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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 2)

CA: But you must have had hundreds of employees!

Oliva: Sometimes 500. They knew my face, and I knew theirs. This was important to me.

CA: It must have made it harder to leave, knowing you wouldn't return.

Oliva: Yes, it was.

CA: How did you avoid losing all your tobacco supply to Castro?

Oliva: In 1960, Cuba cultivated the last crop of tobacco that would be sorted and distinguished by farms. I took 13 manufacturers that used Cuban tobacco to Havana as guests of a communist colonel. I was their representative. I gave them and all my competitors the opportunity to buy whatever they needed. Some took my offer and others saw no threat from Castro and passed it up.

CA: What happened next?

Oliva: I committed to purchasing the entire crop of 2.5 million pounds of tobacco from the Cuban government. I was the one who agreed to pay for the sorting, stripping and handling of the tobacco, under the condition that they would allow me to supervise the entire operation and keep the crop segre-gated by farms. We opened 14 different sorting, stripping and packing operations and handled the entire crop, plus an add-itional 1.35 million pounds of tobacco from more than 20 sharecroppers. We honored the commitment and shipped the last crop of tobacco grown in Cuba by independent growers.

CA: That was quite an impressive gamble on your part, don't you think?

Oliva: Not at all. It would have been worse to do nothing--to watch everybody lose everything.

CA: Where did you source your tobacco once Cuba was closed?

Oliva: We immediately began growing tobacco in Honduras and moved into Quincy, Florida, and the Connecticut Valley to replace the candela wrapper no longer coming out of Cuba. We formed a co-op in Quincy and another in Connecticut. We purchased a farm in Quincy and a 25 percent ownership in a farming operation in Connecticut. The operation in Connecticut was a group of three farms owned by one of the most respected families in the Connecticut Valley, Dan K. Christian, and his 12 children. Then we made the people from Quincy and Connecticut our partners in Honduras and began a 200-acre farm of wrapper tobacco in La Entrada de Copan, Honduras. When President Kennedy slapped the embargo on Cuba, we were in full swing in Central America.

CA: You make it sound so simple, but I'm sure it was a very chaotic and uncertain time. Were you ever concerned you wouldn't find adequate sources to replace what Cuba once offered you?

Oliva: I was too busy working to think about that. Just when I finished with one problem, it was time for a new one. After we settled operations in Connecticut and Quincy, the demands for tobacco grew even more.

CA: How did you accommodate those demands?

Oliva: We continued to open operations in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.

CA: Did each location have a different type of seed?

Oliva: We planted every variety of seed possible in Florida and Connecticut, and we smuggled from Cuba in order to achieve the highest quality of wrapper, filler and binder. We made enormous investments in those countries; they were very successful.

CA: So your problems were over?

Oliva: In 1979, the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. So we concentrated our efforts in Ecuador for the production of wrapper.

CA: Why was that?

Oliva: Two reasons: Number one, the government of Nicaragua nationalized all the farms in the same way that Castro had done in Cuba. He was their ideological leader.

CA: And number two?

Oliva: A very bad tobacco virus called blue mold spread like fire in Central America. It came in with Hurricane Fifi.

CA: Where is the bulk of your product grown today?

Oliva: Most of our wrapper production is in Ecuador, and our filler and binder production is in Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

CA: Did all your family get out of Cuba before Castro took power?

Oliva: No. My brother, Felix, worked for Castro at the onset of his takeover. When he learned what Castro was all about, he then worked to get him out of power. So Felix and his daughter [Maruja] were taken political prisoners and were given a death sentence. After many years of torture, they were released in 1968.

CA: This must have been a difficult time for you and your family.

Oliva: The Revolution broke many homes and many hearts.

CA: How many in your family are involved in your business today?

Oliva: My youngest son, John, joined the business in 1970 after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in engineering. My oldest son, Angel Jr., joined the company in 1974. He graduated from the University of Florida too, but with a degree in architecture. And then my grandson Johnito [Oliva's face lights up]--he works very hard, always traveling, always working hard. We are very close.

CA: I find it impossible to ask about your business, without turning our discussion to your family. [Oliva smiles.] Your career spans 60 successful years. And when your family gathers on Christmas Eve, there are 250 people present. It's obvious that both have brought you a great deal of pleasure.

Oliva: I told you before how proud I am to see my children live with honesty, loyalty and integrity, the things that Meca and I have taught them. I believe Oliva Tobacco has allowed us to achieve and do more good than we could ever have imagined or dreamed. It was those challenges that pushed me to do more.

CA: What are your challenges today?


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