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An Interview with Jose Padrón

Chairman, Piloto Cigars Inc.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

(continued from page 4)

George Padrón: I've been in the business my whole life.

CA: In Miami?

George Padrón: I was raised in Miami along with the rest of my family.

CA: Where did you do to college?

George Padrón: I went to Florida State and the University of Miami. I graduated from Florida State in 1990 with my bachelor's and then my master's from University of Miami in 1992.

CA: Go Hurricanes. Going back to Cuba--when you were growing and processing tobacco, did you ever sell cigar tobacco to factories in the United States?

Padrón: No. I only sold to the brokers. All the business in Cuba was done through the brokers and they sold it to people outside the country.

CA: How did you feel when you were in the tobacco business in Cuba in the 1950s when Cuba had factories to make finished cigars, but they were shipping bulk tobacco to the United States where "Clear Havana" cigars were made, almost in competition with the Cuban products?

Padrón: At the time, you had to sell the tobacco. For the growers, it worked in our favor. We needed to sell the tobacco. I want to make clear that when we shipped the tobacco to Tampa, the blend was already planned out, the recipe for the cigars, if you will, was already decided upon. All they had to do was follow our plan.

CA: Tomorrow morning when you wake up, you read The New York Times, and it says the embargo has ended. What is your dream?

Padrón: I'd get to the Pinar del Río as quickly as possible and find the men that are over the age of 50 that I once knew, that are probably not today working in tobacco. I'd have a factory in Pinar del Río. I'd first help the growers with fertilizer. But that's not going tohappen with Fidel in power.

CA: Would you start a factory for processing tobacco or cigar making?

Padrón: Cigar making. But I'd also get some farms I know.

CA: Didn't you get in trouble once in Miami because you went to Cuba?

Padrón: Yes. This is an important story. I was a revolutionary. I was very involved in the Cuban revolution. But when I left Cuba because I didn't like the way the revolution was going, I had left behind a few friends that told me not to forget about them, that they were going to see just how far they could go in Cuba. But many of them ended up in prison.

CA: The majority of them were revolutionaries, correct?

Padrón: Exactly; the majority were, well, actually all of them were. We went with a group of six people from the United States to see if we could get them out of prison.

CA: What year was that?

Padrón: 1978. I had never thought I would return to Cuba until the conditions that had made me leave had changed. We arrived in Cuba October 20, 1978, in the evening with the intention of getting my friends and as many other political prisoners released. At that point, we were not able to get them released, but we did interview one. Later during our visit, on a Saturday morning, they took me to see the University of Havana. At around 1 p.m., we went to a government house and Fidel Castro appeared.

We started talking. We were trying to figure out a way to have the prisoners released in an orderly fashion. We were calculatingit all: how many prisoners there were, how they could be taken out, the planes. We needed to have some organization to be able to get those prisoners out of the country. We were sitting at a table and they brought out a box of Cohibas. They gave me that box as a gift so that I would be able to try the cigar. We still hadn't discussed the prisoners, since this was at the beginning of the visit. I had a box of my cigars on the table and I was sitting at the head of the table. Fidel said to me, "Padrón, they tell me that you are making cigars in Miami. Can I try one?"

CA: You had met Fidel before?

Padrón: Yes, of course. I put the three cigars on the table; I wasn't about to just put one down, I put the three there for him to choose. He takes one and I take another, so now I have one left in my pocket. This is the way it all happened. I began to smoke the cigar as did he.

CA: Had he removed the ring?

Padrón: He had taken off the ring. So we started to talk of Nicaragua because I had told him that we harvested three times a year in Nicaragua. He asked me how that was possible. At that point, we still hadn't touched on the issue of the prisoners. But when the conversation turned to that subject, there were no reporters or anyone else, just our delegation and his people. But then after the discussion, the reporters entered, including someone from The New York Times, and [Fidel] tells me, "Hey Padrón, this cigar is very good, but I think that you have copied the ring. Let me see one." So I handed one over to him. That's when the picture was taken. But that same afternoon we returned to Miami with 42 prisoners.

CA: You were able to get them freed?

Padrón: Yes. When we got to Miami, it still wasn't a big thing until the picture hit the papers. It was something else after that. Padrón Communist was the headline, and yet they didn't know the sacrifice we went through to get people out of prison.

In November 1978 there was another dialogue, about them releasing to us 300 prisoners. Although there were not any big problems, the people were saying that we were communists because we were going over to where Fidel was. And they kept bringing up the cigar thing. Anyway, they released to us 300 prisoners. But I still hadn't gotten the three I most wanted to get out. The Cubans gave me a chance to go into the prisons and look for these guys. Finally, it was after that trip that the bombs started.

The first bomb was on March 24, 1979, but it didn't explode. Extremist groups put it on the side of our Miami factory and a nephew of mine found it and called the bomb squad. After that, the anti-Castro folks bombed us three more times from 1979 to 1982. I must have done something in my favor, because during the bombings, I broke my own sales records in Miami. I put a large banner outside the factory, a saying by José Martí that read: Men are divided into two camps/Those that Love and Build and those that Hate and Destroy.

You know, I took nothing from Fidel. The Cuban government respected me and respects me still today because I made myself be respected. I never said that the situation was good in Cuba, because the system does not work. I never said it to the government nor am I saying it now. I think that they have been wrong; they have to change. They can never say to me that I joined them. All that happened was they treated me with respect and I treated them with respect.

CA: At last count how many political prisoners were freed by the process that the group initiated?

Padrón: 3,600 prisoners.

CA: That's incredible.

Padrón: It was followed by some sacrifice. Not a business sacrifice, because I have already told you that the business did not decrease. On the contrary, it increased. It was what happened with my family and the tension in my factory. I had to put a camera system up to protect ourselves. It's still there. My car had to have an automatic starter. My house had alarms. That is the sacrifice. In regard to the business, I think that the people in Miami realized that what was happening was an injustice. Because the result of what we did came out later.

CA: Do you have any pictures of you or your family when you lived in Cuba?

Padrón: All that was left behind, but if I were to bring a picture of the farm now, it would cause me great pain for you to see it because it is destroyed.


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