Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. - http://www.cubafreepress.org

17 de Marzo del 2000

FORCED LABOR CONTINUES TO MAKE HISTORY WITH CUBAN TOBACCO. By Orestes Martín Pérez, Cuba Free Press.

Pinar del Río.- It isn't just romantic contemplation to say that the Cuban soil is present in the chests of hundreds of millions of people. If you don't believe it, just ask us smokers and you'll see that we are right. Perhaps a misfortune tomorrow but a certain pleasure today, the Cuban cigar has turned into a national allegory about forced labor.

As we gaze about us at the world, we wonder what it would be like to ask that French contractor or the Galician merchant when they put a splendid Cohiba or a Montecristo between their lips, how up to date they are about the social implications that the manufacture of the aromatic product has for our people in Cuba.

If one of them were among the very rich who attended the Festival of the Cuban Cigar recently in the Cuban capital, he/she must be aware that about $800,000 was raised by auctioning off cigar boxes signed by the commander in chief of the island and by the sale, also at auction, of humidors.

It is said that the purpose of the funds is to improve our battered health system. At the festival it was also made known that in 1999, the country raised $250 million by sales of cigars abroad, the product occupying third place in the list of exports after sugar and nickel.

The income was associated with sales of 148 million hand-made cigars and 20 million "mini-cigars" made by machine. These figures are well below the demand for this product on the world market.

Taking into account this characteristic of the market, and the super profits that the state receives in this way, a pronounced interest has been unleashed to encourage even more the growing of tobacco and to increase the manufactured product extracted from it. For this reason, more and more lands are set aside for this purpose, both in places where it is already customary as well as in others where the planting of the solanum species has never been established.

Such is the case of Camagüey and the former eastern provinces, where a fever about this business has broken all bounds. The measure is complemented by a program of stimulation directed towards the new and old harvesters, still quite distant from the fair compensation that they should earn.

On the other side, an agreement has been reached with foreign investors for the construction of four factories for mini-cigars which will increase the production of this variety of cigar to 150 million units. That's in tune with the dizzying increase in the demand for the minis on the world market.

But it's one thing to plan something and another to be able to put it into practice. An example of this is what has occurred in some municipalities in the center of the island where tobacco factories are in Falcón, Placetas, Ranchuelo and Manicaragua.

Unofficial sources report that more than 3,500 tobacco workers have been left without work and are at 60 percent of salary because a lack of wrapper leaf has stopped their production from continuing. Brands such as Cervantes, Romeo and Juliet and Mareva are in recession because of the shortage. Such an incident contrasts with the good results attained in the last harvest campaign.

The human question associated with tobacco production and the high earnings it generates can be considered from the destination to which such earnings are directed and when assessing the remuneration received by the farmers and workers connected with such a rich source of foreign exchange.

Referring to the case of the harvesters, one must take into account that the highest quantity and quality of the product comes from the independent tobacco planters, even though the government cultivates the best lands, suitable mechanization and required sundries.

Still, the number of private farmers who remain indebted to the state after selling their harvests is not negligible. The average earnings of those who get their hands on it doesn't exceed $150 or $200 per year. It is inconceivable that one year's work for thousands of tobacco planters is paid for by selling just one box of 25 brand-name cigars to one foreigner.

So that the injustice is made feasible, a legal mechanism exists that can be deemed diabolical. There is only one buyer inside Cuba: the government, with the prerogative, moreover, of establishing an absolute price for the farmers.

It is ironic that a similar measure was established by the king of Spain during the colonial stage. That action by the king caused an uprising of tobacco planters which Cuban historians place among the nation's most notable events!

Other regulations exist which place today's harvesters in a condition not far removed from that of forced-labor slaves. One example is the fines that can be levied if the planting schemes imposed by the government are not fulfilled. Another is that if a farmer does not fulfill his duties as prescribed by government, it will take back land that had been "loaned" for his use.

The government's strict monopoly in tobacco production has been undermined by the existence of an extensive illegal sector that makes the cigars, packages them with all the presentation of the copied brand and puts them into the hands of the foreign consumer. Such is the degree of their efficiency that knowledgeable officials have affirmed that more than 90 percent of the tobacco which goes out through customs is falsely labeled.

The notion of falsification is relative here, since the raw material is of much the same quality as the official product and comes from the clandestine sales made by the harvesters.

The tobacco rollers compete in proficiency with those in the state factories. The boxes, cigar rings, seals and all the other things that are required come from the factories where the famous brands are manufactured. In the presence of such a product the foreigner does not stop to discern its origin when $80 or $100 is saved by buying it.

Things are such that it can be verified with a simple glance that tobacco constitutes a juicy commodity capable of lining the pockets of those who risk their skin and have talent for the illegal trade and of those who have the power to control everything.

Meanwhile the wretched workers who must sweat their shirts and stoop over the furrow would have to beg to survive if it weren't for the remaining products that they grow in their miserable little plots.

In short, tobacco continues to make history in our time, and certainly not a very happy one at that.

Orestes Martín Pérez, Cuba Free Press.


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