Alice Jones: High rollers and the fate of fat cigars

Havana Notebook

So the credit crunch has reached even the shores of Fidel Castro's crumbling Communist outpost. It seems that in the depths of a recession there are far fewer fat cats celebrating a clinched deal by chewing on a fat Montecristo No. 2. Setting fire to a bundle of dried leaves at around a pound a puff is a luxury to live without in straitened times.

For the last three weeks the schoolroom on the first floor of the elegant 19th-century Partagas cigar factory in central Havana has lain empty. Chairs are piled up on top of the rows of wooden desks where up to 300 trainee torcedores (rollers) are normally taught the intricate art of cigar-making.

The factory is no longer recruiting and has further sacked 15 per cent of its staff, thanks to a spectacular fall in demand. Those remaining are no longer allowed to produce over their quotas to earn a little extra. Once they have reached their target – for the highest rollers, up to 120 deftly hand-made cigars a day – they are sent home.

There is light on the horizon, though. Last week, the US federal government announced a tax hike on tobacco which, combined with a new bill relaxing the rules on allowing Americans into Cuba, should see the industry warm up again. And if all else fails, perhaps the Cuban tourist board can look into developing Guantanamo Bay (on the island's south-eastern tip) as a potential holiday hot-spot. According to Miss Universe, it's a "lo-o-o-t of fun" this time of year.

Art from the heart

The talk of the town this week was a performance by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, below, who erected a modest podium and microphone in the heart of the old town and invited passing habaneros to speak out on a subject of their choice. Two actors in army fatigues stood guard, placing a white dove on the shoulders of volunteers in a satirical nod to Castro's 1959 speech during which a bird serendipitously alighted on the leader. The crowd looked on, aghast and exhilarated. The government branded those involved as "dissidents". Too late: Havana had tasted free speech and it was electrifying to watch.

Fast lane to capitalism

It's a cliché to praise Cubans for their resourcefulness but the story of Rosa is one to savour. This diminutive, middle-aged lady spent a decade saving up to refit her ancient 1970s Lada with a turbo engine. Duly souped-up, Rosa took herself down to the Havana freeway for an illegal night race. The assembled boy-racers took one look at her and her rust-heap and raised the stakes. She won, repeated the hustle several more times and is now the proud owner of a new kitchen. What would Castro say?