The official prices for Cohibas and Montecristos appear to be high for many tourists visiting the country for the first time, so they seek different channels to fulfill their desire for fine tobacco.
A guy approaches us on the steps leading up to Casa de la Músíca in Trinidad. In fact, we have been waiting for this occasion, because we want to explore the non-official ways of buying Cuban cigars. He points us in the direction of the narrow market streets just one block away. “There’s a store in the market where I work that sells all kinds of cigars,” he claims.
“Is it an official Habano store?” I ask. “Yes, of course. It’s an official market,” he replies, dubiously. “How much do they cost?” “If you go with a guide it’s more expensive, because they charge commission, but if we talk directly to the tourists, it costs less. Also, it costs nothing to look.” We finish our beer and follow him down the steps, toward the market.
“This way,” our new-found tobacco beacon says, and points toward a cramped cobblestone alley with white market stands lining the wall on one side. They offer everything from cheap junk, like fake license plates and wooden non-politically correct dolls to local, mass-produced, but decent musical instruments, jewelry and outdoor clothing. We enter a living room where a man is watching baseball on TV.
He pays us very little attention, I guess we’re not the first people from overseas to walk past him in his living room. My hunch is immediately verified. Inside the adjacent bedroom, a deal is already being made. A queen-size bed is covered with cigar boxes, and, when we walk in, two young European women are just about to pay for a box of Montecristos. When the deal is done they’re ushered out, and the door is closed behind them.
All of the attention is now directed toward us. “What kind of cigars would you like to buy?” “Are these official handmade cigars?” I ask. “Yes, of course.” “From Havana?” “No, mainly from a factory in Cabaiguán, in Sancti Spíritus, about 150 kilometers from here.” “I do know that some people make illegal cigars in their homes …” “Yes, I know, but it’s impossible to do,” he answers evasively.
He probably means that it is illegal to sell fake cigars. The atmosphere is relaxed. There’s a lot of joking back and forth and they don’t mind me taking pictures. “So, how much are these?” I ask, pointing at a random box of Cohiba. “Those are some of the more expensive ones. In a shop, they would cost about 300 dollars. I sell them for 90.” “How come they’re so much cheaper here?” “Because I used to work in the factory as a quality inspector, I have contacts there, so I’m able to buy boxes a lot cheaper.” “Almost no tourists buy cigars in the shops,” the owner’s companion interjects. “You can get four boxes here for the same price as one in the shop and it’s the same quality. Also, you can try one here before you buy anything.”
There’s a cigar festival today. Do you want to buy some cigars?
“They’re even better here, fresher,” the owner adds. “Fresher?” “Yes, look here,” the companion continues. “Since nobody’s buying the cigars in the shops they lie there for a long time. They get old and faded. That’s not just our opinion, even the tourists say that.” “Do you smoke?” the owner asks, handing me a Montecristo No. 2. I light up and it does taste good. “You can feel that it’s the same quality,” the owner says, still slouched back in his chair. “It’s what the millionaires smoke,” the companion concludes. We settle for a box of 25 Cohiba Siglo IV for 50 dollars and bid farewell.
After two weeks of travelling around the country we return to Havana. In Parque Central, in the heart of the capital’s tourist area, you can’t take many steps before being approached by someone offering something, be it a taxi ride, accommodation, or, of course, cigars. “There’s a cigar festival today. Do you want to buy some cigars?”
“What kind of festival?” I ask the limping man, who’s caught our attention. “It’s a festival de cooperativas de cigarros.” “I don’t know …” “Look, it’s two blocks down that way, to the left, if you want to buy something for yourself or a friend. Only today.”
“Well, ok.” So we start walking. As we stop, looking for what could at least be reminiscent of an event, the limping man miraculously reappears behind us. “This way,” he says, crossing the street. “Are these cigars from an official factory?” I ask him. “Yes, yes. One day per month the employees in the factories can sell cigars through the cooperatives. Do you like salsa?” Sensing his will to change the subject, I try to stay on the path and not to get distracted. “No, I can’t dance.
How come they can sell the cigars outside the factory and shops like this?” “No, it’s not outside. Only workers at the factory are given this possibility to buy cigars without a receipt and without passing through customs.” Feeling pretty certain that this didn’t really explain anything, we walk up a dark stairway. At the top we are greeted by a man in his thirties, ostentatiously displaying a badge hanging around his neck, as if to prove his association with the alleged cooperative.
You can get four boxes here for the same price as one in the shop.
“Hi. Where are you from?” “Sweden.” “Welcome to the cooperative of factory workers. Pass through here,” he says as he leads us down a hallway. “Hi, do you smoke?” asks the representative’s colleague, a younger man. “All the boxes are open, so you can check the quality. When you’ve decided, we put a seal on it so you don’t have any trouble with customs.” “Explain to them about this day,” our guide says. “Raúl Castro’s new government gives every worker the opportunity to once a month take two boxes and sell them for half price,” the representative says.
In order to convince us about the cigars’ high quality, the two cooperative members perform a number of tests to assure me that they are authentic. “What does it mean to you, to be able to sell cigars like this?” I ask them. “It means food for us,” the representative says. “We get a meal ticket.” How my paying them money for boxes they’ve been allowed to take from the factory turns into a meal ticket seems a bit illogical to me, but who am I to question the Cuban system? Let the sales talk begin. “This one, Che Guevara smoked, this one is stronger, this one is smoother and this one, Winston Churchill smoked. If you want more boxes, the prices are lower.
How about this box of 25 Cohiba for 150 dollars. They are 350 dollars in the shop.” “Is it possible to buy just one or two sticks?” This question doesn’t go down well with the representative. “Do you just want to smoke here in Cuba?” he asks, a bit annoyed. “Yes.” “We have a box with ten cigars,” the colleague says. “Ten Montecristos, good quality, for 80 dollars.” “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sure it’s a good price, but I just don’t want to spend that much money now.”
“How much do you want to spend? How about 50 dollars for 25,” the representative interrupts. “I’m sorry.” “Look, they give us these boxes so we can sell them for half price.” “I know,” I reply, “but I just don’t have the money.” This is when it starts to turn a bit ugly and the desperation shines through. While the representative gets more and more annoyed, and our guide senses his commission slipping through his fingers, his younger colleague is a lot more composed. “How much do you want to pay?” he asks me. “Not more than ten.”
“We have a box of three Cohiba Robustos here,” he continues. “You can have that for 25.” “Sorry, no, but thank you very much for the presentation.” As we try to leave, the three men have a brief exchange of words, after which the colleague turns around. “Twelve?” he asks. “No.” “Ok, ten, here you go.”
With a poison cloud hanging over the room and at least one grumpy face staring at us, we try to leave as quickly as possible, when we are stopped by the guide.
“Since you almost didn’t buy anything I didn’t get my commission. Can you at least help me out with a dollar?”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2014. Read more