Cuba s cigar industry badly hurt by hurricanes
SAN JOSE y MARTINEZ, Cuba - Alejandro Gonzalez spends an average day touting the intricate craft of tobacco growing to tourists here on the western reaches of the island, which produces the world's premier cigars.
But when Hurricane Ike blew through the island eight days after Hurricane Gustav, the 35-year-old tobacco engineer turned plantation guide at the Hoyo de Monterrey cooperative joined in an intense effort to move the delicate tobacco plants from their drying barns to stronger buildings in hopes of shielding them from the storm's fury.
Even so, more than half the crop was lost, according to Gonzalez, along with more than 3,000 drying sheds and 8,600 homes for tobacco workers in the region, which lies about 180 kilometers southwest of Havana.
"It was very, very bad," he said in halting English.
According to the daily newspaper Granma, Gustav alone destroyed 3,414 tobacco houses (used for drying) and damaged another 1,590. More than 800 tons of tobacco product was affected by Gustav.
It's unclear what the impact of the crop loss will eventually be on the production of top-quality cigars - the process of making and aging a cigar can take two to five years - but it's likely a scarcer supply will fetch higher prices.
Cohiba, Robaina, Quintero, Partagas and Romeo y Juliet brands of cigars, among others, are all hand-rolled with the region's premium tobacco in a process that has changed little over hundreds of years.
Besides being widely hailed as the world's best, the Cuban cigars have taken on an extra mystique in the United States, where the long-standing trade embargo makes them forbidden fruit.
"That's going to be billions in losses," said veteran cigar maker Ramon Serafin. "Billions with a b."