Ailing Cuba tobacco legend celebrates 91st birthday

Cuban tobacco legend Alejandro Robaina celebrated his 91st birthday on Saturday, weakened by ill health but surrounded by friends and family and the tobacco fields that have been his life. The man known in international cigar circles for producing the finest of Cuba’s famous tobacco had to be helped to walk but puffed contentedly on a cigar while getting hugs and kisses from about two dozen people outside his modest home in Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo tobacco region near the western city of Pinar del Rio. Chickens and dogs ran underfoot as relatives announced that a museum chronicling Robaina’s life had opened on his 40-acre (16-hectare) farm, along with a smoking salon — the Club de Fumadores Alejandro Robaina — for the many visitors who come to the cigar lovers’ haven.

He sat quietly in a chair, with green and cured tobacco leaves on a rack behind him, as admirers paid tribute with words and presents that included a photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara — the Argentine who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution — smoking a Robaina cigar. Robaina has been ill the past year and does not receive many visitors. He did not address the crowd, but a smile crossed his wrinkled face when he talked about tobacco in a brief interview with Reuters.

Fields of the lush green plant, shaded from the sun by white cloth, nearly enclose his home and a well-manicured garden in the back yard.

The secret to growing the best tobacco was no secret at all, he said. “You have to love the land and care for it,” Robaina said. He described the process of assiduously using organic fertilizer to replenish the earth. As the tobacco grows, “it talks to you. It tells you what it needs and you must listen,” he said.

Robaina is the only Cuban grower with a cigar bearing his name and he has traveled the world as Cuba’s unofficial ambassador of tobacco. He once attended a function in Spain with King Juan Carlos where the musician Sting requested his autograph. But his life has been spent mostly on his farm, where his family began producing tobacco in 1845. The only outward sign of his status is a large sign on his roof to help visitors find their way to his place through winding dirt roads. He has passed on his vast knowledge of tobacco to his family, and his grandson Hiroshi now does the day-to-day work of managing the crop.

The secret to a long life, Robaina said, was also about love for family and friends like those who crowded around him on Saturday. “You can see how well they take care of me,” he said, as they lifted him from his chair and helped him back inside his home.

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 Photo: Reuters. Cuban tobacco grower Alejandro Robaina, considered one of the best tobacco producers in the world, smokes one of his own brand during an interview with Reuters, at his farm in Pinar del Rio February 28, 2006.

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