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Reading while rolling Cuba's famous cigars

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How cigars are produced in Cuba

Despite a slump in sales due to the recession, Cuba continues to be the world's largest producer of cigars. Could its success be due to cigar factory readers? BBC correspondent in Havana, Michael Voss, finds out.

The air in H Upmann's cigar factory in Havana's Vedado district is thick with the sweet pungent smell of tobacco.

It's hot and humid. There is no air conditioning because that would dry out the precious leaves.

In the long main galley, row upon row of workers sit side by side on long wooden benches - dozens of men and women all rolling cigar after cigar.

Producing Cuba's famous handmade cigars is a highly skilled but monotonous job which demands concentration.

Cigar factory reader Gricel Valdes-Lombillo
News in the morning, novels in the afternoon

There's no time for chatting to workmates - quotas must be met.

At the front of the room there's a raised platform where a lone figure sits in front of a microphone, reading out loud the official state newspaper Granma.

Instead of canned music, many cigar factories in Cuba still rely on the ancient tradition of employing a reader to help workers pass away the day.

Gricel Valdes-Lombillo, a matronly former school teacher, has been this factory's official reader for the past 20 years.

In the morning she goes through the state-run newspaper Granma cover to cover.

Later in the day she returns to the platform to read a book.

It's a job Gricel Valdes-Lombillo claims she has never tired of.

"I feel useful as a person, giving everyone a bit of knowledge and culture.

"The workers here see me as a counsellor, a cultural adviser, and someone who knows about law, psychology and love."

Once the newspaper reading is over workers have a say in what they would like to listen to.

There's a mix of material ranging from classics to modern novels, like the Da Vinci Code, as well as the occasional self-help books and magazines.

On the day I visited the factory Gricel was reading Alexandre Dumas' classic, the Count of Monte Cristo, a long-time favourite here.

The book was an old, well-worn, large print edition which looked as if it had been in the collection since long before the revolution.

Having someone read out loud on the shop floor is a tradition which dates back to the 1860s.

Back then the reader would have been one of the cigar rollers, someone who could read and had a good voice.

Diction and drama

According to Zoe Nocedo Primo, director of Havana's cigar museum, each cigar worker used to give a percentage of his wages to pay the reader.

Cigar factory foreman Rafael Enchemendia
You can roll a cigar while listening and still meet targets and earn a living
Rafael Enchemendia

"In those days they would choose amongst themselves, someone with a good voice and good diction. They looked for rhythm in the voice so he could dramatise the reading."

They weren't always popular with factory owners or the authorities.

For years cigar workers had a reputation for being amongst the better educated and politically active groups.

For a while the practice spread to cigar factories in Florida, as well as Mexico and Spain.

Today, though, the tradition only survives in Cuba, with an estimated 250 "lectores" or cigar readers employed at factories across the island.

Rafael Enchemendia is a long-time cigar roller who has risen to become one of the shopfloor foremen.

He says it helps everyone concentrate on what they are doing.

"You can roll a cigar while listening and still meet targets and earn a living.

"It's very good because you are learning something while working, being educated in some way about what's happening in the world and in Cuba."

It has also broadened the horizons of many of the workers.

Novel inspiration

"It's entertaining and instructive."

Another cigar roller, Yarima, explained between finishing one cigar and reaching for the tobacco leaves to make the next one.

She added that she had never read a book at home before starting work here.

Cigar roller Yarima
Yarima said she had never read a book at home before starting at the factory

Tradition has it that some of Cuba's best known cigar brands were named after the workers' favourite books.

The H Upmann factory, for example, produces two well known international brands - Montecristos named after Dumas' book and Romeo y Julieta, after Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

This factory was first opened in the 1840s.

It is now officially called the Jose Marti Cigar factory although the name H Upmann is still on the factory wall above the main gate.

It was nationalised after the revolution and the former owners left the country, setting up a rival H Upmann brand produced for the American market in the Dominican Republic.

The Cuban-made Petit Upmann cigar was reputedly the favourite cigar of US President John F Kennedy.

Legend has it that the night before he signed the trade embargo he sent his press secretary Pierre Salinger out to buy every box he could find in Washington, some 1,200 cigars in total.

Despite the embargo, Cuba remains the world's top-selling producer of premium hand-rolled cigars.

Some put it down to the quality of the tobacco grown here, others to the skill of the workforce.

Could it be that another secret to success is the soothing and concentrating power of the cigar reader?



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