Business & Economy

Cuban tobacco industry faces uncertain future after hurricane

By Juan Carlos Espinosa

San Juan y Martinez, Cuba, Nov 8 (EFE).- Six weeks after Hurricane Ian tore through western Cuba, Alicia and her husband can’t hide the bitterness they feel as the gaze on the pile of wood that is all that remains of the tobacco drying shed they used their savings to build.

Around 90 percent of the more than 10,000 drying sheds in the western province of Pinar del Rio were flattened by the Category 3 storm.

Together, the municipalities of San Juan y Martinez, San Luis and Pinar del Rio make up the “tobacco patch” of the province, which produces half of Cuba’s most sought-after varieties of the leaf.

“We don’t know if it will be worth rebuilding it,” the 62-year-old Alicia told EFE. “We’re both retired, but we can’t survive with only our pensions.”

Cuban state media reported at the end of last month that the tobacco planting got under way across some 6,300 hectares (15,555 acres) of land, down from the 11,200 hectares of coverage planned before the hurricane.

Tobacco is Cuba’s fourth-largest export, making the leaf an important generator of hard-currency revenues as the island struggles with an economic crisis.

At least 6,200 drying sheds will be needed to process even the reduced harvest, according to Communist Party daily Granma, but the office of President Miguel Diaz-Canel said Monday that only 440 of the sheds destroyed by Ian have been rebuilt.

The slow progress of the recovery is a cause of anxiety among the 78 employees – many of them women – at a tobacco cooperative in San Luis.

“The firm has still not told us what it’s going to do with us. The work has been quite hard. This is the livelihood of the families in this place,” crew chief Maritza Palacios tells EFE amid the wreckage.

And as one worker said, “without the (drying) sheds, achieving a good harvest will be worthless.”

Even so, the dominant mood in the tobacco sector in Pinar del Rio is one of cautious optimism “We have experience,” grower Hector Luis Prieto tells EFE. “The same thing happened in 2002, almost all of the drying sheds were destroyed by a storm. It was another time, the country had a different situation.”

Going on to describe present conditions, he adds, “we are emerging from a pandemic, the whole situation of the blockade (the US economic embargo). They are things that do damage. But I believe that little by little, we will go on recovering.”

The drying shed on Prieto’s spread is being repaired at top speed and inside, women are at methodically separating the leaves.

When the hurricane struck on Sept. 27, storehouses were holding more than 33,000 tons of tobacco, nearly half of which was ruined because the buildings could not withstand the winds of up to 200 km/h (120 mph), state media said. EFE jce/dr

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