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Cuba’s Tobacco Region Struggling

October 18, 2002

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SAN LUIS, Cuba (AP) _ The island’s western tobacco-growing region is struggling to recover after two recent hurricanes flattened many buildings used to cure tobacco for Cuba’s world-famous cigars before the start of the annual growing season.

Hurricanes Isidore and Lili ``wiped us out,″ septuagenerian tobacco worker Agustin Carpio said this week in this rural community in the hard-hit western province of Pinar del Rio, about 100 miles west of Havana.

``It not only affected the tobacco curing houses, but also yucca, rice and coconut palms,″ he said.

Still Carpio, and other veteran tobacco workers who have fought scores of similar battles during their long years nurturing the bushy plants used for the world’s finest smoke say the region and the industry will recover.

While 10,000 of more than 14,500 curing houses used for drying the leaves were damaged or destroyed, most leaves were moved to safer storage before the storms struck, the veteran growers said. Tobacco leaves must be dried for several months in curing houses of weathered wooden planks and zinc sheeting before being handcrafted into cigars.

``The effect is minimal,″ said Felipe Cabrera, of the San Luis tobacco company here. Less than 1 percent of the tobacco harvested in this community last spring was soaked by rain, he said.

And because tobacco growing season had not begun, no major harm was done to crops, except for about 5 percent of seedlings to be used for planting, said 83-year-old Alejandro Robaina, the island’s best-known tobacco producer.

Tobacco planting is expected to begin in late November as scheduled, added Robaina. The harvest is gathered just once a year, in March or April.

``The government has put provided all of its resources to ensure production is not delayed,″ Robaina said as he calmly smoked a cigar at his home here.

The weather ``will always create difficulties, but we are going ahead with the production,″ said Robaina, a man so respected in the tobacco industry that a brand of cigar carries his name.

Hurricane Isidore battered the western region with heavy rains and winds when it crossed the island on Sept. 24. Hurricane Lili delivered similar punishment on Oct. 2.

``Most installations where the (harvested) tobacco was being kept was not in the zone of influence,″ Habanos SA, the company that markets Cuban cigars abroad, said this week. Habanos SA is a mixed enterprise, run by the Cuban government with money invested by a French and Spanish company: the two top international markets for this island’s cigars.

Cuba’s tobacco crop annually produces more than 100 million cigars for export.

Fidel Castro’s government has sent hundreds of workers here from neighboring provinces to help build new curing houses for the upcoming tobacco growing season.

Carpio, who lives a few minutes from Robaina, this week was dealing with the reconstruction of his curing houses. Both curing houses were flattened, but only the newer is worth trying to save, he says.

``At my age I shouldn’t be doing this,″ said Carpio, now in his seventies. ``I have a house and a certain amount of money. But this is my life and I want to keep going.″

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