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Pinar Del Rio, Cuba - The elderly cigar maker sits at a rustic table next to a tobacco field and a barn filled with hanging rows of aging tobacco and meticulously selects the brown leaves, rolling the most tender ones carefully for the center of the world's most celebrated tobacco product: the Cuban cigar.
But here in the province that's the heart of the tobacco-growing region, as in Havana, it's largely tourists who light up. Very few of the Cubans themselves smoke cigars. The economics of smoking, given the locals' low, government-set salaries, put cigars out of reach for most people, making the iconic Cuban cigar something that's produced for foreigners - for export and for tourism.
Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who for years was always puffing on a Cuban Cohiba cigar, gave them up in the mid-1980s. A ferocious anti-smoking campaign by the government in the last 10 years also has had an impact. But it's really about the cost.
Rolando Robaina, a taxi driver from Vinales, a town in the tobacco region, gives his visitors two cigars as a goodwill gesture on a trip from Havana, then offers to sell them more. As for himself, 'No, I don't smoke," he said.
"The only people I've ever seen puffing on cigars have been in cigar factories, and even in Pinar del Rio, someone might smoke for the theatrical side of things," said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida who's an expert on Cuba and has been there a dozen times since the 1990s. "It's a luxury good."
John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said it came down to: "Do you have money for lunch or for a cigar today?"
With salaries that average $17 to $20 a month, even a cigar that costs the equivalent of a dollar in Cuba's currency is out of reach. There are low-quality cigars available for less, but they aren't popular.
Archibald Ritter, a Cuba expert at Ottawa's Carleton University, said that until about 10 years ago cigars were included in every Cuban's monthly ration card - five a month at reduced prices.
"People would get the ration and then re-sell it," Ritter said. "Everybody became buyers and sellers. It was sort of an ironic and counterintuitive approach - turning people into mini-capitalists."
Cigars are one of Cuba's few exports, along with nickel, sugar and shellfish, but they've been a constant source of revenue, as well as of pride.
"It remains a status symbol," said Jose Azel, a professor at the University of Miami.
Cuba exported about $240 million in cigars last year, according to Rafael Romeu, the president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, a Washington nonprofit organization. That's only 4.5 percent of Cuban exports.
"It has more of a symbolic role," Romeu said. "It's a brand for Cuba."
And a brand that's especially coveted in the United States, where Cuban cigars have been the high-profile product in a 50-year economic embargo of communist Cuba.
"There's always the nature of a taboo," said Gordon Mott, the executive editor of Cigar Aficionado, a New York-based bimonthly magazine. The magazine, which always features a story or an item on Cuba, is a big proponent of the Cuban cigar.
"Based on our tasting reports, Cuban cigars are better today than at any point in the last 15 years," Mott said.
(c)2012 the McClatchy Washington Bureau
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CIGARS