PINAR DEL RIO, CUBA - The tobacco harvest in Cuba this year will be the best in many years, according to virtually every grower and worker on plantations in the western province of Pinar del Rio, the source of the choice tobacco that goes into the island's famed Havana cigars.
"This year we have good tobacco, the best for a long time, the best in the world," Juan Jose Palacios told Efe while he helped harvest the crop on a farm near the town of El Cafetal.
Palacios is 83 years old, started working on the same farm at age 12 and has participated in 95 tobacco harvests. His younger brother Carlos, 68, collected tobacco leaf by leaf in the next furrow over.
Nearby, another worker, Francisco, said that "it's been a good year for tobacco."
He said that the crop, which is one of Cuba's agricultural mainstays, was not damaged much by the hurricanes that raked across Pinar del Rio in August and September 2008, killing seven people nationwide and causing damage officially calculated at $10 billion.
Gilberto Armas, the grandson of Catalan immigrants and the owner of a tobacco farm, said that this "has been a good year, with good weather, with cold and sun at the same time, without a lot of rain to bring mold to the leaves."
Under a partly cloudy sky, near the crossroads, at the foot of a wooden post with a small handwritten sign saying "Viva Raul" (referring to President Raul Castro), we spoke with Andres Diaz, who comes from a farm growing "winter tobacco," where the plants are shielded with a covering to prevent damage, a technique which - he said - produces high quality leaves.
"Very good year. Like we haven't had in a long time," he said.
The leaves are taken in rustic wooden carts to tobacco houses, as the sheds where the tobacco is dried to a dark brown are called.
On the roads leading to Pinar del Rio city, and from there all the way to Havana, one can see many trucks, old and dilapidated, transporting the dried tobacco in homemade bales to the factories where the leaves will be treated and made into fine Havana cigars.
All the tobacco must be sold to the state, which fixes the price.
The strong odor of tobacco permeates the earthen-floored drying sheds where groups of women string the leaves together with needles and thread after separating them according to quality, and they fasten them to long poles that they position parallel to the ground like the grating of a grill.
Everything is done by hand. There is no mechanization or high-technology machinery used either in the harvesting process or in the tobacco houses.
Frank Garcia, after asking the Efe photographer to send him copies of the pictures he took, said he was happy because "last year was bad" and he worked "for fun," but now "something's going to be left over for us."
Some workers complained that they are not provided with enough "work clothing" as they displayed their hands and sleeves blackened with the juice that seeps from the tobacco leaves.
When asked about the pay, three of the workers said "the same as always," without going into details, and they confirmed that at harvest time they work up to 12 hours per day, six days a week.
During this time of year, businessmen, tobacco experts, journalists and tobacco connoisseurs attending the International Cigar Festival in Havana are flocking to Pinar del Rio. EFE
Friday, February 27, 2009
Source: Latin American Herald Tribune