Six months after Hurricane Ian destroyed 80% of the region’s tobacco infrastructure, farmers are trying to recover from the disaster. And while they will produce less than in previous seasons, they say they can still harvest the leaves for premium hand-rolled cigars, one of the Caribbean country’s main exports.
“Not a single tobacco house survived. There were no warehouses, there was no tree anymore,” Robaino told The Associated Press, recalling how the storm left the region in late September. “Everything broke down and at that time I didn’t believe it was possible to plant.”
Robaina, 46, is the heir to a grandfather’s estate so famous that a cigar brand bears his name: Vegas Robaina. At the beginning of October, Robaiana resigned himself to growing only beans and vegetables – something at least, but a waste of 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 over two hectares (about 5 acres) — or about 30% of what he had at the 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 do not recall ever experiencing the hurricane’s devastation. In the fall they had doubted whether they would be able to plant tobacco at all this season. It requires special care, application of fertilizers at precise times, irrigation, cloth to cover the plants and drying houses for the leaves.
With winds exceeding 200 kilometers per hour (125 miles per hour), Ian traversed 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 tobacco for export.
Five people in Cuba died in total and 30,000 were evacuated. Thousands of power poles fell. Entire communities were without electricity, water and telephones for weeks. Rice, maize, sweet potatoes and fruit crops were destroyed.
Some 10,000 tobacco drying houses were overthrown. About 33,000 tons of stored leaves were lost, according to authorities.
Private tobacco companies have been meeting with authorities since last fall to make pledges to the state to help pay off debt and pay for materials to rebuild tobacco dryers. Help has also come from fellow tobacco-producing countries Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and producers have also helped each other.
Reiniel Rojas, a 33-year-old farmer who has been growing premium tobacco for ten years, planted 13 hectares (about 30 acres) around La Coloma thanks to the fact that he was able to finish his drying houses.
“The recovery was quick,” Rojas said.
Rojas received seeds from a colleague to plant. Robaina received four chainsaws from producer friends from other countries and his cousin lent him the drying house, while he lent some fertile land to two other farmers.
Nature also helped by stopping caterpillar or fungal infestations, so the demand for pesticides was low.
A tobacco house costs a producer about $20,000 at the official exchange rate. A good harvest, with an entire year’s delicate work, can bring a farming family up to $50,000 dollars, farmers told the AP.
The figure is not small for Cuba, where a state salary in the city is about $200 a month at the official rate in the limited official economy, but in practical terms would only be about $29 for most Cubans in the broader, informal economy.
Enrique Blanco, director of agriculture at Tabacuba, part of the state-owned Cubatabaco that regulates and manages tobacco, told the AP this year’s plan for tobacco planting has already dropped to about 9,500 hectares (23,000 acres) — less than the 15,000 hectares initially planned. (37,000).
Some 2,100 hectares (5,200 acres) of premium foliage will grow under the cover of fabric, which the country hopes will meet upcoming export demand, Blanco said.
—— Andrea Rodríguez is on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP