It was 1492 in Cuba, when the Spanish expedition led by Christopher Columbus saw tobacco for the first time in the so-called New World. According to historians, Cuba’s original Tainos rolled and lit some mysterious leaves they called cohiba, in a ceremony as yet unknown to Europeans.
Since this point of departure in Cuba, more than 500 years ago, tobacco has been traded and planted across the entire planet.
Yet Cuban black tobacco is still considered the world’s best, given the unique conditions certain parts of the island provide for its cultivation, a distinction which remains unquestioned five hundred years later.
The essence of the difference lies in the tobacco’s taste, based on the combination of four factors, present only on the island: soil, climate, the Cuban black variety, and the know-how of the country’s tobacco farmers and cigar makers.
While in other places certain abilities, and even Cuban seeds, may have been acquired, the nature of the country’s soil and climate cannot be duplicated. These are gifts not to be found elsewhere. Nor can Cuba’s knowledge and culture of tobacco, created over centuries, be equaled.
Tobacco farmers do an extraordinary job cultivating this crop. Years of applied wisdom and patience must transpire before a leaf is ready to be used to craft an expensive Habano cigar.
To address the current winter planting season, and other aspects of the industry, of particular importance to the country’s economy and identity, Granma International interviewed the highly knowledgeable Miguel Vladimir Rodríguez González, first vice president of the tobacco state enterprise Tabacuba.
Beginning last year and thus far in 2016, the island has experienced an unusual weather pattern, with drought, heavy rainfall, unseasonably high and low temperatures, due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon, causing Cuban agriculture a veritable headache.
How is the winter planting season going? Has the unusual weather had an impact?
The campaign started well, despite the weather and climate changes that are dealing us a bad hand, not just in tobacco, but for all crops. Planting began last October 10, and to date we have been able to plant the projected hectares. More than 25,000 hectares have been contracted and planted throughout the country.
We started first with lots of drought, and now lots of rain, but we have learned to live with these changes. We have no alternative, and our producers have taken it this way, with a great deal of sacrifice.
We have increased training for producers and strengthened bodies that address irrigation, acquiring and installing more irrigation systems, which are also more efficient; relocating plantings to drier areas; undertaking construction and maintenance of water supplies, irrigation canals, wells; and everything we can do to mitigate these negative effects.
Have material supplies been available?
All plant health products and fertilizers have been assigned in a timely fashion, allowing a good planting season to progress. Many resources have likewise been directed to supplying spare parts for producers’ agricultural equipment. So, except for the weather, we believe that all the conditions are in place for a good tobacco campaign.
Is tobacco planted throughout the entire country? Which province is the largest producer?
Today, we plant tobacco in all of the country’s provinces, except for the capital, and of course, the largest in terms of area cultivated and production continues to be Pinar del Río, with more than 16,000 hectares, contributing almost 70% of the nation’s tobacco production.
It is very difficult to evaluate what region is doing better, since our entire enterprise system and the productive base throughout the country have been acquiring experience in the development of tobacco cultivation. We are having very good results in regions where, until a few years ago, there was little or no experience. I am not going to mention names to avoid hurt feelings.
What importance does the application of science and technology have in this sector?
I don’t think there is any activity in the world today which can survive and develop without the application of research results, and the introduction of new technology.
The enterprise has access to the Research Institute located in San Antonio de los Baños, in the province of Artemisa, with a lot of experience, created in 1964, and other experimental stations in Pinar del Rio, established in 1937, and another two in the center of the country - one of them in Cabaigüan, was inaugurated in 1940,and the other in Manicaragua, in the province of Villa Clara; as well as the Technology Dissemination Group in the province of Granma, which began operating in 2003, to provide technical assistance in the country’s eastern region, where tobacco production has also developed over the last several years, with very good results.
As you can see, we have accumulated a lot of experience in scientific research linked to the development of the Cuban tobacco industry, from agriculture to the industry.
The principal objective of the Institute, and all the associated centers, is to put science and technological innovation at the service of the Cuban tobacco industry.
One of its principal activities is related to the introduction of new varieties of tobacco, with greater disease resistance and yields, and confronting pests and disease that affect the cultivation of tobacco in Cuba and around the world.
What is Tabacuba?
The Cuban Tobacco Enterprise Group, Tabacuba, was created in July of 2000, and is subordinate to the Ministry of Agriculture, as the only economic organization in the country which comprehensively directs tobacco activity in all phases of its production chain, from agriculture to sales on the international market, and within the Cuban environment.
Its current mission is to continually increase the tobacco sector’s contribution to the national economy, with participation in the world market for tobacco and its products, maintaining the Habano’s leadership position, through efficient, competitive, sustainable work.
The Group’s (state) enterprise system is composed of 45 companies, of which 15 are agricultural, six agro-industrial, nine producers of hand rolled and premium cigars, four cigarette manufacturers, and six working in services or sales. Additionally associated with Tabacuba are three joint enterprises, one mercantile consortium, and a research Institute with three stations.
The Group directs a total of 96 hand rolled cigar factories - 46 of these devoted exclusively to cigars for export, one to machine fabricated cigars for export and the domestic market, and four for exclusively national consumption.
We likewise have more than 250 selection centers, more than 50 tobacco processors, and more than 60 de-veining sites (where half of the central vein is removed from leaves reserved for the filling, a fourth of the vein for those to be used as binders, while the entire vein is removed from those chosen as wrappers, making two bands.) Altogether, the Group is very broad, diverse and complex given the multiple activities involved in cigar production.
In the purely agricultural part, some 600 production sites participate, of these there are some 20 state enterprises and the rest are cooperatives or private properties, in which about 200,000 people are involved during every season.
