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La Historia de Los Cubanos

First of all don’t worry, I’m not writing this article in Spanish. Just trying to sound cultured.


Secondly, welcome to the next installment of “It’s too goddamn cold outside for me to review a cigar so here’s a different article.” This time I’ll be delving a bit into the history of Cuban cigars. For obvious reasons, Cubans have had a huge impact on the cigar industry and culture. Tell any non-cigar smoker that you smoke and I guarantee the first question they’ll ask is “have you had any Cubans?” They convey such a status behind them, but how did they come to be exactly? Everyone knows Cubans are supposed to be superb cigars but does anyone really know why? Well I sure as hell didn’t so I did a little bit of research into the storied past of the Cuban cigar industry.


Before I begin, I want to clarify what makes a Cuban cigar. It’s super simple actually, a Cuban cigar is a cigar that is completely manufactured in Cuba. All the leaves may be from different parts of the island but every single bit of that cigar must have come from Cuba itself to be considered a proper Cuban. That in and of itself is an aspect you don’t see often in the industry. Puros, cigars with 100% tobacco from a single country, aren’t super common. The vast majority use different blends from different countries. But the blend isn’t the only thing that makes Cubans stand out. Many of the “proper” Cuban cigars are still rolled and made by hand by skilled craftsmen. These “Torcedors” have the sole job of creating the cigars from the tobacco leaves and are highly renowned for their skill.


Now, enough with the semantics, time to get into the history.


Tobacco in Cuba showed up anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 B.C.E. from South America. The native Cubans named the plant “cohiba,” which of course is still used today by Cuba’s largest manufacturer. At first, tobacco was mainly used medicinally or in religious ceremonies. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that it started being grown as an agricultural crop for widespread use.

Now came the pivotal part of every history lesson, when Europe showed up.


In my previous history article I go into how Columbus is credited for really bringing tobacco to Europe so I’m not going to go real deep into that again. Instead I’m just going to focus on Cuba.

Spain was the largest proponent of tobacco and took the largest role in manufacturing it. After the conquistadors, Cuba became a Spanish colony and thus fell under Spanish rule. During the 1700s, King Phillip V of Spain put a tobacco monopoly in place. The basis of this decree was that all tobacco products sold had to be through Spanish ports. With that in place, Cuba had to harvest its tobacco leaves and ship them over to Spain where factories there would roll the cigars and sell them.


It took 100 years for Spain to finally figure out tobacco actually lasted longer and shipped better when it was already rolled into a cigar. After this revelation, Spain lifted its trade restrictions and allowed Cuba to manufacture its own cigars with its own tobacco and trade with the rest of the world. It didn’t take long for Cuba to take advantage of this freedom. In less than 60 years, over 10,000 tobacco plantations were in Cuba alone with 1,300 factories just in Havana. Contrary to other agricultural products of the time like cotton and sugar, tobacco plantations did not use slave labor. It was believed the tobacco plant was much more fragile than other products and slaves would not take care in harvesting the plant. Instead, the philosophy was that only a free man would have the necessary pride in his work to take proper care of the tobacco plant.


It was during this period of economic boom that the major cigar brands of Cuba popped up. Partagas, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann, and Punch all opened their doors for the first time during this era.


Of course nothing good lasts forever. In the 1920s, with the rise of industrialization many companies turned to machine-made cigars instead of hand rolled. Many aficionados saw these cigars as inferior quality so they shunned the business. During this time, cigarettes became popular as well. After all, during World War 1 many G.I.s were shown smoking cigarettes so it became a symbol of American culture. Combine that with the Great Depression and really nobody was buying high-quality Cuban cigars anymore.


This decline caused panic among the Cuban companies. Many tried finding cheaper alternatives to keep their businesses afloat. Some turned to cheap labor, some tried different harvesting methods, and some ran off to neighboring countries to get tobacco. So overall, the quality and prestige of Cuban cigars plummeted.


Up until 1960.


That is when Fidel Castro took control of the cigar industry and nationalized it. To most people, the idea of the government controlling an entire industry like that sounds off-putting. In our minds, government regulation would strangle the industry and bring the end of cigars. However, in Cuba it did the quite the opposite. Strict government regulations meant strict manufacturing standards. Castro made sure Cuban cigars were crafted, not manufactured. However, no good deed goes unpunished as they say. Castro’s rise to power brought along the wrath of the United States via the infamous trade embargo.


The embargo severely stunted the Cuban cigar industry. The U.S. purchased a majority of Cuban tobacco and cigars, so Cuba essentially lost its biggest customer. This gave way for Cuban rivals grow and dominate the industry. Nicaraguan, Dominican, and Colombia all started exporting to the U.S. to fill in the void.


The embargo has never fully been revoked, as Congress has to actually do it, but different presidents lifted and added restrictions depending on the political climate. It wasn’t until 2014 that Americans were finally allowed to bring Cuban cigars into the country. Of course, different leaderships have different stances and I believe the restrictions are back in place. But this is of course not a political blog so I’m not going in to that rabbit hole.


To this day, the government still owns the cigar industry in Cuba and Cubans are still a hot commodity. While they are highly sought after and renowned for their quality, in this modern age I think many other countries and companies have been able to comfortably compete with the Cuban giants. Regardless of your personal opinion on what the best cigar is, there’s no denying the story of the Cuban cigar industry is one for the ages.

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