SAN LUIS, Cuba – SAN LUIS, Cuba (AP) — Hundreds of friends and relatives bid farewell to the godfather of Cuban tobacco, who was buried Sunday in a casket adorned with a half-smoked cigar bearing his name and a yellow tobacco flower.
Alejandro Robaina, a 91-year-old legend who was the only Cuban to have a cigar brand named after him, died Saturday from cancer after doctors discovered inoperable tumors on his lungs and kidney, his grandson Hirochi Robaina said.
Wreaths of flowers filled his modest, ramshackle home and engulfed much of the surrounding porch. Four generations of family and neighbors choked back tears while greeting friends, communist officials and business associates who made the two-and-half hour drive from Havana west to San Luis in Vuelta Abajo, the region where Cuba's finest tobacco is grown.
"You see everyone here, but also the phone hasn't stopped ringing. There are people all over the world who are sad," his grandson said. Photographers and television crew were prohibited from shooting at the funeral, in accordance with Robaina's wishes.
The 34-year-old Hirochi is one of Robaina's 10 grandchildren and has been groomed for 14 years to take over the family's tobacco farm. Robaina is also survived by four children and 12 great-grandchildren.
In a 2002 interview, when Robaina was still 83, he told The Associated Press, "I'm going to trust in my grandchildren and my children to continue the cultivation of tobacco, but I'm not retiring."
"I would never retire," he said then.
On Sunday, Hirochi sat in a leather chair in a special cigar room at the farm, the "Alejandro Robaina Smoker's Club," and said his grandfather never did.
"You are always learning more about tobacco every day, even he was. Grandfather never stopped learning," he said.
The room is lined with photos of the late Robaina examining dark-green tobacco leaves ready for harvest, walking his fields, smiling with a golden-brown cigar between his fingers and, of course, dragging on a stogie amid a thick, white smoke.
Robaina's family began planting tobacco in San Luis in 1845, after immigrating from Spain, and he took up cigars when he began working the family fields at age 10 — eventually smoking for 81 years.
For decades, cigar aficionados have visited San Luis to see Robaina. Even though the dirt road to his farm has no name and there are no street numbers, everyone in town knows the way.
Strutting roosters, stray dogs and goats wander the road and the only indication that you've found the farm's collection of weather-beaten wooden barns is the large, red-and-green lettering attached to one roof reading: "Plantation El Pinar Alejandro Robaina."
Until his last days, Robaina could often be found sitting on his porch, puffing on a cigar.
Even though Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution nationalized many large farms, Robaina was allowed to keep his land, but began producing tobacco for the state. In 1997, the Cuban tobacco monopoly Habanos SA unveiled a brand named in his honor, Vegas Robaina.
His grinning, heavily wrinkled face appears on the boxes. Today, a box of 25 of the brand's finest cigars can go for between $300 and nearly $500.
Hirochi Robaina said his grandfather always said the most important element in growing top tobacco is not the seed or the climate, but the soil.
"The land is everything," he said.