by Raul Menchaca
HAVANA, March 1 (Xinhua) -- In Cuba's westernmost province of Pinar del Rio, farmer Francisco Lazo has cultivated tobacco for two decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
After all, the family business has provided gainful employment not only for him and his son, but also a dozen or so relatives, including a son-in-law, that work on the farm located in the town of San Juan y Martinez.
"We are doing well, because the yield we get is enough to pay for fertilizer, for resources and for our livelihoods," Lazo told visitors to his farm, Finca Obesa, on Tuesday.
His 56-acre plot hosted cigar aficionados and industry executives attending the annual International Habanos Festival, which concludes Friday in Cuba's capital Havana.
On the tour, the visitors got to see how tobacco leaves are grown and cured before heading to cigar factories to be hand-rolled into one of Cuba's renowned premium brands, such as Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas.
San Juan y Martinez, along with two other towns, Consolacion del Sur and San Luis, located in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo region, is touted as the finest cigar-growing land in the world.
Some 18,000 hectares of tobacco are cultivated here, with only the finest leaves then chosen to make premium Habanos.
According to Lazo, 35 days after planting tobacco, growers intervene to prevent the plant from growing further to keep the leaves the ideal size for rolling cigars.
"After 45 days, we begin harvesting, that is picking the leaves," he explained.
Cuba's cigar business is thriving, earning 445 million U.S. dollars in sales in 2016, a 5-percent increase over the year before despite a gloomy global outlook.
"We must put the 5 percent sales increase in context, given that the international luxury goods industry only saw a slight growth over the same period, which says a lot about the strength of our products," Javier Terres, vice president of development at Habanos, the state-run company that produces and sells Cuban cigars worldwide, told participants at the fair.
In Cuba, tobacco has a long history and a bright future.
Historical records show that in Cuba, Spaniards discovered tobacco in as early as 1492, after seeing a group of indigenous men smoking "dry leaves that gave off a peculiar aroma."
Soon after, tobacco was exported to Europe for its medicinal properties, as a purgative and antiparasitic agent, though pirates such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins also used it as part of their arsenal of weapons, lighting it to create a smokescreen before an attack.
Today, as part of Cuba's national industry, Lazo's farm seems set to be productive for generations to come.
"My family is prepared to continue," said Lazo, adding cheerfully that "two more grandchildren aged 13 and five are coming (and) we have to gradually get them going."