Fri, 10 Oct 2008 09:53
Pinar del Rio, Cuba's home to the world's finest tobacco and a major
international ecotourism draw, is struggling to overcome the destruction
left a month ago by hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
"We have to work really hard because in November we plant and in January
we harvest... but without buildings where are you going to cure the
tobacco?" asks Raul Valdes, who farms two hectares of tobacco in
Vinales, a town west of Havana, and home to one of the island's most
The Vinales valley, ringed by mountains and dotted with huge rock
outcroppings, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here, Valdes (69), is scrambling with nails and some hardware rescued
from the rubble left in the storms' wake, in the hope you can rebuild in
10 days the curing house he lost. "It is really ambitious (but) I really
loved my little curing house," he says forlornly.
Further south, in Consolacion, the Moreira family this week also started
rebuilding the two tobacco curing houses it lost.
"There was not a single house left standing," said Humberto Moreira, a
43-year-old tobacco farmer who also lost his home. "I have never seen
such a thing. But even if we kill ourselves working, we are going to
rebuild. We've got to do it."
Warehouses in ruins
Tobacco curing houses and warehouses are in ruins across the Vuelta
Abajo region, where the best of world-class cigar tobacco is grown.
The industry brought in $236.3-million (€175-million) for Cuba in 2007.
Ike and Gustav, which crashed across Cuba August 30 and September 9,
aside from thousands of homes, leveled more than 7000 tobacco curing
houses, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
The curing houses are fragile wood-frame buildings in which tobacco
leaves are tied to long poles so that they can dry in the shade. It is a
centuries-old tradition seen as guaranteeing cigar quality.
An upbeat Provincial Tobacco Group President Enrique Cruz said Pinar del
Rio "is in a position to recover completely."
But bringing off a full recovery is a daunting challenge.
The Agriculture Ministry has sent in brigades from 11 of Cuba's 14
provinces to help rebuild.
"We have come to work really hard, and help wherever we are needed to
try to get things back on their feet," one of approximately 800 farmers
who arrived as a relief worker in Vuelta Abajo on Sunday told AFP.
Insult to injury
To add insult to injury, the storm did not just hit Pinar del Rio's
Its ecotourism also took a major lashing: the Vinales valley welcomes
some 7000 tourists a month, mostly from Europe. Soroa, which has the
Caribbean's largest orchid garden with more than 700 species, and
green-tourism outpost Cayo Levisa on the north coast were also hard hit.
"Right now, we are fixing the roofs. All the rooms were seriously
damaged," Armando Fuentes, manager of the Hotel "Los Jazmines" told AFP.
He said, however, that the 48-room facility would be open for the start
of the high season November 1.
Tourism is one of Cuba's main sources of hard currency, making the
island two billion dollars each year.
"In two months this is going to be full of British, German and French
tourists — tourism is going to be back again, just like the tobacco —
you'll see," said street vendor Walfrido Ortiz optimistically, as he put
away some of his handicrafts that he had been unable to sell.