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The First Family of Tobacco

For decades, the Oliva family of Tampa, Florida, has been supplying tobacco to many of the world's top makers of premium cigars.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

Fuente Fuente Opus X smoke hovers above the table as John speaks. Considering that the Opus X is made from Cuban-seed Dominican shade wrapper and Cuban-seed Dominican binder and filler grown on the Fuente's land, land once owned by the Oliva family, the question presents itself: Is Connecticut-seed Dominican wrapper a trend? "Most people won't grow Connecticut wrapper there because they need the land for filler," John says. "You can grow Connecticut wrapper in other places like Honduras." Puffing away on the Opus, he adds, "But judging by the success of this cigar, I would say that the future is good for growing Cuban-seed [wrapper] tobacco in the Dominican Republic. The two places are so close to one another that there are similarities between each of their lands."

The two Olivas, notoriously secretive and press shy, slowly begin to open up about their world, gingerly sharing tales about Angel's ambitions and exploits. But before getting too deeply into it, John raises his glass of 1979 Firestone Cabernet Sauvignon for a toast. "This," he declares, "is for the old man."

Like many great cigar stories, the Olivas' begins in the Pinar del Río region of Cuba, the tobacco growing district where Angel Oliva was born on a plantation in 1906. His parents were dirt-poor country people; his father made a living by working other farmers' tobacco lands. Eleven brothers and sisters survived Mrs. Oliva's 24 pregnancies, and after the fourth grade, Angel had to quit school to help the family make ends meet. His first job entailed gathering manure for fertilizer. It was repulsive, back-breaking labor that yielded two cents a bag for the Oliva clan.

At 13, Angel was sent by his rather brutal father to Havana to work at his uncle's general store so he could support the family back home. (One possibly apocryphal story has it that the elder Oliva shot a rifle at Angel's brother; another has him angrily ripping the door handle off of a 1955 Packard as he neared his 90th birthday.) "It was total servitude," says John. "He worked seven days a week and slept in the store. By the time he turned 18, the old man knew that there had to be a better life somewhere else. He came to America because he felt that he could get a fair shake here. He believed that you could get whatever you want as long as you're willing to work."

Crossing the Straits of Florida, Oliva had a fistful of tobacco seeds sewn into his belt, like a talisman that he believed would serve as the key to his Stateside future. But first he had to earn a living, so he worked odd jobs for eight years, including stints as a store clerk and as a tablecloth salesman. In 1932, he married Estela Diaz, a girl whom he met soon after arriving from Cuba and fondly called "Meca." After unsuccessfully trying to run a Laundromat, Oliva hooked up with James Johnston, a tobacco broker with a faltering business of his own.

There were 50 cigarmakers in Tampa at the time--enterprises such as Perfecto Garcia, Diego Trinidad and La Roma--all working with Cuban tobacco. Oliva spoke the language, understood the customs and capitalized on long-standing relationships. He established relationships with growers and manufacturers; he brought Johnston's firm out of debt and into the black. But when Oliva broached the idea of becoming a partner in the company, Johnston turned him down, citing the age difference between the two men. So, with his boss's blessing, Oliva and two partners (long ago bought out) launched Oliva Tobacco Co. in 1934. By the mid-1940s, Oliva's brothers Martin and Marcellino were brought into the company.

Oliva focused his energies on cigar tobacco. "He worked his ass off and knew the product," confirms John. "My dad never had a hobby in his life. He ate, drank and worked tobacco. He smoked five cigars a day. He loved the business so much that I never saw a lot of him." John hesitates for a moment, then adds, "The old man knew what it was like to go through hunger, so when the business gave him a good living, he pursued it. He pursued it real hard."

Through the 1950s, Oliva Tobacco flourished, rising to be among the top tobacco distributors in the world. The Olivas formed solid relationships with Cuban growers; American cigar producers trusted the Olivas completely. The family became known for cutting solid deals and always delivering what they promised.

The elder Oliva established expansive connections that allowed him to broker all types of tobacco. "A farmer couldn't sell all of his crops to a single manufacturer because one wanted wrapper, another wanted filler, a third might want dark tobacco," John says. "The farmers needed someone who was in a position to sell all the tobacco that a crop produces to a lot of different manufacturers. Eventually my father started handling specific farms in Cuba. He would advance money and finance crops; he set up a sorting operation and bought his first tobacco farm in 1958 or '59."

At that time, of course, almost all premium cigar tobacco came from Cuba, and Oliva was thrilled to own a piece of the beautiful island to which he owed his heritage and his livelihood. Then Fidel Castro seized power. "I was visiting Havana [shortly after] Castro came in, during July of 1960," John recalls. "That year was the first year that my father went into Honduras. We founded a farm in La Plata and planted the crop of 1961. The [Cuban] embargo didn't set in till 1962, so we had a jump on producing tobacco outside of Cuba." Reflecting on the political climate, John adds, "Very few people thought Castro was leaning toward communism." Asked what his father thought of the man, John answers without hesitation: "That he was a communist."

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