LISA J. ADAMS
PINAR DEL RIO Cuba - Adela Pita Oliva's hands move so fast they are almost invisible as she deftly weaves a long needle attached to twine through tobacco leave stems, stringing lush green bunches along wooden poles to be later hoisted to the rafters overhead.
From dawn to dusk each day, Pita, 44, works in a curing shed of the Rio Feo tobacco plantation in Pinar del Rio, among thousands of workers laboring to harvest leaves for the world's finest cigars.
Under a punishing tropical sun in the fields outside, men and women in rubber boots, bandannas and straw hats pluck broad, flat leaves from neat rows and pile them carefully into aluminum-sided carts to be hauled to the shed by slow-moving oxen.
The late-winter/early-spring harvest in Cuba's western tobacco-growing region of Pinar del Rio is an important annual event.
Tobacco is the communist-run island's third-largest export - producing an average of 150 million hand-rolled cigars worth about $240 million a year - and is recognized worldwide for its quality. Cuba is to cigars as Russia is to caviar, Japan is to sushi, France is to champagne.
But this year's harvest is especially important.
Fed by good seeds, rich soil, and growth-favoring humidity, there is a fertile optimism that production levels will normalize after extensive storm damage lowered tobacco yields a year ago.
Hurricanes Isidore and Lili damaged or destroyed 10,000 of more than 14,500 curing houses for drying tobacco in fall 2002. Habanos S.A., the company that markets Cuban cigars abroad, said most buildings housing the harvested tobacco were unaffected.
But the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in February 2003 that the hurricanes "destroyed the industry's infrastructure and wiped out the seed nurseries, which forced everyone to start again from zero."
Cuba's tobacco crop averages about 40,370 tons annually.
At the Rio Feo plantation, 2003 production was 3 tons less than the year before, said Adela Pita's cousin, plantation supervisor Juana Pita.
Down the road in San Luis, 84-year-old Alejandro Robaina - Cuba's unofficial tobacco ambassador to the world - smokes happily on a fat cigar as he rocks on his front porch next to already-harvested tobacco fields.
Robaina has an optimism about tobacco growing that is as robust as the stogie balanced confidently between his middle and index fingers. The key to any harvest is not just weather or good growing conditions, but "love of tobacco, and patience," he says.
Tobacco must be planted during a certain phase of the moon, tended to by hand, not machines, and handled delicately so precious leaves are not bent or torn, Robaina and Pita explain.
"You can't wear gloves or have long fingernails, because they will damage the leaves," Pita said.
Robaina's word is respected in Cuba, where for decades he has been king of the island's tobacco growers, traveling around the globe to promote the important cash crop.
There is even a cigar brand that was created in Robaina's honor - Vegas Robaina - and last year he was guest of honor at Havana's annual international cigar festival.
This year's sixth annual Habano Festival opens Monday night and ends Friday. As many as 600 people from nearly 50 countries attend the festival to visit plantations, taste new products and buy the famous smokes.
Participants also will pay $500 per person for an elegant dinner traditionally attended by President Fidel Castro, who first appeared on the world stage as a cigar-smoking revolutionary in military fatigues. Castro gave up smoking decades ago, but still champions the product.
Tobacco workers hold their own party after the last leaves are finally hung to dry in the wood and zinc curing houses dotting Pinar del Rio's green landscape.
Until then, though, much work must be done.
At the Rio Feo plantation, the Pita cousins and nine other workers labor eight to 10 hours, six to seven days a week to reach quotas.
"We have to make a strong effort, work with all our strength for good
results," said Pita Oliva. "That's what we're fighting for."