May 29, 2023

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Ian, a “disaster” for the Cuban cigar industry

“It’s a disaster,” laments Maritza Carpio in front of the rubble of her tobacco shed. In western Cuba, where the best leaves are grown to make the famous cigars, the passage of Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on this vital sector of the local economy.

In the Vuelta Abajo region of Pinar del Rio (West) province, which was hit hard by the typhoon last Tuesday, some dryers withstood winds of up to 200 km/h.

“We have never experienced this level of devastation,” Ms Carpio said at her farm in San Luis, 175km west of Havana.

“The situation is very difficult for all the farmers (…) we don’t know how we are going to face this,” he sighed, amid the deep economic crisis the country is going through.

In addition to wind blowing tobacco barns (wooden structures with palm roofs that allow leaves to receive just the right amount of sun and moisture), torrential rains drenched fields where farmers were preparing for October planting.

“It’s a blow to the head, it will slow down the seed campaign,” says Sergio Luis Martínez, 59, who also lost his dryer in Pinar del Rio.

Vuelta Abajo is the only region in the country where all three types of leaves grow, allowing for the production of the famous Havana cigars, the island’s main source of income. In San Luis, local television reported that “226 tons” of tobacco were damaged from the August harvest.

In 2021, Cuba exported $568 million worth of cigars, up 15% from the previous year, according to Habanos SA, which markets all Cuban brands.

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Tabacuba, a public company that buys 95% of the harvest from private producers, was not spared: the sorting center, hangars and offices were damaged.

– “Fine Vega” –

The Category 3 hurricane that battered the province of Pinar del Rio for six hours left two dead and caused considerable damage. Authorities evacuated about 50,000 people as a precaution.

The island’s 11.2 million inhabitants were plunged into darkness. Two days later, power is still not restored in the western part of the country.

In a matter of hours, Ian destroyed decades of work. On Maritza Carpio’s property, several trees were uprooted and a young banana plantation was destroyed.

Here, “there was a bucolic air, you could say + it’s beautiful +, now everything is ugly”, laments the owner, who hosts his neighbor Caridad Alvarez, 59, a farm worker whose house was destroyed.

The consequences are not only economic but also have an emotional cost. “It’s an old farm, built by my grandfather out of wood, and maintained by my father, who died in April aged 93,” says Ms Carpio.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited Pinar del Rio province, which produces 65% of the country’s tobacco, on Tuesday after the hurricane hit. “The damage is significant, although we are not able to assess it precisely yet,” he said.

Ms. Carpio’s property has a “Vega Fina” label, a certification necessary to grow tobacco that is then used to make cigars. This year, the harvest yielded 4.8 tons of wrapper leaves, carefully selected leaves wrapped around cigars.

The farmer knows he needs to get his farm back on its feet in record time for sowing, but believes it will be difficult without government support.