Cigars and Cuba: 50 Years of History
Premium hand-rolled cigars, the pride of the island, have seen ups and downs since the revolution, but still remain the world's benchmark smokes
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, January/February 2009
Alejandro Robaina walks slowly with a gentle shuffle from his bedroom to the porch of his pink stucco house, just outside the western Cuban town of San Luís, to greet visitors. The famous tobacco grower, who will be 90 years old this spring, is still tired from his late morning nap, but the same generous and warm smile in his deeply lined face surfaces from his grogginess. His eyes look a little glazed and dull. His thoughts are more reflective. His words are more deliberate. He is weary after what amounts to nearly a century of life on one of Cuba's greatest tobacco farms.
"It's always difficult in the countryside," says Robaina, during a lunch at his plantation in October. "It's going to be difficult for people to plant tobacco this year. They just don't have anything. There is nothing here. They are more likely to plant beans than tobacco."
Two hurricanes last September raised havoc in most of the key agricultural areas of Cuba, although Robaina's wrapper tobacco farm in the Vuelta Abajo was less affected than others. The rich red soil here had dried, and was ready for planting. His three large curing barns were still standing and functional. But tobacco growers in other parts, particularly east of Pinar del Río in the Semi Vuelta, were much less fortunate. They had little or no provisions and their land and curing barns were in ruin. Their dire predicaments put a question mark over the tobacco crop for this year as well as cigar production in the near future.
But cigar production in Cuba has always had its ups and downs. The political change on the island after Fidel Castro came to power 50 years ago has been seismic, with pervasive sociological and economic upheavals. Yet the way Cuba grows tobacco and produces cigars remains essentially the same with the exception of the nationalization of factories and some farms.
"Growing tobacco has always been a hard life in Cuba," says José Orlando Padrón, the patriarch of one of Nicaragua's best cigar manufacturers. Padrón, 82, was born on a tobacco plantation near the town of Pinar del Río, but left the island in the early 1960s. His relatives still own and work the Vista Hermosa farm there. "It was [a hard life]. It [still] is, and it will [continue to] be hard. Life doesn't change in the countryside."
Most of the farms that grow tobacco for Cuba's cigar industry remain in the hands of families, but the government took over some of the large farms of Padrón's era under two key agricultural reforms beginning in 1959. Venerable locations such as El Corojo, La Esperanza and San Vicente are all government-owned and -managed. The grand houses of rich families are now offices, or divided into apartments for workers. The warehouses that once were full of tobacco are gone or used for other purposes.
"Everything was done in the La Esperanza before the revolution," says Carlos Toraño, who lived on the great finca near San Luís as a boy before emigrating from Cuba to Miami in the early 1960s, like so many others. He now makes cigars under his family name in Nicaragua and Honduras. "We did everything with the tobacco from the seedbed to the fermentation to the selecting and to the aging. We sent the tobacco in bales to the factory ready for rolling. We had hundreds of people working for us. We had three or four massive warehouses [to process and age the tobacco]. The tobacco was sent all over the world, especially Tampa. There were so many factories in Tampa. Now there are none."
The fundamental difference in growing tobacco and making cigars now compared to 50 years ago is that the government controls or owns everything. "It's very simple," says Hiroshi Robaina, the grandson of Alejandro who has been managing the family-owned property on his own for the last three harvests. "We have one client, and we have one place to buy everything. At least prices are up three to 10 times in the last few years for good tobacco."
According to Daniel Solana, a former vice minister of agriculture and head of Cubatabaco, a governmental organization that once oversaw the entire production of cigars on the island, more than 100,000 farmers and their families plant tobacco each year in Cuba and most are members of cooperatives, which band together for financing, agricultural supplies and knowledge, and sales of leaf tobacco. Solana is retired, but he has lived through the changes in the country's cigar industry, and believes it has never been better.
"It's a total change [from 50 years ago]," says Solana. "The farmers grow their own tobacco, and in the final stage, when the tobacco is totally dry in the curing barn, the government buys this tobacco. This tobacco goes through processing and selection in the government warehouses and then is shipped in bales to the factories."
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