A report by Erica Nahmad for Be Latina. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
For centuries, people all around the world have had a love affair with cigars, but that love runs deep in Caribbean countries such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
There’s a reason that the term “Cubans” is synonymous with not just cigars, but the BEST cigars. It’s no secret that the Dominican Republic is also famous for producing some of the finest cigars in the world. People go to great lengths to get their hands on these famous smokes.
From the history and origins of cigars in the Caribbean to how they are deeply embedded in the local culture, it is undeniable that they are a meaningful part of the local traditions and family gatherings in Caribbean countries.
Yet, although so many people indulge in cigars, from family gatherings to relaxing nights at home, many people don’t really know their origins or significance in Caribbean countries like Cuba and the Dominican Republic. So, let’s do a quick dive into the history and impact of cigars.
A story that spans oceans
While the origins of cigars can be traced to ancient Mayan culture — ancient pots from as far back as the 10th century depict Mayans smoking tobacco wrapped in plantain leaves — Christopher Columbus is often credited as the one who brought tobacco to Europe. He introduced the Western world to the primitive version of what is today called a cigar. In fact, the word cigar comes from the Mayan word “Sikar,” which means “to smoke rolled tobacco leaves.”
Columbus was first exposed to tobacco when he journeyed to the island of Hispaniola (known today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and when visiting the Tainos in Cuba.
While tobacco can be cultivated in various climates and countries worldwide, the finest, most popular, and widely appreciated tobacco comes from a few select regions — namely the Caribbean, which benefits from the warm climate and fertile land. Cuba and the Dominican Republic quickly became popular locations to grow tobacco and produce cigars that were then exported via sailing ships to Europe and Asia.
Until the early 1800s, Christopher Columbus placed a monopoly on all tobacco crops and cigars coming from Cuba, only allowing Cuban growers to sell their supply to Spain. Talk about selfishness.
A fast-growing industry and a Revolution
In the mid-to-late 1800s, many of the most famous Cuban cigar brands were created in large part due to the booming population in Havana and the higher demand. By the 1900s, cigar popularity worldwide, including in the United States, had skyrocketed, and so did the demand for more production.
Cigars weren’t only made in the Caribbean, of course. They were also made in the U.S., especially in Tampa, Florida, where many Cuban and Spanish cigar-makers were immigrating to America.
Fast forward to the late 1950s, during Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, things would never be the same in the cigar world. When Castro took control of Cuba’s tobacco industry, he nationalized the top cigar factories and seized all the cigar supply from the manufacturers. This led to the exile of many well-known and gifted cigar makers, contributing to a rise in non-Cuban cigar production as those workers immigrated to other countries to continue their cigar production.
Some cigar makers went to Jamaica, some to the Canary Islands and Mexico, and some to the Dominican Republic.
In addition, when President John F. Kennedy signed the trade embargo between Cuba and the United States in 1962, cigar makers had to get more creative with their tobacco blends and production now that Cuban leaf was off-limits.
Fun fact about JFK and the trade embargo — JFK was a well-known cigar smoker and aficionado. Before he signed the trade embargo, he had Pierre Salinger, his head of press, acquire more than 1,200 Cuban cigars, which he would not have been able to get once the embargo went into effect.
By the mid-1980s, the Dominican Republic was the new hot spot for cigar production, and by the 1990s Dominican Republic became a cigar capital of the world.
An everlasting love affair
Caribbean cultures and countries still have a strong connection to cigars as a source of tourism, a local pastime, and an art form.
They epitomize Cuban culture and much of Caribbean culture and are also some of the biggest agriculture exports of those countries. Even the creative process of hand-rolling cigars is a cultural tradition passed down through generations, and that many hold sacred.
While we know more today about the health hazards of tobacco and smoking, and cigarette consumption has drastically declined since 2000, cigar consumption has increased in America.
In the Caribbean, it seems the love affair with cigars is here to stay.