Alejandro Robaina does not have secrets

Alejandro Robaina never lacked of a good rolled cigar, or a yarey hat to crown his face, as wrinkled as his own tobacco farm. Since half a century ago, his family and him are considered as the top tobacco growers of the world. He is the only man alive who has six cigar bands (brands) that bear his name.

In Cuchillas de Barbacoa, in the plains of San Luis in Pinar del Rio, he learned the business and art of growing very exclusive layers of tobacco to make the famous Cuban habanos cigars, following a tradition imposed by his father and grandfather from Canary Islands since 1845.

“I was born a tobacco farmer”, he said, while rocking on one of his chairs in his house and inhaling the smoke of the second cigar of the day. He took a few seconds to taste the aroma, and began to put together some ideas about his life. He said that since he was a boy, he had a special gift to take care of the land and the animals.

He rides no longer. Never named his horses, but they did react when they heard the whistle. It is said that when he walks by the garden of the house, the chickens follow him as a magnet, as well as an old dog that accompanies him in every corner of his 16 hectares of tobacco crops, where layers are grown yearly to roll between 8 to 10 million cigars out of 100 or 160 millions made in the country per year.

In recognition of his work, he is today the only Cuban tobacco farmer alive who has named one of the Habanos Premium cigar brands after him, which is exported by Cuba to more than 120 countries. The six cigar bands of his Vegas Robainas are as famous as Cohíba, Partagás or H. Upmann.

As the Ambassador of Habanos Cigars, also known by this title, he has visited over the last 20 years of his life the Pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower, the Door of Alcalá, the ruins of the Roman Circus, the Petronas Towers, among multiple places where he has gone to assert the authenticity of the cigars from this Island.

Various publications from Cuba and the world have interviewed him, but he has always pointed out that he does not care about fame. In Spain, he shared a front page with the singer Julio Iglesias. Several pages of Gentleman magazine were dedicated to him in one of its most recent editions, standing out as Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

“If my work has placed me in the rank of the most elegant men, well, it seems it is just nature. When I was young, I did not have money not even for a picture,” he said and inhaled his good cigar, hand rolled by one of his granddaughters.

Robaina explained that the habanos cigar business is for millionaires because poor people cannot afford paying 50 dollars or more for one. “Honestly, I feel at ease with modest people,” he said and encouraged to a dialogue as he covered the audience with the aromatic smoke he exhaled.

-Fame or respect?

-The second one. I have earned it with my work. My best harvest was amidst of the blue mould plague in the 80s, followed by that of this year; even with the weather against me.

-Who was your teacher?

-I learned everything from my father. He was the best tobacco producer in the year 1952. I have the scroll to prove it. By the year 1919 and 1920, he made here the first terraces, including the threading, and encouraged planting tobacco with water.

-What is the most remote memory of your childhood?

-I bred small little chickens, and spent the whole day throwing stones at some bananas that were purple, and I thought they were ripe. I barely went to school. I got until 3rd grade, but I was one of the first persons who started to teach how to read and write in Cuba. Ten years before Fidel.

“I placed some benches in a tobacco house; got a cardboard and painted it in black to use it as a blackboard; I also got some plaster as chalks, some notebooks… Four months later, I built a school with concrete. 60 children gathered there. The next year, I had to go to Cuyaguateje River and buy guano and wood to build another school. Then the State took over”.

-When did you go to Havana for the first time?

-I went with a group to watch a world professional boxing championship. It rained very heavily that day and the match did not take place until the next day. A Cuban called Kid Gavilán was the winner.

– They say that there will be Robainas for long time…

-I had five children. The eldest passed away already. I have 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. I want to live until I turn 120 because I have such a big family, so many friends, that I want to live longer to see what they are going to be.

-What does Cuban mean to you?

-The best of all things.

-Why?

-Because now you can come here and tell me that you want to stay in the house. And if I do not have any bed, you can stay overnight and sleep on a blanket on the floor, and the ants will not even bite you. Do you want something more beautiful than that?

-And the Cuban women?

-They are very beautiful.

-What do you like the most?

-Growing tobacco. That is my life. I also like to be with my family and friends. I like historical stuff, like that mill which is 100 years old already, with a little engine from 1918.

-Is there anything that you have not done in your life?

-I cannot sing. I have never gone swimming in the ocean; nor have I put on short sleeves shirts. I have neither worn shoes without laces nor put on underwear because it feels very tight.

-When was the first time you were on a plane?

-When I went to Spain around 20 years ago. I like traveling, but I am a little bit limited now.

-Do you get nervous when you are going to speak in public?

