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James Suckling

Day 4: Home Sweet Home in Pinar del Rio

Posted: Feb 7, 2008 11:45am ET
It’s like going home when I visit Alejandro Robaina and his family, the famous tobacco growers in Pinar del Río. Alejandro, 89, is a warm and intelligent man with a heart of gold. I often said that there were three living icons in Cuba – Fidel Castro, Alejandro Robaina and Compay Segundo. God bless the latter’s soul. I knew him well and, of course, his music.



It’s about a three-hour drive from Havana to his plantation, which is located close to the town of San Luis. He grows both wrapper and filler tobacco. The former is grown under cheesecloth-like tents, which diffuse the light to assure fine textured, thin tobacco to cover the best cigars in Cuba. His leaves are gold dust and the Cubans know it. The Robainas have about 250,000 plants this year in the ground in their fields. The harvest was already halfway done when I visited him yesterday. It looks amazing. I will tell you more about it in a few days.

Alejandro’s grandson Hiroshi, 32, actually runs the finca. His father Carlos helps as well as his uncle Frank, who lives next door and grows filler on his land. There’s an incredible family spirit when you visit the plantation. The main house where Alejandro lives, which still doesn’t have windows and only the minimum of modern conveniences, is the center of activity. Children are playing. Workers are stopping in the kitchen for a quick coffee. Mothers and grandmothers are preparing food in the kitchen and washing clothes. And, of course, Alejandro is sitting in his rocking chair smoking a cigar and greeting visitors.

I wasn’t joking when I said on the video that I wondered if they remembered who I was, considering all the people on the property. The place had people and cars everywhere when I arrived. I thought maybe there was a concert, or something, going on. Years ago, few people even knew where the man lived.

Now the place gets close to 100 visitors a day to pay homage to the tobacco grower. And a large number of them don’t even smoke. Alejandro is almost like a guru with his charisma and empathy for people. I am amazed with his patience and friendless to complete strangers. It must get on his nerves at times. But he never shows it.

For the three hours I was there, he welcomed people from Cuba, France, Germany, Canada, the United States, Italy, and Spain. He says that they take about 500 photos a day of him and his plantation. If he was given a dollar for every photograph, he wouldn’t have to grow tobacco anymore. Thank God that doesn’t happen!

About 10 years ago, a French guidebook to Cuba recommended that readers go to his plantation and see how a real Cuban farmer lives. It also recommended that they bring bars of soap and pens as gifts. Within a year or so, the poor farmer had a pile full of the stuff in one corner of his house. He didn’t know what to do with all of it. The inhabitants of the whole rural area had all the pens and soap they needed for a very long time.

There’s now a small house for visitors. And a new, massive patio area for meals with friends is being built. It should be completed by the summer. It will be large enough to organize a lunch or dinner for as many as 60 people. It’s hard to believe.

Thank God that none of that really seems to bother Alejandro. I sat down and smoked some cigars with him (a new one that I will tell you about tomorrow) and we discussed this year’s tobacco harvest, and number of other things. Stay tuned over the next couple of days for more videos and more stories on the Robaina family. (And, to get an idea of what the wine situation is like in Cuba, read my blog on the Wine Specator site.)


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