A Portrait: Alejandro Robaina

Alejandro Robaina

In a discreet corner of Georgetown Tobacco hangs a striking oil portrait of an old man, his wrinkles and creases conveying what must be a fountain of knowledge and experience gained from a lifetime of hard work. In the painting his eyes are bright, and the cigar he is smoking seems like it is as much a part of him as his nose and ears. The man is Alejandro Robaina, known to many as “the godfather of Cuban tobacco.”

In fact, Robaina was Cuba’s most well known tobacco grower, and a number of interviews with Robaina over the years have appeared in Cigar Aficionado. After his passing in 2010, his obituary ran in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and publications around the world.  There is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to him.

So what new can be said about Alejandro Robaina?

When I sought to learn more about the man in the portrait I see every day, I started with the internet.  But I knew that the portrait was a gift from Tobacconist University Founder and President, Jorge Armenteros to our own David Berkebile. Knowing David as I do, I removed the portrait from the wall and found what I’d hoped— the original letter from Jorge written in 2007 which accompanied the painting, explaining more about the artist, Eulicer Polanco, as well as a copy of the Washington Post’s obituary of Señor Robaina from 2010— which I was so glad to see was written by Georgetown Tobacco alum, Timothy Smith.

With this in hand, I reached out to Jorge to learn more: “What I have to say may contradict everything you’ve read,” said Jorge.  This was going to be an interesting conversation…

From my research I’d learned that Señor Robaina passed away in 2010 at the age of 91, but as his portrait indicates, he is part of the great legend of tobacco heritage in Cuba which now lives on through his grandson Hiroshi’s stewardship.  The Robaina farm, Cuchillas de Barbacoa, is in the famed Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba and was founded by Alejandro’s grandfather in 1845.

Encompassing roughly 40 acres, Robaina worked the farm starting at the age of 10, and under his leadership “the farm yielded more tobacco per acre than any other farm in the Vuelta. In some years, his crop yielded more than 80 percent usable tobacco. The Cuban average is 20 percent,” according to Smith’s article in the Washington Post.  This earned Robaina an award and recognition from Fidel Castro himself in the mid-1990s. Robaina’s wrapper leaf was presumably used on Cohiba and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars.

An interesting aspect of Robaina’s story was that he refused to become part of a government cooperative and maintained private ownership of his farm. He believed that the quality of tobacco and yield from family owned farms was superior to that of those owned by the state.  So while the Cuban government is still the only customer allowed to tobacco growers in Cuba, as many as 80% of the tobacco farms themselves are independently owned.

Habanos S.A., the global distributor of Cuban cigars, honored Robaina  with the creation of a cigar in his name, the Vegas Robaina— the only cigar ever produced in Cuba named for a tobacco grower.  Don’t let that mislead you, however, that the Robainas had any kind of financial windfall as a result of their efforts. “His annual income of $13,000 was princely, by Cuban standards,” wrote Smith.  It is debated if the Vegas Robaina even contains any tobacco actually grown by the Robainas. In the short documentary film, “Prince of Smoke” Robaina’s son Carlos shares, “Let’s not forget that our brand belongs to the government. It has our name on it, but it belongs to them.”

I looked forward to my conversation with Jorge for many reasons, but in this instance I was expecting to hear tales from afternoons spent sitting and smoking with Alejandro on his front porch, imparting decades of wisdom to Jorge with their shared passion for cigars. I knew that Jorge had traveled to Cuba many times in the 1990s.

“You have to keep in mind this is a socialist island nation controlled from the top down, with one of the greatest capitalist products in their hands,” began Jorge. “When I would go down there they would take a look at the Padrons I would bring with their serial numbers and they were in awe of our packaging.”

According to Jorge, the Cuban cigar industry’s marketing made “massive leaps” in the late 90s. So was Robaina the greatest tobacco grower, or just the right person at the right time? “When the Cuban government is the gatekeeper, who knows if there are a thousand other Robainas? Not to take away from his skills, but they created a brand around him.”

In the late 1990s, Robaina did become the face of Cuban tobacco, travelling the world as an unofficial Cuban ambassador of tobacco.  It wasn’t until his later years that he preferred to stay at home on his plantation where tourists would come to visit him, bringing pencils and toothbrushes he donated to local schools.

I think back to the cigar boom— the glossy pages of Cigar Aficionado magazine, the packed events we held with famous cigar makers— the way manufacturers from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras were being promoted must have had an impact on their Cuban counterparts. So Jorge’s observations seem very astute, along with his next thought:

“Whether it is all true or propaganda, maybe there are 1,000 other Robainas.  That’s exciting in what it could mean for the future.”

The eternal optimist in me thinks it’s all true… that the bright eyes in that portrait reflect the thoughts of a man whose generational knowledge helped him cultivate a beautiful farm that opened up doors for him and his family.  Hopefully those doors will open for many more people in Cuba just like him in the future.