December 15, 2011 / 5:58 PM / in 6 years

Cuba's cigars: a black market tale of survival

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

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.

Some workers smuggle surplus cigars out of distributors and sell them. Others make them in their homes using leftover scraps, dealers said.

Police pressure is constant, they said.

Although official outcries against corruption are not new for communist-run Cuba, Castro is taking tough action against graft and is believed to have increased vigilance on the streets and around markets, looking for people selling items illegally.

Cuba's premium cigars - grown and cured in western Pinar del Rio province - dominate the world market and are one of the cash-strapped Caribbean island's top exports.

The nimble fingers of Cuba's licit cigar makers rolled out 81.5 million smokes last year, up 8 percent from 2009, according to the statistics agency.

The main buyers are France and Spain, but the jealously guarded global market share excludes the United States, where Cuba's cigars are banned under decades-old trade sanctions.

On the black market, everything to make cigars look authentic is sold. A bundle of quality stamps goes for about $30, boxes around $5-$6, a batch of rings for as much as $30. Cigars themselves may be as low as $8 for 25, a dealer said.

All the goods are pilfered from manufacturers, sellers said, giving them the right look, touch and smell.

Sellers said they are just trying to make a living.

"In Cuba, everything is dangerous. You depend on your wits and don't look for problems with anyone," one seller said. "If you depend on just your salary, you can't live."

Reporting by Jack Kimball; Editing by Xavier Briand

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