Leaves of literature and tobacco Readings: Upholding a tradition more than a century old, Cuban cigar factories employ someone to read aloud from newspapers and novels as the workers carefully roll tobacco leaves into cigars.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAVANA -- Everything turns slowly at the Partaga factory in Havana -- the fans that hang from the ceiling, the cigars meticulously rolled by hand, the pages of the novels read by the man at the front of the building.

How easy it is to imagine this work 50 or even 100 years ago.

The tools are the same: the curved knives used to trim the tobacco, the presses for the leaves, the wooden racks where the cigars are placed in slots and left to take shape.

A tradition stays constant as well:

Since the 1860s, the cigar factories of Cuba have employed readers to educate, inform and entertain the workers.

At the Partaga, that job belongs to Jesus Pereira Caballero.

He is earnest above all else, a broad-shouldered, good-looking athletic type of 32 whose dream is to learn French and English, to become a man of letters.

On this day, Mr. Pereira scans the newspaper Trabajadores, or Workers, and plucks out optimistic economic reports and lectures passed off as news articles.

Then, as the workers peer down at their stations, Mr. Pereira reads aloud.

"Now, as never before," he reads from the newspaper, "we must contribute to the development of the country from within; with only foreign capital, we will not resolve our problems. We must achieve a superior heroism in the struggle for efficiency."

The prose may be torpid, but Mr. Pereira delivers it with gusto. He jabs at the air with his left hand as he leans into the microphone to enunciate the points he feels are important.

"I am a reader, a professional," he says during a morning break. "It's not easy, to make everything understood."

Change of tome

In the afternoons, the readings can turn from the ridiculous to the nearly sublime.

Economic reports and Communist Party harangues give way to literature.

Mr. Pereira is now in the middle of the "Count of Monte Cristo."

"It's by Alexandre Dumas," he says, careful to pronounce the name with as good a French accent as he can muster, and begins reading:

" 'Well, what do you think of the Count of Monte Cristo?' asks Franz [one of the characters in the novel] of his friend.

" 'What do I think of him?' said Albert, obviously astonished that his companion should ask him such a question. 'I think he is a charming man who does the honors of his table to perfection; a man who has seen much, studied much, and thought much; who, like Brutus, belongs to the school of the Stoics, and who possesses most excellent cigars,' he added appreciatively, sending out a whiff of smoke which rose to the ceiling in spirals."

If Mr. Pereira reads well, he also reads briefly. For two 45-minute stretches in the morning he explores the newspapers -- Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party, and Trabajadores, which may as well be.

He spends another 45 minutes on novels in the afternoon.

He says that longer stretches are physically impossible -- "your voice fades."

But another problem deters him as well.

Shortage of books

Cuba is suffering a severe shortage of books, and the cigar factories are having trouble finding material. With his limited schedule, Mr. Pereira goes through only about 10 pages a day, so a long novel like the "Count of Monte Cristo" takes months.

The selection of readings is as democratic as most things get in Cuba. The factory director provides a list of possible material upon which the workers can vote. Then once the book begins, the workers can vote to scrap it if it doesn't appeal.

The "Count of Monte Cristo" is going lovingly.

The valet left the room. Albert threw himself on the divan, opened two or three newspapers, looked at the theater page, turned up his nose on perceiving that an opera and not a ballet was to be given, looked in vain among the advertisements for a toothpowder of which he had heard, and finally threw down one after the other of the three leading papers of Paris, muttering between his yawns: "Really these newspapers become more and more boring every day!"

Complete with sound effects

Mr. Pereira acknowledges that there probably are some books that he would not be allowed to read, but he remains committed to the material at hand.

Like the hundreds who have gone before him, he fills his readings with sound effects -- he whinnies like a horse, crows like a rooster during "The Count" -- and varies his voice depending on each character's dialogue.

"This young man, Jesus, is good," said Orlando Cubillas, who has worked at the Partaga for 44 years. "The readers help us pass the time, and most of us don't have time to read the paper each day."

Mr. Cubillas, who has seen dozens of readers come and go, was asked if any stood out.

"A boy named Ivan about 1970," he answers without hesitation. "He was so good that if he was reading the part of a woman in a story, you would insist that it was a woman talking."

Link to tradition

Mr. Pereira is proud of his link in the reading tradition.

"There are many tobacco factories across the world -- in Argentina, in the United States -- but it is only here in Cuba that we have the readers," Mr. Pereira says.

"Before microphones, the readers would walk around the factory room, reading from their books so that all the workers could hear them. That would be very hard for me to do."

In those days, and for decades before and after, Cuban cigars were king. Indeed, the cigars admired by Albert in "The Count of Monte Cristo" are Havanas. Cuban cigars earned a reputation that today makes them so coveted that sneaking them into the United States against government regulations becomes a sacred quest for some.

But the puros, as the cigars are called in Spanish, are not what they once were.

Although a box of 25 prime cigars can cost $200 at the factory stores, the factory workers get paid only the peso equivalent of $6 to $12 a month.

Desperate because of shortages of food, medicine and common personal hygiene products that increasingly can be bought only with U.S. dollars, workers at factories across Havana are stealing the tobacco, the tools, even the boxes to package their own cigars to sell on the dollar black market.

The quality of all cigars has suffered, and the black market has gotten so large that it may account for half of all cigars sold in Cuba.

Times are changing

While the times turn slowly inside the Partaga, they race at unsettling speed outside the factory's walls.

Mr. Pereira, like most of his countrymen, is fearful of the future, now that the liberalization of society has begun, at least on a small scale.

When Mr. Pereira goes home at night to his two young daughters, when he reads them to sleep with bedtime stories, he wonders what Cuba will be when something as sacred as the dominance of Cuban cigars can no longer be counted upon.

"The shouts ceased just as suddenly as though the strong wind had not only blown out the lights, but had also carried all the noise with it," continues Dumas in "The Count of Monte Cristo."

"No sound was heard save the rolling of carriages taking the revelers to their homes; no lights were to be seen save those at a few isolated windows. The Carnival was over."

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