The Nicotine Business / Yoani Sánchez

The hands move with confidence and speed, having barely 30 seconds to slip the cigars that will go to the black market under the table. Two cameras pan the room where the fragrant leaves are rolled and put in boxes with names like Cohiba, Partagás, H. Upmann. Each glass eye rotates 180 degrees, leaving — for a very short time — a blind spot, a narrow stretch of unguarded rollers. Just enough time to put that Lancero or Robusto — to be sold later outside the official market — out of sight of the supervisors. Another employee is charged with paying the guards to let them out of the premises and within twenty-four hours a strong aroma will already be on the streets.

When my Spanish students asked me about the quality of the cigars sold “outside,” I would joke with them saying that inside those boxes they might well find rolled-up copies of the newspaper Granma. But I also know that a good part of the clandestine supply comes from the same institutional places where they make the ones exhibited in the legal stores. Three out of every five Habaneros, if challenged, would brag about knowing a real roller who can get them authentic and fresh puros. The business of nicotine involves thousands of people in this city and generates a network of corruption and earnings of incalculable size. The challenge is that the final product looks just like the one the State sells, but costs three or four times less.

Among the most common proposition a tourist hears is, “Mister! Cigars!” or “Lady! Habanos!” shouted from every corner. At least it’s not as shocking as when some pimp sidles up to whispers his catalog: “Girls, Boys, Girls with Girls.” So the sequence that starts in the factory, in those thirty seconds when the lens of the camera is looking the other way, ends with a foreigner paying, for twenty-five cigars, what would otherwise be enough to buy only two. Everyone leaves happy: the roller, the guard, the illegal seller and… the State? OK… but who cares?