Although in Cuba the regime does not talk about it, and almost no one knows it, one of the last great "achievements" of the Revolution is that Cuban tobacco is no longer considered, hands down, the best in the world.
Castroism/Communism, which has already reached retirement age, has also managed to wrest from the country an undisputed distinction that it had boasted for more than 400 years; and I say "undisputed" because most Cuban cigars were once undeniably better those of any other country, but now they no longer are, or are rarely, and this is no "counterrevolutionary lie.” The market says so.
It is worth remembering that Cuba was the birthplace of tobacco. It was Cuba's aborigines who discovered the "great, sensual pleasure" of smoking, as Sarita Montiel sang in the film El último cuplé (The Last Torch Song).
As I have previously noted, when Columbus stepped on Cuba soil, he was astonished, recording another discovery in his Diary of Navigation, on November 6, 1492: "The men always went around with an ember in their hands and certain (...) dry herbs placed in a certain dry leaf also, like a musket... lit on one side, they suck or sip on it, thereby receiving that smoke from it, with which they are calmed, almost drunk, and it is said that they avoid fatigue. These muskets… they call tabacos."
By the seventeenth century Cuba was the absolute world leader in tobacco
The pleasure of smoking instantly exploded. Two of Columbus' fellow sailors returned to Spain with the habit.
In the seventeenth century Cuba was the world's leading producer and exporter of tobacco, with the great distinction of producing the highest quality tobacco on the planet. Over time, a "Cuban" became synonymous with a cigar, and almost a certificate of the highest quality.
That is what pains Cubans: that Castro's totalitarianism, in addition to sinking Cuba as a global sugar powerhouse, has also brought the three-hundred-year reign of Cuban tobacco to an end.
In the movies it was one common to see stars lighting up or giving away a Cuban as an expression of good taste and prosperity. The most famous smoker of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, had special cigars made for him in Cuba, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, perhaps the most famous cigar smoker today, once traveled to Havana on the sly to buy fresh Cuban cigars.
In recent years, however, the quality of Cuban tobacco is not what it used to be. According to the international magazine Cigar Aficionado, put out by the New York company M. Shanken Communications, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras have greatly increased the quality of their tobaccos. In its last issue (November/December 2023), said magazine includes an interview with Schwarzenegger, who appears smoking a tobacco of an unidentified brand.
Cuban cigars "aren't actually all that special "
The Washington Post published an article on December 18, 2014 signed by Roberto A. Ferdman entitled "Cuban cigars aren't actually all that special," in which he highlighted that in 2013 the best cigar in the world was the Cuban Montecristo No. 2, but that on Cigar Aficionado's annual list of the best 25 cigars in 2013 Cuba only had three brands, while the Dominican Republic had 11, and Nicaragua had 10.
The Post article quoted expert David Savona, Executive Editor of Cigar Aficionado, who said that Cuban emigrants from whom the Castro government "confiscated all their properties, began to develop production in these countries, and the quality of these products has surpassed that of those on the island."
The newspaper also quoted Bill Shindler, CEO of Rich's Cigar Store, in Portland, Oregon, boasting 40 years on the tobacco market. He said that "the quality of Cuban tobacco is unpredictable. When buying a box, it can turn out to be really good, or really bad. The boxes also come with some cigars whose quality is unacceptable."
The following year, 2014, in the aforementioned Cigar Aficionado magazine ranking, the Dominican Republic had 1,013 points; Nicaragua, 929; and Cuba, 279. Then, in 2015, the best tobacco in the world turned out to be the "My Father Le Bijou 1922 Torpedo Box Pressed," from Nicaragua, a country awarded 1,123 points. The Dominican Republic had 654 points, and Cuba, 284. Nicaragua had 12 tobaccos among the top 25 in the world.
H. Upmann has been one of the best on the planet since 1844, but...
In the years since then there have been some high-quality Cubans, but there aren't many anymore. Thus, Cuba's status as the global king, held since the time of the Conquest, has eroded.
In 2022 Cigar Aficionado did declare H. Upmann, from Cuba, the best cigar on the planet, stressing that this cigar began to be produced on the island in 1844 by the German entrepreneur Hermann Upmann; that is, it has been smoked in the world since the time of Félix Varela.
A year earlier, however, in 2021, the best tobacco in the world was not Cuban, but rather from Nicaragua: the 1964 Anniversary Series Torpedo Padrón (Natural); and in 2020 the best was E.P. Carrillo Pledge Prequel, from the Dominican Republic.
Even worse, on the list of the best tobacco buys in 2021, for their quality and price, there were seven brands of cigars from the Dominican Republic, five from Nicaragua, three from Honduras, and none from Cuba!
In other words, there is excellent Cuban tobacco, but very little of it. Thanks to the Castro brothers, today the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua outdo Cuba as producers of the best tobacco, dubbed "Premium." Today, expert tasters say they find the best tobacco leaves on the international market on the plains of the Dominican Republic.
Cuba today produces just 36% of the tobacco it did back in 1958
There is also a quantity problem here. In 2022 Cuba produced only 21,000 tons of tobacco, just 36% of the 58,292 tons it did in 1958. In the early 1980s, with massive funding from Moscow, Castroism reached a record high of 53,000 tons. Since then production has steadily fallen.
The qualitative and quantitative collapse of Cuban tobacco is due, among many other factors, to the drastic reduction in the importation of fertilizers, pesticides, fuel and everything necessary for optimal harvests. Above all, the prices paid by the Government to growers are so low that they almost fail to cover production costs. Thus, many are planting less tobacco, or abandoning the business and growing other agricultural products, or raising livestock that are more profitable and easier to sell under the table in the private sector.
Cuba's decline as a tobacco power is glaring. In 2022, the monopoly Habanos S.A., a 50/50 joint venture between GAESA and the British international group Altadis, based in Spain, reported global sales of 545 million dollars, 23 million less than in 2021. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic exported 1 billion dollars’ worth of tobacco, of excellent quality, produced at 50 factories manned by 120,000 workers.
That is embarrassing. Cuban tobacco was always the most prized on the market, in general, and this was no coincidence, but rather due to its outstanding nature, the special nature of the land, the climate, and the skill of its tobacco growers and the workers at cigar and cigarette factories.
Vuelta Abajo (Pinar del Rio) has always been considered the best tobacco-growing area on the planet, owing to its very special microclimate, producing all kinds of tobacco leaves, but with Communism we see that turning out high-quality tobacco, as a rule, is difficult.
In any case, thanks to the Castros, what was once the world's finest tobacco is no longer "so special." Of course, it will be again someday... in a free Cuba.