Cuba loves nothing more than its cigars and rum.
The thing about cigars is they’re a lot easier to conceal than rum, with its glass bottles that break easily.
The cigar industry employs many Cubans. Driving through Cuba’s backroads, you see tobacco everywhere; farmers working the fields. When the tobacco is young it sprouts a small white flower that has to be cut to promote growth of the leaves, like detasseling corn. Once tobacco leaves mature, they are cut but remain for a few days in the field, sun-drying on temporary stick fences. Ultimately, they are placed in tobacco houses, straw huts with high roofs, where the tobacco continues to dry, away from the direct sunlight. Dried leaves are eventually bound in long bunches and transported to a cigar factory.
Many Cuban towns have them. A peek inside a cigar factory reveals a sweatshop where workers are required to roll a minimum number of cigars each day to keep their job; they get bonuses for extra production. The workers’ pay is set by the Cuban government, which owns all cigar factories, at around $20 per month.
To keep workers happy, each month they may take home a box of cigars; and workers also appropriate a few loose cigars along the way.
Cigars are usually sold in state stores along with rum, at state-run grocers, and at bars (also state-run).
Most Cuban cigar workers supplement their state incomes surreptitiously selling the “free” cigars they receive. Some set up what appear to be lemonade stands in front of their homes to sell cigars.
Others, especially around the cigar factories, see tourists passing by and ask if they want cigars, as if they were selling illegal drugs. It’s very hush-hush. If you indicate a desire to buy, you are led to a home, brought into an interior room, and engaged in conversation. You know this activity is frowned upon because the front door is locked behind you or, if they can’t afford a lock, someone sits by the closed door. Shortly someone emerges with a satchel of cigars, both in boxes and loose, appropriately labeled where applicable and accompanied by the certificate of authenticity, similar to what you used to find on software products. Prices are still quite high, about 75% of what you would pay in the state store.
If you don’t buy, they thank you and show you out. If you do, you leave with cigars.
Even under the watchful eyes of a state-authorized tour guide, I experienced this several times, and I am probably not alone. In Cuba, the rules are understood: people need to do what is necessary to make ends meet.
Cubans believe things will get better; and they do, but at a snail’s pace. In the meanwhile, many Cubans must work two or three jobs to feed their families. Tourism is one source of extra cash, whether by running a restaurant from your house or selling cigars.
Ingenious and creative in how they supplement their meager wages, Cubans are also a docile and friendly people. So engaging with a surreptitious cigar seller may seem dangerous and adventuresome, but it’s probably not. I would not suggest it if you don’t speak some Spanish. If you engage, you will get to see the inside of a Cuban home and may come away with some fine cigars…or not. Most of the time you get the same quality that you might buy in the state store. In any event, my friends who actually like cigars report that even loose Cuban cigars bought on the street offer a very good smoke.