Cuba's famed cigars get a foot in door of US market

Cuba's famed cigars get a foot in door of US market

HAVANA - Milagros Diaz has been rolling cigars for 48 years, so long she cannot even smell tobacco anymore, and she is thrilled that the US market is finally opening up for her handmade Cuban "habanos".

Since US President Obama announced on Wednesday he would restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and start dismantling economic sanctions, Americans have been filing into the cigar shop at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, where she hand-rolls cigars using techniques little changed since the 19th century.

"The Americans!" she said, her face lighting up as she clapped her hands over her head. "They're not scared anymore. I'm super happy because in my 67 years I never thought I would see diplomatic relations. And we think we're going to sell more, because this is just getting started."

Cigars have been Cuba's signature product ever since Christopher Columbus saw natives smoking rolled up tobacco leaves when he first sailed to the Caribbean island in 1492.

Fidel Castro, who took power in Cuba's 1959 revolution, was often seen puffing on his favoured, long and thin lancero model until he quit in 1985.

Cuban cigars are considered by many as the best in the world - brands such as Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas - but the US trade embargo blocks their access to a market that last year imported 317.6 million premium, hand-rolled cigars.

When Obama unveiled the new Cuba policy, which aims to end more than five decades of conflict, among the first forbidden Cuban products legalized was the cigar.

Under new rules to be implemented soon, the United States will make it easier for some Americans to travel to Cuba and they will be able to return with $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco.

The restrictions could be further loosened over time. Wholesale shipments directly to the United States would require the US Congress to lift the embargo, or for Obama to declare an exception for cigars under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Even the preliminary steps have delighted aficionados on both sides of the Florida Straits, as well as Cubans working in the industry.

Diaz, the cigar-maker, says the extra revenue could help tobacco farmers better finance their fields and improve transportation for their workers.

With carefully dried tobacco leaves that come from western Pinar de Rio province, she twists them into a bunch and stuffs them into wooden moulds that are pressed tight for at least 20 minutes. Then they are ready for the outer layer, which she carves with a "chaveta," or half-moon shaped blade.

When she worked in the Romeo y Julieta factory in Havana, she says, she could turn out 200 in an eight-hour shift, though the pace at the hotel is a lot easier, mostly for show.

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