At this time, the Group is being perfected and becoming a Superior Organization of Direction, with greater authority in the enterprise sector, as part of the implementation of the Communist Party of Cuba’s policy approved at its Sixth Congress, which will put us in better conditions to develop the Cuban tobacco industry in tune with current times.
What are the principal results and prospects for the industry?
Our industry today produces almost 300 million hand rolled cigars, of which 100 million are destined for export, and the rest for domestic consumption. We additionally produce some 130 million machine-made cigars, almost 90% for export, and some 15,000 cigarettes.
The Cuban tobacco industry has many opportunities for expansion, and I could highlight the project being undertaken in the Mariel Special Development Zone to construct a new cigarette factory with our Brazilian commercial associate Souza Cruz, which will begin operations and start-up in 2018, with an annual production capacity of some eight billion units.
Our cigarette factory in Holguín, the country’s most modern, also has an ambitious investment plan to expand and modernize its products. This is a challenge for the Group, since we intend to align standards of quality and presentation of products meant for national consumption with those existent today around the world.
Likewise, at the approval stage is a program to broaden and modernize our only machine-made cigar factory, a business which we first undertook with the Spanish company Altadis, 15 years ago, and then with a British partner, the Imperial Tobacco Group.
In your opinion, what does tobacco represent for our country?
Tobacco is part of our culture and our national identity. Historians say that when Spanish colonizers arrived to our lands, native inhabitants already enjoyed the pleasure of smoking a good cigar, associated with their religious rites and ceremonies.
Then, with colonization, the Spanish took tobacco to Europe, and there began the story of its universalization, which continues today. Much has happened since then, but there is no doubt that Cuban tobacco continues to be recognized by the most demanding smokers as the world’s best tobacco.
I believe that 500 years of history have a significant impact within the culture of a people, and Cuban tobacco continues to be one of our most emblematic products in the international market. So we will continue to devote ourselves to the development of the tobacco industry, and confront all the challenges we face with the opening of new markets from which we have been absent for many years, for no fault of our own. For one who understands, these few words are sufficient - right?
A GLOBAL PRODUCT OF THE AMERICAS
Tobacco arrived in Europe during the 16th century. In 1510 Francisco Hernández de Toledo brought the plant to Spain and 50 years later diplomat Jean Nicot introduced it to France, a figure immortalized by the term nicotine, the name given to the active ingredient in tobacco, first isolated from the plant’s leaves in 1828. In 1585 privateer Sir Francis Drake brought tobacco to England, where British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh later introduced the custom of smoking dried, crushed leaves in a pipe to the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The product quickly spread across Europe and Russia and in the 17th century arrived in China, Japan and on the west coast of Africa.
Although tobacco is grown in 120 countries of varying climates, the most popular products are produced from certain specialist tobacco growing regions. (Ecured)
• TOBACCO PRODUCING REGIONS IN CUBA
Vuelta Abajo (in Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Río): The best place in the world to grow tobacco and the principle source of leaves used to produce Habanos. It is also the only region which produces all varieties of leaf. But even here, only a small area, less than a quarter of the entire region, possesses the distinction Vegas Finas de Primera, a title required to produce the tobacco for Habanos.
San Luis: A small town located in the heart of Cuba’s tobacco growing region, renowned for producing wrapper leaves (used for the outer wrapping of cigars). The town is home to several famous farms including El Corojo and Cuchillas de Barbacoa, owned by the famous Robaina family.
San Juan y Martínez: Another small town which enjoys a reputation for growing the filler and binder leaves for Habanos and is home to the famous Hoyo de Monterrey estate.
Semi Vuelta: A zone located in Cuba’s western region, known above all for producing binder and filler leaves used to make Habanos. However, the cultivation area is very small, barely 1% of Semi Vuelta’s entire production zone. Soil in the area is also good for seed beds. The majority of tobacco produced in Semi Vuelta is used for other purposes
Partido: A historic group of production zones located southeast of Havana which were founded at the beginning of the 17th century. The Partido zone is renowned for producing wrapper leaves.
Vuelta Arriba: A region located to the east of the island, spread across two very different production zones:
Remedios: The largest and oldest tobacco growing zone in Cuba, and source of all varieties of leaf used in José L. Piedra cigars. The area enjoys unique soil and climate conditions; however cultivation practices are the same as those used across the country’s other tobacco producing zones.
Oriente: It was in Bariay, in the eastern most part of this region, where the Spanish first landed in Cuba. Tobacco is still grown here, although not to produce Habanos. (Ecured)
JOINT VENTURES AFFILIATED WITH THE TABACUBA BUSINESS GROUP:
-Internacional Cubana de Tabacos S.A. (ICT): Operating in partnership with Imperial Tobacco Group, the world's fourth largest international tobacco company. ICT was founded on February 23, 2001 and is responsible for the manufacture and marketing of all 100% hand made Cuban cigars.
-Brascuba Cigarrillos S.A.: A company composed of Souza Cruz S.A, leader in the Brazilian cigarette market and member of British American Tobacco (BAT), and Tabacuba, affiliated with the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture. Brascuba Cigarrillos S.A was created on April 5, 1995 and manufactures and markets cigarettes sold in CUC in the domestic market and for export.
-Habanos S.A.: A 50-50 partnership between the Cuban state (Cubatabaco) and British Imperial Tobacco Group. The entity markets hand rolled premium cigars in CUC for export and the domestic market, and has a distribution network across five continents.
- Cubatabaco: The company functions as a recruitment entity and is responsible for managing Habanos S.A. tobacco brands and trademarks.
-Tabagest S.A.: A 100% Cuban owned company, responsible for investing in tobacco companies and businesses, both in Cuba and abroad, as well as the management and organization of a variety of cigar entities.