Alejandro Robaina, Cuba's most acclaimed tobacco grower, died on Saturday April 17 at his home in San Luis, Cuba, following a long battle with cancer. He was 91.
Robaina had been the face of the Cuban cigar industry for almost two decades, welcoming thousands of visitors each year to his plantation, Cuchillas de Barbacoa, in the heart of Cuba's finest tobacco region, Pinar del Río. Until recently he also flew around the world as the guest of honor for many cigar events, from Madrid to London to Rome, and beyond. The humble Cuban farmer, the namesake of the Vegas Robaina cigar brand, had become the unofficial global ambassador for Cuban cigars.
"I am through traveling around the world now," he told me in early March during a meeting at his finca. He was smoking a small panetela ("mi fuma") that he rolled himself from tobacco he grew on his own plantation. "I don't need to travel anymore," he said. "The world comes to me."
Robaina came to the forefront of the Cuban cigar industry in the mid-1990s when the government gave him an award as the island's best tobacco grower, or tabaquero. Former president Fidel Castro gave the man the award himself. Robaina was a staunch supporter of the independent tobacco grower in Pinar del Río, Cuba's premium tobacco growing region, arguing that they produce more and better leaves than state-owned farms. Robaina, whose tobacco plantation was planted almost entirely with wrapper tobacco, usually produced a yield of tobacco leaf of about 80 percent, while others would yield only 10 or 20 percent.
"We are a close family and we work together, but the other reason is the love I have for the land and the care I put into it," he said in an interview in 2006. "If I didn't prepare the land with a percentage of organic fertilizers as I do, it would have been impossible to accomplish the results I had in such a bad year."
Castro himself, according to Robaina, had a number of meetings with the farmer and initiated ways to promote independent ownership of tobacco plantations following his advice. Today, more than 80 percent of all tobacco farms in the region are privately owned, although the government is the only buyer of tobacco.
"Life as a farmer in Cuba is difficult," he said, on many occasions. "But with the help of your family, you can live well enough. It's a good life. It's a happy life. I like nothing better than being here at my plantation with my family."
Photo by James Suckling Alejandro is flanked by his son Carlos and grandson Hiroshi, representing three generations of dedicated Cuban tobacco growers
He was with more than his family just about every day. Robaina's farm became a sort of tourist destination for the town of Pinar del Río. And although he nearly always welcomed unannounced visitors with a smile and a handshake, he secretly became slightly tired of the whole thing. One French travel guidebook to Cuba once wrote that the tobacco grower liked nothing more than receiving pencils or toothbrushes as gifts from would-be visitors.
"We have thousands of the damn things and we give them to the local school," he once said to me. The French publisher eventually cut the line out of the guidebook.
Would-be guides would inundate tourists in the nearby town of Pinar del Río with offers (for a fee) to be taken to the farm of the legendary farmer. There was even a farmer a few miles away from Cuchillas de Barbacoa who impersonated Robaina, welcoming unknowing foreigners and selling them cigars. He even wore a straw hat similar to Robaina.
But it never seemed to bother Robaina. 'This is Cuba," he said during one of dozens of visits to his plantation. "Conjo! What can I do about it?"
Robaina finally built a small and simple visitor's center where people could relax and smoke a cigar, or even have a meal when they visited his plantation. There were times when dozens of cars and buses would fill his parking area in front of his tiny block-like house. "Sometimes I wish I could just grow my tobacco," he said.
His family owned his plantation since the mid-1800s. The size of the farm has changed very little over the years. The Robainas grow about 40 acres of tobacco each year. The leaves were dried in the three large wooden curing barns near the house. Before the Cuban Revolution, the Robaina family sold its leaves to an American tobacco broker, but in the early 1960s, it began supplying the government with tobacco, like all other farmers on the island. Robaina knew members of all the great tobacco families who left the island after the revolution including the Plasencias, Toraños and the Rodrigueses. "They were all good people," he said. 'I was sorry they felt they had to go."
Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars in Havana, created a cigar brand in Robaina's honor—Vegas Robaina. The lid of the box shows Robaina standing in his plantation with tobacco growing. It's a misconception that his tobacco was used exclusively for the brand. In fact, Robaina believed that none of his precious tobacco went to Vegas Robaina.
Robaina, like other tobacco farmers in Cuba, was supplied seeds for the harvest each year, and in recent years used mostly Criollo '98 and Corojo '99. But his dream was to go back to the original tobacco variety for wrapper—Corojo—which was abandoned about a decade ago due to its susceptibility to blue mold. "I wish, one day, I could get my hands on those seeds!" he said.
Photo by James Orr European editor James Suckling made it a point to visit Alejandro each time he visited the island.
The last time I saw Robaina, about a month ago, he was still excited about this year's tobacco harvest and explained how the weather had been the coldest he could remember for a long time. He was still smoking about five cigars a day.
"Chico," he said. "I am not going to stop smoking now. I have been smoking since I was 10 years old."
He also spoke about his grandson, Hiroshi, who took over the reigns of the plantation about three years ago, and how he was managing the plantation so well. "Hiroshi works better than me," he said.
I asked his grandson a few years ago what his grandfather had taught him as a tobacco grower, and Hiroshi almost went into tears.
"Truth is that it has been easier for me than for my grandfather," Hiroshi said. "He acquired his experience from his father and grandfather and from his own work throughout his life. For me, I feel it has been a lot easier because he has passed on to me the essence of all those years of experience. I have not had to experience the hardship he went through in his life."
He added that family traditions in the countryside have been mostly lost in Cuba, but that they were always working hard to stay together as a family. "It those traditions in life that keep us all going." he said.
Robaina is survived by his son Carlos, 54, and his grandson Hiroshi, 33, and three great-grandchildren