Breaking in to the black market side of the Cuban economy is easier than it probably should be. Walk a block or two in Havana without someone offering cigars or rum at heavily discounted prices is uncommon, at least in the more touristy areas. I wasn’t in the market so ignoring the calls became roughly the same as ignoring the drug dealers in New York’s Washington Square Park; you know it is there if you need it but no one cares if you skip it. Walking through Santa Clara the black market was less evident, right up until we entered the cigar factory for a tour.
The tour itself is marginally interesting. It lasts about 30 minutes and mostly consists of standing in the middle of the rolling room where a couple hundred employees sit in rows, rolling the tobacco by hand and adding it to rack upon rack of finished product (no photos inside; 4CUC per person, buy a ticket at the Cubatur office in the city center, not at the factory). Our guide shared some of the stats for the output – 16,000 cigars rolled daily by a mostly female workforce (~65%) – and details of the process. The same factory produces cigars for multiple Cuban brands with the ratio of three different leaves. Smell, taste and burn are each represented by different strains of tobacco; which brand the cigar gets sold as is a function of the mixing. After maybe 5 minutes of explanation a most unexpected sales pitch came.
The guide asked one of the employees sitting and working at the end of the row closest to us to explain what he was doing. He did that and, without pause, also offered up that he receives an allotment of cigars as part of his pay from the factory. And that he was willing to sell them at a significant discount from the retail price. The gift shop across the street priced the cheapest between $6-7; he was selling at $2.50 each. His were unlabeled so it is unclear which brand they were supposed to be, but at well under half price it was still a good deal. Probably too good a deal, really. And happening out in the open. Those of us on the tour exchanged glances and eventually spoke about what we heard to make sure we understood correctly what was on offer.
It was bizarre, and yet I was not going to pass on the experience. And so I agreed to buy 10 cigars, half of his allowance. Another couple in our group did the same. Our guide was actively ignoring the situation but it all still felt somehow wrong. We were told to go to the end of the block, around the corner from the door of the factory and wait for a different person to show up. It did not matter who arrived, so long as they were carrying a particular satchel that was hanging on the end of the counter where our supplier continued his work, rolling nonstop throughout all the discussions. Perhaps the fact that he was not at all fazed by the transaction or the theoretical chance of getting caught, regardless of how small it was, was reassuring. Or my irrational sense of invincibility. Either way, the die was cast; it was time to await the delivery.
The tour disbanded, and six of us (two pairs who had committed to buying and a third couple hoping to score additional inventory) headed to the corner as instructed. About 10 minutes later a man showed up with the previously identified bag and asked us to follow him even further from the factory. Apparently it is legal for us to buy or posses the cigars but illegal for the employees to sell them. And the courier took no risks in being spotted.
And so we walked a few blocks to make sure no one from the factory was following. The first transaction was completed (for the other guy) and I went to pay, only to discover that we would walk further away. It was necessary to keep the transactions separate and subtle. At least as subtle as a group of gringos following a guy down the street could look. Fortunately the women of the group realized the gaggle was too large and stayed back on their own to help reduce the ridiculousness of the scene.
A couple blocks later I completed my transaction and the other guy in our trio made arrangements to meet the delivery guy at the hotel about an hour later, assuming more cigars could be sourced. Not surprisingly that transaction ultimately was successful as well. I made my way back to the factory gift shop, my cigar purchase complete, wrapped up in a plastic shopping bag and tucked away in my camera bag.
And no one really seemed to care. I’m sure the proceeds are split among the various enablers in the factory, the delivery guy and the employee who gave up his allowance of cigars to become the product. And I’m reasonably certain it happens every day, if not multiple times daily. Yes, it is black market, but the easy kind.
Also, anyone want a cigar? Turns out I don’t really smoke them. I just wanted the experience.
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