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Posted March 04, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Cigars

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By Vanessa Arrington | ASSOCIATED PRESS

With Spanish-language love songs blaring overhead, workers methodically fashioned the island’s famed tobacco into handrolled cigars Thursday as connoisseurs from around the world toured a factory during Cuba’s annual international cigar festival.

More than 200 merchants and aficionados watched their favorite smokes materialize after workers at the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas sorted, rolled, pressed, cut and twisted the tobacco into various shapes and sizes.

“It’s so authentic,” said Lars Kornbech, who sells tobacco products, predominantly cigars, in Copenhagen, Denmark. “When you walk around in a big factory where the cigars are machine-made, it’s definitely not the handicraft that you see here.”

More than 200 workers, most women, sit side by side at rows of desks in a large, open room where more than 30,000 cigars are produced daily, guide Leticia Molina said.

They work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a two hour lunch break. Every morning, they listen to a reader go through the day’s news reports. In the afternoon, excerpts from novels are read to them.

Radio music fills the rest of the day, while Cuban musical groups perform at the factory every Thursday.

The workers are trained in a nine-month program at a school located inside the factory. Once full-fledged employees, each person is expected to produce an average of 80 cigars daily.

At the end of the day, everyone can take home two cigars. While some feed their smoking habit, others sell the cigars to supplement their modest state salaries.

The factory in the heart of Havana was built in 1845 by a Spaniard named Jaime Partagas. Today it produces one of Cuba’s leading cigar brands, honored in this year’s festival for its 160th anniversary.

Cuban cigars, also marketed under brands including Cohiba, Montecristo, Hoyo de Monterrey and Romeo y Julieta, are considered by many to be the world’s finest.

“After a good dinner, or when you have to relax after a tough day, then the Cuban cigars are definitely the best,” said Kornbech. “They require more of you when you smoke.

“Other cigars are lighter, more like have having a cigarette or a cup of coffee. But Cuban cigars take more of you it’s not just the 10-minute break after lunch.”

The island’s top brands are generally rich and intensely aromatic. Cuba has produced some of the world’s highest quality tobacco since the 18th century, and the island’s cigars are created using the same handmade method dating back to the mid-19th century.

This year’s festival, the seventh of its kind, included contests, cocktail nights and visits to tobacco plantations for participants from more than 50 countries. The weeklong event culminates Friday with a gala dinner and an auction of elaborate humidors fashioned of cedar and autographed by President Fidel Castro.

Castro himself gave up cigars decades ago, but still champions one of Cuba’s most important exports, worth about $300 million annually.

This year’s event comes as the island’s communist government cracks down on smoking in closed public places. Acknowledging tobacco’s health risks, the government prohibited smoking in theaters, schools and other public places earlier this month.

Despite the new law, permission to smoke was obtained for all festival venues.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is a health concern,” Kornbech said, referring to cigars. “But you have to balance the potential risk with the enjoyment you get out of the product.”

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