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Family Matters—The Perez Tobacco Growers

For the Perez family of Miami's A.S.P. Enterprises Inc., tobacco growing is more than just a career—it's in the genes.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

The old man puffs heartily on his cigar, sucking at the smoke as if it is sweet nectar from his youth. Outside the Miami warehouse where he stands, the thermometer reads 100 degrees; inside, wall-to-wall with canvas-bagged bales of tobacco, it is only slightly cooler. But the man does not mind. Stoop-shouldered, walking with the help of a cane, a million years of working the tobacco fields seeming to rest on his back, he exhales a fragrant plume and he smiles. All his life he has been smoking cigars, growing and selling tobacco, feeling a strong attachment with the product that supports him. But last year, after his 75th birthday, his doctor insisted that it would be best for his health if he stopped smoking cigars.

He inspects the perfectly even burn of his cigar and, in a thick Cuban accent, says, I asked him if I could have just one a day. But he said no. The man, Silvio Perez, director of a $50 million-per-year tobacco growing and brokering concern called A.S.P. Enterprises Inc., glances toward a camera and strobe that have been set up near an artfully arranged backdrop of tobacco bales. It is where he has just had his picture taken. The photographer wanted us all to be smoking, he says with a shrug and a smile. Now, I can't waste the cigar.

Whether smoking cigars or not, Silvio and the rest of the Perez family men have tobacco in their genes. Silvio's son, 52-year-old Alfredo, A.S.P.'s president and chief executive officer, runs the company's day-to-day operations; Alfredo's son David, who's been interning at various tobacco concerns since he was in high school, is an assistant vice president and the head of sales; David's brother Joseph, also an assistant vice president, oversees the growing operation in Mexico, and brother Andrew is in charge of seed development. Together, the Perezes have transformed their modest family business into a tobacco growing and selling dynasty. Along with their partner, Universal Corp., a Richmond, Virginia-based leaf dealer that owns several tobacco companies, A.S.P. provides tobacco to almost 270 cigar manufacturers around the world.

Though the cultivation of tobacco has been a family trade for at least five generations, nobody could have anticipated the kind of success that would transform the current crop of Perezes into members of Miami's wealthy émigré class of Mercedes-driving, Rolex wearing, property-owning Cuban-descended businessmen. And, like all great cigar stories, this one begins south of Miami, in Cuba, on La Pequiña Cabaña, the Perez family farm in the town of San Antonio de los Baños, about 25 miles from Havana.

In 1950, two years after Jose Perez, Silvio's grandfather, passed away, Silvio's father, Dionisio, was the only one of 13 siblings who wanted to work in the tobacco business, a passion that was shared by his son. But with the rest of the Perezes pursuing other interests, liquidation of the family holdings was inevitable. After the land was sold to Havana-based Toraño & Co., Silvio was retained by Jaime Toraño to manage the farm and continue growing its candela wrapper. By the late 1950s, he ran five farms owned by Toraño and 35 others that the company financed.

Soon after Castro came into power, however, Silvio's life was turned upside down. On October 3, 1960, soldiers appeared at the gates of La Pequiña Cabaña. They announced that the farm now belonged to the government, not to Toraño & Co. But since members of Castro's regime knew that Silvio was knowledgeable about tobacco and an intelligent farmer, they made him an offer: stay on and cultivate tobacco for Fidel.

Recalling the degree to which Jaime Torano had initially supported Castro, Silvio refused to work under the new dictator who had snatched away his boss' farm. Silvio recalls one of the soldiers replying, Well, if you do not work for us, then you have 24 hours to leave. Silvio looked at the soldiers, looked at the land, and considered his options. If it doesn't hurt the revolution, he told the soldiers, I'd like to take my car, my furniture and my two pet monkeys with me when I leave. The troops agreed to this.

Silvio recruited a few friends to help him pack, and he drove to his mother's house. Putting his belongings into storage and securing a temporary home for his family, the 37-year-old Silvio quickly took advantage of a visa he had for travel to the United States (the Toranos regularly sent him to Florida on business) and he flew alone to Miami.

With the help of a friend, Silvio improvised a new life for himself. A manufacturer who is now deceased, Jimmy Corral, one of the big buyers of tobacco from Cuba, deposited some money into an account that he opened for my father, recalls Alfredo. Then he gave a working contract for life to my mother and father so that we could obtain the proper visas for coming to the United States. Other friends helped to speed up the process and [my mother, Olga, and I] left Cuba on the 16th of December 1960.

Although they were grateful to have escaped Castro, the Perez family was hardly satisfied with their situation. Few Cubans lived in Miami at the time, and Spanish was an alien language to the locals. Silvio's spirits may have been lifted one day when he spotted a small Cuban coffee stand near the just burgeoning Calle Ocho, but the dire reality of his financial situation was always driven home by the cigars that he was forced to smoke--Philippine stogies that were three for a nickel rather than the rich Cubans to which he had become accustomed--and the work that he had to do. How'd you like to go from working with tobacco in Cuba to washing cars in Miami? Silvio asks rhetorically. It was impossible to feel good. Those times were very low.

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