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The color and complexity of Cuba's cigars

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HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Synonymous with Cuba, just like Castro and Che Guevara, cigars are revered by connoisseurs and part of the country's political landscape.

Since the U.S. trade embargo was imposed more than 40 years ago as part of President Kennedy's stand against the communist government, Americans have been banned from buying cigars from Cuba.

Despite this, cigars that come from fields like those in the western province of Pinar del Rio are among the most sought-after.

The soil in the western part of the country is considered the best in the world for growing tobacco.

It's the only region where all kinds of tobacco leaves are produced -- the wrapper, binder and smooth-smoking filler.

Habanos is the arm of the Cuban state tobacco monopoly, Cubatabaco, which controls the promotion, distribution, and exportation of Cuban cigars and other tobacco products worldwide.

"You cannot make a cigar like a Cuban cigar in another country. Why? Because there is the combination of soil, climate, a legendary long tradition, the workers in the field, the tobacco leaf that's totally different from other ones," says Manuel Garcia, corporate vice president of Habanos.

Habanos markets 27 premium cigar brands, including Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and Cohibas. Cubatobaco works with Altadis of Spain and markets in 120 countries. Sales in 2006 rose almost 10 percent to $370 million.

"We have a corporation that belongs 50 percent to the Cuban government and 50 percent to a foreign company, but we do not have a conflict," Garcia says.

"We have the same target, we have the same way of thinking about the product and it helps a lot of because we have a product that is very important. They have a lot of know-how and they have also a lot of money, the financial support that we have, and together we make things a success."

There's no doubt tobacco production is back-breaking work -- add to that high temperatures, humidity and long hours -- the method of growing the leaves in the sun is a long Cuban tradition.

Farmers are proud to turn their experienced hands to this delicate task. At a casa de tabaco, or drying house, leaves that have grown to maturity are sewn together in pairs on a cuje, a four-foot-long straight pole, and fermented.

The next step is in sorting houses, which are hugely important, both economically and socially, for their place in the community. It is mostly women who work here, selecting and classifying the leaves.

The volado is light in flavor, the seco stronger and the ligero has a distinct aroma and is slowest burning of all the leaves.

Strict quality controls begin in the field and end in the factories.

As for the Cuban economy, it's estimated the entire cigar industry brings in $200 million dollars.

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Growing tobaco leaves in the sun is a long Cuban tradition.


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