Cuba pays tribute to a cigar legend and national treasure Alejandro Robaina

THE "Godfather of Cuban cigars" Alejandro Robaina, whose skill at growing tobacco leaves made him a national treasure, has died. He was 91 years old.

Sitting in a rocking chair, quietly puffing on an enormous stogie, Mr Robaina greeted visitors from around the world to his farm in San Luis, in Pinar Rio province, a three-hour drive from Havana.

Yesterday Cuban state television announced his death and the state tobacco company, Habanos, which produces the Robaina brand cigar, said on its website that he was the "victim of a sombre illness".

It is understood that he died of cancer.

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The only Cuban grower with a cigar brand named after him, Mr Robaina travelled for decades as an unofficial global ambassador for the island's cigars. Until his final days, he could be found smoking cigars in a rocking chair entertaining visitors in a quiet, polite manner.

Asked about the quality of his tobacco leaves he replied: "You have to love the land and care for it."

He worked the fields in Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's most famous tobacco-growing region, where Habanos – a joint venture between the communist government and Britain's Imperial Tobacco Group – produced Robainas.

Born in the town of Alquizar in 1919, Mr Robaina began working his family's fields at the age of ten. He remained in Cuba when the island was nationalised after the revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power on New Year's Day 1959.

Mr Robaina became famous for the top-quality tobacco he helped produce and was honoured numerous times by the Castro government.

Each year 80 per cent of Mr Robaina's tobacco harvest was deemed fit for use as the wrapper leaf for Cuban cigars, a role suitable for only the finest leaves, compared to 35 per cent from other plantations.

Although he met kings and celebrities, he was a modest man. His celebrity status was assured 12 years ago when a French guidebook to Cuba recommended that readers visit his plantation in order to see how real Cuban farmers live and work. On average the farm received 100 visitors a day. Yesterday Simon Chase, a director of Hunters & Frankau and a cigar historian, said: "He was just such a wonderful man, very philosophical, humble and at peace with the world. He was also an incredible grower, who knew the land and tobacco. He planted when he thought it right to plant and harvested when he thought it was right. He listened to no-one but himself."

Radio Reloj in Havana said: "He left an indelible mark on the history of Cuban tobacco," while the Habanos company posted a message on its website which read: "Habanos SA painfully communicate the death of Alejandro Robaina as consequence of a long disease. To his experience as tobacco farmer should be added his extraordinary human sensibility and charisma which made him worldwide known and deserving of the condition Habanos Man of the Year 2001. Habanos SA send its deeper condolences to his family and friends."