HAVANA TIMES, April 22 – I was not friend of Alejandro Robaina, but I would have liked to have been. I liked this guajiro (farmer) from the very first time I talked with him. Although he liked to say he was ignorant, I always took him as an intelligent man, the type who never talks just to talk.
Don Alejandro was one of those campesinos who at the beginning of the Revolution didn’t want to combine their land with those managed by the State run cooperatives. “How was somebody going to just turn over a farm that was built up with the sweat of their grandfather and father!” he once exclaimed.
Contrary to Stalinism, campesinos in Cuba were not shot or railroaded off to “Siberia.” Instead they suffered public derision; they were treated as a species of the “rural petty bourgeoisie” on the road to extinction, stubbornly hanging on to their private property.
The prejudice was intense but brief, as are almost all tropical storms. Only a few years later, no one remembered the period in which these guajiros were considered the “black sheep” of the nascent collectivist society.
What’s more, soon they became the most productive Cuban agricultural sector, outstripping the cooperatives and especially the State farms, those ineffectual giants that are today being broken up hectare by hectare.
Among the private campesinos, Don Alejandro stood out as much for the quality of his tobacco as for the productivity of his land. His prestige was such that Fidel Castro himself —the father of the agricultural collectivization— went to his farm to learn its secrets.
However, the “ignorant guajiro” was also quite frank. Without a lot of preamble he let loose on El Commandante saying the only way to raise a good tobacco crop was to produce it on small family plots and to pay the farmers better prices.
Robaina himself once told me the then president of the Republic took a dry swallow and asked him a thousand questions. “(Fidel) finally took my advice and in two months began turning over cooperative-owned land to small farmers,” he recalled.
With the blessing of the leader, Don Alejandro went from being “petty bourgeois” to “revolutionary campesino.” Likewise, in a meeting of farmers, the leader of the Cuban trade union cited Robaina as an example because he was the sole producer who didn’t have a problem with his tobacco being stolen.
With all the composure in the world, Robaina stood up in front of everyone and told the official that it wasn’t any kind of miracle, explaining that he was able to protect his plants by paying people in dollars to spend 12 hours a night to guard his fields.
The labor leader tried to apologize, but argued that the country couldn’t bear such an expense. But Alejandro returned to the attack with overpowering logic: “It’ll cost you less than what’s being lost today on stolen tobacco leaves,” he said.
To politically “label” Robaina was impossible. After several interviews I understood that he had enough wisdom to applaud what was good and stand up against what was nonsense, without worrying what side that put him on at any given moment.
The last time I got together with him he said he was still an “ignorant guajiro,” but that he recognized that because of the Revolution his children and grandkids had in fact been able to study. Thanks to it he became keenly aware how much tobacco was worth on the international market.
That’s how he understood how little the campesinos received, and therefore he had struggled to get better prices from the corporate State buyer. He believed “it’s ridiculous what they pay the campesino who works the earth” and he demanded more respect for those who “stoop over in the furrow.”
Don Alejandro was the most outstanding tobacco grower in Cuba, perhaps we can even say his tobacco is the best in the world. To me, however, what I liked most about that farmer was his independence and nonconformity, his freedom of thought and the courage he had to express it.
An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.