By Zoe Denenberg
Each year in the last week of February celebrities, public figures and cigar aficionados flock to Havana, Cuba to experience the ultimate cigar event: El Festival del Habano. The glamorous festival, which began in 1998, is entirely dedicated to celebrating the craftsmanship of the Cuban cigar.
Throughout the week, festival attendees visit tobacco plantations, learn the proper technique for rolling a cigar, and even compete in smoking competitions. The festival culminates in a glittering gala where cigars are auctioned at top prices, raising upwards of $1.3 million. Smoke swirls in the air as esteemed guests wave their black-and-gold auction paddles and high-end cigars travel around the room on wooden trays or in glass cases.
The gala even draws many notable celebrity guests, such as Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell.
This night of indulgence celebrates Cuba's pride and joy, the Cuban cigar. Habano cigars are recognized worldwide for their high quality, as they are the only cigar variety that is still made 100% by hand.
But what lies behind all the glitz and glamour of this notable gala? A nation of everyday Cuban workers.
The province of Pinar del Río, nicknamed the "Mecca of Tobacco," is the center of the Cuban cigar industry, producing 70% of the nation's tobacco. The process of growing, cultivating and curing tobacco is time-consuming – it takes nine to ten months to complete one harvest cycle, which can produce around 30,000 tons of tobacco leaves.
Although Pinar del Río is the hub of lucrative cigar production, it remains largely disconnected from the bustling, urban city of Havana. New York Times journalist Ron Stodghill witnessed Cuba's rural-urban divide first hand on his expedition to the tobacco fields of Pinar del Río.
"As dense, boisterous Havana receded and the urban landscape turned into rolling green countryside, I saw another side of Cuba: rural and scattered with clapboard shanties and mules, donkeys and chickens, especially as we headed deeper into the region of Pinar del Río," Stodghill wrote. "There, one is reminded of the island’s poverty."
Getty Images photographer Joe Raedle followed a tobacco farmer named Lorenzo Rodriguez Hernandez as he went about his daily work of harvesting tobacco leaves. Different types of leaves are used for different parts of the cigar, and by combining leaf varieties, a seasoned master can shape the flavor and potency of the cigar. Growing and harvesting tobacco's large leaves is grueling agricultural work, requiring workers to spend hours under the blistering Cuban sun.
After the leaves are harvested, they are taken to a drying house, where female employees are often tasked with drying the tobacco. The leaves are then threaded together on a stick and left hanging upside down to dry, a process that can take anywhere from eight weeks to multiple years.
The drying process gives the cigar wrapper its aged brown color. Most Cuban producers will air-dry the tobacco in temperature-regulated "casas de tobacco," or tobacco houses, to preserve all the aromas and produce a high-quality product. After one week of drying, the tobacco begins to turn yellowish-brown, and after eight weeks, the leaf is nearly dry, remaining shriveled and completely brown.
The leaves are fermented, stripped and brought to a small factory to be hand rolled into cigars. It can take over a year to learn the art of hand rolling, so rollers must be well-trained professionals.
Before packaging, each cigar must be individually examined with strict specifications of weight, size, shape, and wrapper condition. If they pass the inspection, the cigars are marked and the box receives an authenticity label.
While dignitaries from across the world flock to El Festival del Habano to celebrate the artistry of the Cuban cigar, the luxurious product is scarcely available to the men and women who produce it. The cigars that most Cubans smoke are nowhere near as high quality as the Habanos they are producing – common local cigars cost around five cents in American currency.
Still, El Festival del Habano showcases the cigar’s integral role in shaping Cuba’s national identity. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers are employed in tobacco production and cultivation, and the end product, the luxury cigar, is an immense source of pride for Cuban citizens. El Festival del Habano is much more than a celebration of the Cuban cigar: It honors Cuban history and culture.