Cuba has a long tradition of tobacco cultivation, accumulated over the centuries-long history of the island.
It is no secret that tobacco growers or vegueros as they are known in Cuba, must be highly knowledgeable, dedicated, experienced and have the ability to work in a sometimes extreme climate.
Just 23 kilometers west of the city of Pinar del Río, in the tobacco growing municipality of San Juan y Martínez, in the Trujillo region, José Antonio Rodríguez González and his son José Antonio Rodríguez Marín (Pepe) stand out among planters. Their 5.75 hectare farm El Valle produces 1.54 tons of tobacco per hectare, considered a good yield, and also received participants to the recently concluded 20th Habano Festival.
José Antonio, who recently turned 85, still possesses an enviable agility, lucidity, passion for tobacco and the desire to continue living and sharing his knowledge with his son Pepe.
“I’ve been working with tobacco since I was born because my father, Julián Rodríguez González, used to harvest the crop and I was born here…I started doing small tasks when I was about six or seven, in order to help put food on the table. Now, my son Pepe is carrying on the family tradition. And that’s how it will always be.
“Tobacco means everything to me, because it’s our livelihood, tobacco farming is the only thing I know how to do. We must continue to grow tobacco and do so well, because this is our product, our livelihood.”
Following his doctor’s advice José Antonio Senior no longer smokes a good cigar like he used to do, but instead satisfies his cravings by chewing the veins of cured tobacco leaves and getting up very early (at 6am) to start work.
“Tobacco is a hard crop to grow; it needs regular attention and much craft. You have to constantly care for it from the moment it’s planted.”
José Antonio Senior is a man of average height, lean, jovial, whose small eyes that light up when he talks about the social benefits and dignity that the Cuban Revolution brought for campesinos, one of the most exploited and forgotten sectors during the era of the so-called puppet Republic (1902-1959).
“The Revolution means a lot to us, it has given us everything, health, education and land. It has helped us a great deal; given us fair prices for our tobacco, which we previously received miserable prices for.”
In this regard, José Antonio Senior described how his father, a sharecropper in that period, lived in poverty until he was able to buy a small piece of land in 1926.
At over 80 years of age, with three sons (José Antonio, Gustavo and Carlos) and a daughter (Lissette), who is the eldest, as well as six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, this campesino is proud and honored that his son Pepe is continuing the family tradition.
“My father is my teacher, he taught me how to grow tobacco and work the land with pride. I owe everything I know to him,” states 58-year-old Rodríguez Marín, who in this prime location in the heart of Pinar del Río’s tobacco growing region, site of the best tobacco in the world, built a home together with Cirila Pérez, and their three daughters, all of whom are teachers, thanks to the opportunities offered by the Revolution.
“I am a man with his feet on the ground; I’m not going to leave here. When I was younger I had other job opportunities thanks to the Revolution, but I chose the land, to grow tobacco, I came with my father and made a life here. I like cultivating tobacco, seeing it grow. I have experience and history and will continue this tradition passed down to me by my father. A decision he doesn’t regret.
“I started planting tobacco over three and a half decades ago, after I finished my studies. I was about 20. However, I have been working with tobacco ever since I was a young boy,” recalls Pepe, speaking to Granma International.
On their farm El Valle, Pepe dedicates his time tending to varieties of tobacco grown outdoors, including the 2012-Habana 9, which provide the wrapper and binder leaves used to make cigars.
“I work with seven men and about ten women. We finished planting and are now harvesting. The results of the most recent tobacco campaigns have all been similar; we grow and harvest good quality tobacco, but this year we had very favorable weather, and therefore hope to have a very good harvest. Yields will probably be greater than expected, and we should achieve eight or nine tons of tobacco at the end.
“Tobacco needs care, resources, land, people, and if the weather is good everything is in hand…the only thing left to do is work, and honor this tradition, because a campesino’s life source is the land.”
Juan Miguel Hernández Martínez, deputy director of Pinar del Río-based tobacco enterprise Hermanos Saíz, speaking exclusively to Granma International, noted that the company surpassed the 2017-2018 planting plan (3,430 hectares) by six percent.
“Through early March we have already harvested around two million cures of tobacco and hope to reach 7.5million cures of the aromatic leaf, with production estimated at around 4,169 tons.
“We hope the results will be better than last year’s because we have had excellent weather this season and all the resources needed to meet the company’s social objective.”
For this arduous task, Hermanos Saíz has around 2,300 tobacco farmers, as well as 3,900 workers, given that “It’s a sector which requires a lot of work.”
According to Hernández Martínez, Pinar del Río is home to 11 tobacco producing municipalities, with four dedicated exclusively to exports: San Juan y Martínez, San Luis, Pinar del Río and Consolación del Sur.
Given the danger or erosion stemming from growing just one kind of crop,
the deputy director explained that producers have a system in place to protect and maintain the soil. “They do fill work, and grow crops which improve the quality of the soil, and apply irrigation methods according to the established technical norms.”