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Cuban tobacco growers recover after devastating Hurricane Ian


SAN LUIS, Cuba — A neighbor lent him a house to dry the leaves, and he had saved some fertilizer, so he had the courage to plant. Now Hirochi Robaina can hardly believe the resulting miracle.

Robaina, one of Cuba’s most recognized tobacco growers, marvels as she walks through the intense green of the plants that have grown over one meter (three feet) tall in the Pinar del Rio region.

Six months after Hurricane Ian devastated 80% of the region’s tobacco infrastructure, farmers are trying to recover from the disaster. And while they will produce less than previous seasons, they say they will still be able to harvest the leaves of premium hand-rolled cigars, one of the Caribbean nation’s top exports.

“Not a single tobacco house was left standing. There were no more warehouses, there were no more trees,” Robaino told The Associated Press, recalling how the storm left the area in late September. “Everything broke and at that time I didn’t believe it was possible to crash.”

Robaina, 46, is the heir to a grandfather’s estate so famous that a brand of cigars bears her name: Vegas Robaina. In early October, Robaiana resigned herself to planting only beans and vegetables – something, at least, but a waste for land that can produce some of the best export tobacco.

But then he changed his mind and decided to try planting tobacco “to maintain the family tradition of a century”, he said, showing his tobacco on two hectares (about 5 acres) – which is about 30% of what it had at that time in 2022.

Ian’s impact added to an already intense economic crisis in Cuba, where gross domestic product (GDP) fell 11% in 2020.

Many farmers don’t remember ever having experienced the kind of destruction wrought by the hurricane. In the fall, they doubted they could even plant tobacco that season. It requires special care, the application of fertilizers at specific times, irrigation, cloths to cover the plants and dryers for the leaves.

With winds of over 200 kilometers per hour (125 miles per hour), Ian crossed the island from south to north to west, devastating the Pinar del Río region where 80% of the island’s tobacco is produced. including almost all of its tobacco for export.

Five people in Cuba died in total and 30,000 were evacuated. Thousands of electric poles fell. Entire communities were without electricity, water and telephones for weeks. Crops of rice, maize, sweet potatoes and fruit were destroyed.

Some 10,000 tobacco barns were overturned. About 33,000 tonnes of stored leaves were lost, authorities said.

Private tobacco growers have been meeting with authorities since last fall to secure commitments from the state to help settle debts and pay for materials to rebuild tobacco barns. Help also came from other tobacco producing countries, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and producers also helped each other.

Reiniel Rojas, a 33-year-old farmer who has been growing premium tobacco for ten years, has planted 13 hectares (about 30 acres) around La Coloma thanks to the fact that he was able to finish his kilns.

“The recovery was quick,” Rojas said.

Rojas received seeds from a colleague to plant them. Robaina received four chainsaws from farmer friends in other countries and his cousin lent him the dryer, while he lent fertile land to two other farmers.

Nature also helped by holding back the plagues of caterpillars or fungi, so the demand for pesticides was low.

A tobacco house costs the grower about $20,000 at the official exchange rate. A good harvest, with an entire year’s delicate work, can earn a farming family up to $50,000, farmers told the AP.

The figure is not small for Cuba, where a state salary in the city amounts to around $200 a month at the official rate in the limited official economy, but would only be around $29 in terms practices for most Cubans in the broader informal economy.

Enrique Blanco, agricultural director of Tabacuba, which is part of the state-owned Cubatabaco company that regulates and manages tobacco, told the AP that this year’s tobacco planting plan has already fallen to about 9,500 hectares (23,000 acres) – up from 15,000 originally planned. (37,000).

There will be about 2,100 hectares (5,200 acres) of premium leaves grown under the fabric canopy, with which the country hopes to cover future export demand, Blanco said.

—— Andrea Rodríguez is on Twitter:

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.