Cuba's cigars: a black market tale of survival

Thu Dec 15, 2011 12:54pm EST
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By Jack Kimball

HAVANA (Reuters) - Packing long cigars into a white box picturing Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a Cuban man delicately places a thin wax-paper stamp of quality inside.

He then finishes the job with an official guarantee.

Now, no one will be the wiser that these stogies are black market cigars.

"We have to do this just so we can live," the man, who asked to remain anonymous, said in the Cuban capital. "To make a living here, you have to be constantly doing business."

In a country where the average salary is about $20 a month, many Cubans say the black market helps buyers stretch their money and sellers supplement their income.

Some experts estimate that as much as 20 percent of goods are stolen as they are distributed to state outlets around the country - a drain President Raul Castro says must be stopped.

A box of Cuba's prized cigars could cost hundreds of dollars in stores, but black market dealers sell it for a fraction of that price, usually to tourists.

In Havana, clandestine street dealers lead buyers up narrow staircases to small apartments where different brands of cigars in tightly packed boxes are spread out on beds.   Continued...

<p>A worker sorts cigars at the Partagas cigar factory in Havana in this February 24, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files</p>