Cuban Cigar Master's Death Seals His Legend

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Cuba's most famous tobacco grower, Alejandro Robaina, died this week. Robaina, who was 91, belonged to one of Cuba's oldest tobacco-growing families. He was devoted to his tobacco crop, and when Fidel Castro herded most tobacco growers onto collective farms, Robaina stood his ground. His tobacco was of such high quality that he was allowed to keep his plantation.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Cuba's most famous tobacco grower, Alejandro Robaina has died. He was 91, smoked his first cigar at the age of nine. And to his dying days he was devoted to his crop. Robaina's cigar tobacco was of such high quality that Fidel Castro allowed the grower to keep his plantation when other growers were herded onto collective farms. NPR's Tom Gjelten profiled Alejandro Robaina for this program in 1999 and has this remembrance.

TOM GJELTEN: Alejandro Robaina raised tobacco leaf in eastern Cuba on 35 acres his family settled back in 1845. I visited him one lovely afternoon a decade ago.

ALEJANDRO ROBAINA: (Through translator) My grandfather began growing tobacco on this land in the last century. And then came my father and then me, then my son and my grandson. I'm famous, because my tobacco is among the best in the world, or the best in the world.

GJELTEN: A classic problem with socialism is the loss of pride in private production. That's what made Alejandro Robaina's story so special in socialist Cuba. He loved his tobacco. As we sat on his patio that day, Don Alejandro showed me what made his tobacco a national treasure. Taking a bunch of dry, fermented leaves, he rubbed them one by one.

ROBAINA: (Spanish spoken)

GJELTEN: See how they shine, he said. The leaves were as smooth as satin.

ROBAINA: (Spanish spoken)

GJELTEN: Each leaf was a little different, he pointed out. And he showed me how the leaves would be combined to produce a special flavor.

ROBAINA: (Spanish spoken)

GJELTEN: Alejandro Robaina had already been working in his fields for 30 years when Fidel Castro came to power and Fidel agreed to leave him alone. A good thing. After the revolution, Robaina told me, Cuban tobacco took a turn for the worse.

ROBAINA: (Through translator) A little of the quality was lost, let's be frank. For a while the state didn't take care of the tobacco. But now the state is committed to good tobacco, because it earns good money.

GJELTEN: In his later years, Don Alejandro became Cuba's best known cigar ambassador, traveling the world to promote Cuban cigars. He had a decent income, though only by Cuban standards.

ROBAINA: (Spanish spoken)

GJELTEN: I think I should make more, he told me. Mucho mas, he joked. Don Alejandro died a week ago today, leaving his Cuban tobacco farm in the hands of grandson.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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