Hard Times in Cuba's Tobacco Country
Posted: Oct 16, 2008 5:02pm ETLife is tough in the countryside in Cuba. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn't know.
I spent most of Tuesday visiting some tobacco plantations. Most were in the Vuelta Abajo, or Vegas Finas part of the tobacco area near the towns of San Luis and San Juan y Martinez. But I also went to a plantation near the town of Piloto called Finca Vista Hermosa.
This was a very typical farm in the area, with about 20 acres of land and a couple of houses. One was a pink color and built of brick while the other was wooden. Both were in pretty bad shape with holes in the roofs and missing shutters. I don't think the brick stucco house or the wooden one had been painted since before the revolution.
Interestingly, this farm is the birthplace of the great cigarmaker of Jose Orlando Padrón, who now makes cigars in Nicaragua. He has never been back to Vista Hermosa since he left the island almost 50 years ago. His cousins are now working the land.
But they, like others in the region who were hammered by two powerful hurricanes at the end of September, were contemplating whether they were going to plant tobacco at all this year. "We are still thinking about it," said a woman on the plantation.
They were hesitant to commit to planting tobacco this year, primarily because they had no place to cure the leaves. Their two curing barns collapsed during Ike, the second hurricane. Apparently, thousands of barns have collapsed in the region and there is little or no wood available to rebuild them.
The large wooden structures had stood at Finca Vista Hermosa for as long as the family could remember. Even Padrón, who lives in Miami, remembers the two large wooden barns. "It must have been one hell of storm," he told me last week when we smoked a cigar together in his offices in Miami.
The situation at Vista Hermosa is similar for most farmers in the Semi-Vuelta. Most are now planting food such as beans or vegetables instead of tobacco. They need to grow products that they can eat or sell in farmers' markets throughout the island. Tobacco is not a priority at the moment.
"All peasants in the countryside can think about is working to eat," said a friend. "That's it."
Still, sources in the cigar industry say that there will not be a shortage of tobacco from this year's crop. They think that the barns can be rebuilt or repaired in time for the curing and that plenty of tobacco will be planted.
Strangely, if there are going to be problems it is going to be more likely with the filler tobacco than wrapper. In years, past shortages have usually been with wrapper. The key wrapper plantations in San Luiz and San Juan y Martinez were relatively untouched by the hurricanes, except for part of roofs or shuttered windows that had been blown off.
"We are looking forward to a good harvest," said Alejandro Robania, the famous wrapper tobacco grower. He already had about 200,000 seedlings in his nursery waiting to be transferred to his fields in about 10 days to two weeks.
"³But life is difficult now," said Robania. "Life is always difficult in the countryside. But it is even harder now. We really don't have much, other than hope for a good tobacco harvest."
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David Nagle — October 17, 2008 9:18am ET
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