Leaves of Gold

Video posted May 9, 2014 in CommMedia in Cuba by Jessica Paholsky.

Every year, Cuban cigars bring to the nation not only hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, but also millions of tourists.

For locals, though, a Cuban cigar is not in the budget.

Dennys Garcia Reys is a Havana native who works in a hospital. He said he earns about $20 a month while, according to cigaraficionado.com,  acigar costs on average $12.

Another obstacle is the nation’s dual currency system.

In 2004, the government introduced the Cuban convertible peso, or CUC, to do away with the American dollar. Since then, the more valuable CUC has been the currency of the private and tourism sectors. And as a major tourist attraction, it is not surprising that Cuban cigars are sold in CUC, making access nearly impossible for a CUP-salaried Cuban.

In the larger picture, Cuban cigars play a crucial role in keeping the island nation’s economy afloat. The Observatory of Economic Complexity, part of the MIT Media Lab, includes rolled tobacco in the list of Cuba’s top five exported products.

Not only is tobacco a main source of income for Cuba, but it also offers signs of future economic stability. In 2013, Cuban cigar sales increased 8% to $447 million, according to Ana Lopez, marketing executive with Habanos S.A., in an Associated Press article from February, 2014. That trend is expected to continue, said José Miguel Álvarez Borges, a cigar-roller, or torcedor, at La Corona factory in Havana.

What Cubans lack in income to buy a cigar, they seem to make up for in pride in producing this centuries-old product.

When the Spaniards discovered Cuba in 1492, the island’s Indians greeted them with tobacco, called cohiba at the time. Over the years, Cuba has become well known for producing the best tobacco in the world. This is because Cuban soil gives the tobacco plant unique characteristics, cigar rollers take great care for their work, and Cuban families inherit the tradition, said Borges, whose family members also work as cigar rollers.

A walk among the multiple floors of La Corona factory features an atmosphere filled with the intensity and carefulness that each worker puts into every stage of cigar production. Between removing the stems of the tobacco leaves, rolling the cigars, separating the 80 shades of cigar colors, and packing cigars in handcrafted boxes, hundreds of Cubans take part in the process.

Yet most Cubans cannot afford to taste what foreigners have claimed to be the best cigar in the world.