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Don Alejandro Robaina, master of cigars

Thursday May 26, 2005

Don Alejandro Robaina, master of cigars

By ALLAN KOAY

Looking at Don Alejandro Robaina, an 86-year-old unassuming, small-framed man, you would not reckon that he is the “Godfather of Cuban cigars.” But the fact remains that he is the man who is widely recognised as the producer of the finest cigar wrappers in the world. 

Robaina and his grandson, Hirochi (who was born in Japan), were recently in Kuala Lumpur to attend a charity cigar auction organised by Havana Club, in aid of the Yayasan Raja Muda Selangor, under the patronage of the Sultan of Selangor. It was Robaina’s first visit to Asia, although he has travelled to many other countries before. 

He has been photographed and interviewed many times, and has the prestige of being the first person to have a cigar (Vegas Robaina) named after him. Yet he remains a humble farmer, as he likes to describe himself. 

Asked if it is true that he and his family live modestly on their farm in the province of Pinar Del Rio, Robaina replied: “My house is a farmer’s house. It’s very widely visited by everyone. We are a big family, and we get together in the evenings. Economically, we live very normal lives, and we are close-knit. I am happy and contented with what I have, and I don’t wish for any other kind of life.” 

Don Alejandro Robaina, producer of the finest cigar wrappers in the world.
Robaina’s father, Maruto Robaina, was also hailed as the finest tobacco grower in Cuba. After his father’s death in 1950, Robaina took over the plantations and continued the production of wrappers used for the manufacture of Habanos cigars. Five generations of his ancestors grew tobacco on that land, and their tobacco dynasty is one of the oldest in Cuba. 

After the revolution, Fidel Castro met with the tobacco farmers and suggested that the best way to improve the quality of the tobacco was to form cooperatives, because he believed quality was easier to ensure in a group rather than individually. But in a meeting with Castro in 1960, Robaina voiced his disagreement and his wish to be personally responsible for his own crop. In the end, he joined the cooperative as an independent member and ran his own business. But Robaina said the picture the world has of what happened is inaccurate. 

“The world is wrong about this,” he said. “Those who wanted to become independent were allowed to do so. They were not forced in any way. I was not the only one who worked independently, because a lot of other farmers chose to do the same.” 

Indeed, Castro was the one who labelled Robaina the best tobacco grower in Cuba, and reportedly presented him with a Russian Lada. Asked if he still meets with Castro these days, he replied: “Yes, more or less.” 

And what do they talk about? “We talk about tobacco. What else do we talk about?” he smiled. 

Today, the farm employs about 80 workers, but the number varies according to the season and weather. The number naturally increases during harvest time. 

“There are weeks and months when I employ about 130 to 140 workers,” Robaina explained. “It all depends. I supervise about 80 of them myself. In Cuba, for certain kinds of jobs, the state allows us to have extra workers, around 40 to 50. For example, some workers are needed to get the plant, tie it up and allow it to grow. This is a very demanding job.” 

Robaina once said that not only is the climate and land important for crops to grow well, the “soul” of a farmer is equally essential. To be a good tobacco producer, one must love the land, he said, and also care for one’s family. 

Other important skills include knowing how to predict the weather. In a magazine interview last year, Robaina cheekily said he knew how to predict the weather by listening to the weather forecast on the radio. But as it turned out, he was serious about it. 

“We practically don’t need to know how to predict nowadays because we now have the weather forecast,” he said. “These days, when something happens, it’s not a surprise anymore because it has been known beforehand. Tobacco is easier to cultivate nowadays, because there are scientists working to produce new seeds that are equal or better in quality than those I produce. Back in the old days, you have to look at the moon, and commit to memory what happened in the past so that you can compare it to current weather. 

“Even the weather has changed nowadays. In the old days, February was deemed to be a bad month for the crops, but now, February is considered a good month.” 

Today, Robaina has passed the tricks of the trade on to his grandson Hirochi and son Carlos. The two help him to supervise the plantations, although Robaina himself still goes out to the fields to check for illnesses and problems in the crops. And as head of the family, Robaina still has the final say on everything. 

The farm also receives tourists and other visitors regularly. The number ranges from 20 to 100 visitors a day. Tourists often bring cigar boxes for him to autograph, while others bring him cigars from other parts of the world. And the only way to tell whether a cigar is good or bad? Well, by smoking it, said Robaina. 

“It is the only natural way to know,” he added. “Every cigar has its own aroma and strength. And I prefer those with strength in their flavour.” 

Robaina, who admitted he started smoking cigars at the age of 10, used to smoke a whopping 15 cigars a day. But due to his age, he has had to reduce the number. 

But he proclaimed: “If it was not for that, I would have continued with 15.” 

And his advice to beginners? 

“Start by smoking a Robaina,” he said wryly.  

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