - with devices that regulate temperature and humidity - the humidors that come out of this workshop are true works of art.
“The fact of uniting designers, marquetry, carvers, carpenters, cabinetmakers and painters, among other specialties, has allowed us to achieve a high quality result,” Milán notes.
“If a line like Cuban cigars, recognized as the best in the world, is combined with craftwork, it acquires added value.”
This explains why during the last two decades the works of this Pinar del Río-based project have reached more than 150 cities in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, accompanying a product that distinguishes this province and the country.
Allegorical images of tobacco growing in the Vueltabajo plantations, or pieces that resemble heritage buildings of Old Havana or Trinidad, or are inspired by important personalities of the art world, are part of the extensive catalog that has been enriched over the years.
There is even a line of humidors decorated by the most important visual artists of Pinar del Río.
“We have made pieces up to two meters high, with capacity for between 800 and a thousand cigars,” notes Decuba, Arte en Maderas founder and director Milán.
“Each design is the result of teamwork, and the constant exchange of ideas among the more than 20 artists that the project brings together,” he adds.
Awards and recognitions at events such as the International Crafts Fair (Fiart), and dozens of exclusive series for Habanos S.A., testify to the excellence of Decuba, in addition to the fact that the project has donated the money raised by dozens of pieces in auctions at international events to the Ministry of Public Health.
However, Milán notes his disappointment that, although his project and other similar initiatives that exist in the country have managed to break into very difficult markets in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Cuba continues to import humidors and containers, to later export them with its tobacco products.
“You can even find them if you take a tour of the specialized stores of some provinces such as Havana,” says the craftsman, noting that this situation is illogical: importing goods from abroad to export them again; when they could be made in Cuba, with the necessary supplies.
“We need to seek more adaptable forms of integration and complementarity between agencies and ministries, because although there is a policy to avoid imports, in practice they continue,” he adds.
Convinced that Cuban artisans have the skills and talent to take on any task, no matter how complex it may be, he explains that Decuba and the Cuban Cultural Goods Fund are currently working on the creation of a new workshop, on the outskirts of the city of Pinar del Río.
This will make it possible for the project to venture into other productions and improve working conditions, but above all, it will increase the capacity to make humidors that help to conserve Cuban tobacco in climates very different from ours, and to spread Cuban culture throughout the world.