-As if I were at the doorway of my house. I went to a news conference with 20 journalists in Switzerland, and one of them asked me why the bugs did not eat the Tuscan cigars as opposed to the Cuban cigars. I quickly answered that the bugs do not eat shit. My answer came out in all newspapers.

-Did you think as a child that your life was going to be like this?

-Not at all! My first dream was to buy a horse, then a bicycle.

– And then?

-Then I wanted to buy a little jeep, and I had a very good Mercury. Sometime later, I had a Plymouth, until Fidel gave me as a present the Lada (Russian). Well, he did not give it to me as a present. It cost me twelve pesos, because I pay for the plate. And it was a prize for my work.

-When did you start smoking?

-When I was 9 years old. My dad had always on the table of the dinning room the tobacco filler wrapped up in wax paper, and the layers in a container. Early in the morning, I got up together with him and helped him to roll the cigars for the employees, but I always hid and kept one for me. The first time I got extremely drunk. I stayed in a threading house so that the old man did not see me.

-Do you have any habit?

-I like using the puncher (an instrument to cut the end of the cigar before smoking it). I have a very old lighter, with the cutters. I have another one of a different brand: Dupont, made of gold, but I do not use it because I do not wear jewels.

-But smoking is harmful to your health and you want to live till 120 years old.

-It depends, if they are Robainas… In Germany, I had to give a news conference about that because there is an anti-smoking campaign. I explained there that the success of the Cuban habanos is the natural way in which the work is done, the ecological fertilizer used. It is a very long process, totally hand-made. It is bad to smoke cigarettes, especially because of the paper. It is better that youngsters smoke cigars, and not marihuana.

-The essential element for tobacco?

-I do not have any secret. I just take care of my land. You have to love it and do things the right way. The leaves from San Luis and y San Juan y Martínez here in Pinar del Río, in the west part of the island of Cuba, do not taste like the others from the rest of the country, not even like those harvested in other latitudes of the world. That is because the farmer takes care of the land with organic matter. There is nothing hidden in the cigar business.

-Have you made any change in the crops?

-I make an experiment every year with new seeds and if the result is good, then it goes to the market. There are very good technologies nowadays. I have been talking about the climatic change for 20 years, that it affects this crop. The seasons are off the due date. Now we make seedbeds in hanging foam trays. That enables you to work standing and not on your knees. We have the fertilizing irrigation system, curing chambers where humidity can be controlled.

-Did you ever speak to Fidel?

-I had a discussion with Fidel. He wanted that tobacco lands were under big cooperatives, and for me to run one of them. But growing tobacco must be a family business. We were discussing for 32 minutes about that issue. The last thing he told me was: “Damn, what an old man.” We met again in Tropicana, during the closing of a Habanos Festival. They put me on stage with him. And I told him: “Commander, we cannot lose the supremacy that we have in the world.” Then, he put his arm on my shoulders and told me: “We are going to talk about that, but here we can’t”.

-What is love for Alejandro Robaina?

-The greatest thing. Without love, nothing works in life.

-What does it take to be a successful man?

-To be reliable and hard-working.

-And to be elegant?

-Nature.

-Are you a believer?

-I am catholic.

-Do you like watching TV?

-Especially gymnastics. Baseball too.

-Do you listen to music? Is it true that you met Ricardo Arjona and Sting?

-I like old songs. Arjona was in this house. I met Sting nearly 12 years ago, in Spain, with the King Juan Carlos. He came over to my table for me to sign an autograph.

-Do you receive a lot of visits?

-Many personalities have visited me, and I always have friends and relatives in the house. García Márquez spent a whole day and told me that it was one of the happiest days of his life. We had lunch and dinner together. We talked about many things. A lot of tourists come here, but sometimes I have to hide because I cannot work. An Italian journalist came here once and told me that I lived in the ass of the world.

-And what did you reply?

-Yes, but it does not stink.

-What is the place you have not seen yet?

-China.

-Are there many people willing to continue with this tradition?

-I have my grandson Hirochi Robaina. He has been in the tobacco farm with me for ten years. First he worked as a cigar maker at H. Upmann and Partagás factories in Havana. There is where you really learn. For a tobacco farmer, all leaves are good.

“Hirochi has been running almost everything during the last 5 harvests. I am not that tough on him now. Just by looking at him, he knows what I want. In this province, we are the ones who provide most of the leaves that are used for the layer of habanos which are exported.

-How would you like to be remembered?

-As what I am, a humble farmer.

Vladia Rubio y Katia Monteagudo

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Comments
2 Responses to “Alejandro Robaina does not have secrets”
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