An Interview With Carlos Toraño
President, Central American Tobacco Corp.
Carlos Toraño hails from one of the premier tobacco-growing families of Cuba. When his father and family lost their tobacco farms to nationalization after the Castro revolution, the Toraños spread about the world, sowing tobacco seed in their footsteps. After his father's death in a tobacco field, Toraño entered the family tobacco business, and later began brokering and then making cigars, eventually putting his name on a cigar brand. Today, the Toraños make cigars for a variety of customers and are building their family name into one of the established cigar brands of the modern era. Senior editor David Savona sat down with Toraño in his Miami office to talk about his past, present and future in the cigar business.
David Savona: Let's talk about your history, because a lot of our readers don't know about the rich history of the Toraño family. Would you take us back and tell us how the Toraños got involved in tobacco and cigars?
Carlos Toraño: Of course, everything begins with my grandfather, Santiago Toraño, who came from a very small town from Spain. The company began in 1916, and he probably came [to Cuba] around the end of 1915, beginning of 1916. He came from Spain to Cuba, and like everyone else at that point they were looking for jobs. In 1916, he was a young man of about 18 or 19 years of age, and he began Toraño & Co., buying tobacco leaf and reselling it. And that, little by little, became a bigger business. During the 1920s he brought his three brothers from Spain to join him at the company, and for about 15 years they all worked very closely together in one company, and they all got married. They all had children, and they all decided that every member of the family wanted to have his own company, so the big Toraño company divided into four different companies. I actually always say that every male in the Toraño family was really born into the tobacco business one way or the other. At one point I think there was about 16 of us.
Q: Were they competing with each other?
A: Well, in a certain way, yes. We were in different regions, different farms, and we all were very close to each other and helped each other out. It was a competition of who was the best worker, who was the best dealer, who was the best grower. In the 1930s, we started to buy farms and then we became growers. Santiago had four children: Santiago Jr., who died at the age of 20, my father, Carlos, Jose, and Jaime. And, basically, the growing history is the history of the brothers. Each one had a different region. They were all tenors. So anybody who knew the Toraño family, anytime, any guest, anyplace, nighttime was drinking time and singing time.
In the 1930s we became basically growers of wrapper. And from one farm we ended up with 23 farms and we owned about 400 to 600 acres, between 23 different farms. We owned probably 11 or 12, and we rented the others.
Q: Tell me what it was like in those days. What kind of tobacco were you growing?
A: We specialized in shade wrapper. Every single farm. The Corojo seed and the Connecticut seed.
Q: Connecticut seed. Was that prevalent in Cuba back then?
A: It was very famous at the time.
Q: What was that wrapper like at the end of the process?
A: Beautiful, a light brown. Not as light as Connecticut we see today sometimes—a little bit darker—but it was absolutely beautiful tobacco.
Q: How was life under Batista?
A: It was very good for business. Batista was the kind of dictator who wanted to be loved by the people. Life under Batista was very easy. Batista was a pro-business man. One of the funny things about the dictatorship of Batista is that there were so many newspapers in Cuba; we probably had 30 or 40 in the island, and in magazines, probably about 100 magazines, so we can talk to different people, and they could say almost anything they wanted to.
Q: Tell me about the revolution.
A: I remember we came back from visiting the farms, and we were riding horses, probably at midnight. December 31st, 1958. Batista had left. So it was, "Oh my god, what is going to happen?" It took us seven days to drive from the farm in San Juan to the city, to our home in Havana, because all the roads were closed. All the towns—you could not get into any town, because everybody wasn't working. And in every town that we had to cross—there must have been about 20—my father gave a revolutionary speech.
A: I hate to say this, but [laughs], but he always felt the [Batista] dictatorship was awful and we, like most people, were very excited about the possibility of a new system, a very democratic system. These were the expectations: we were going to go into a new era—a democratic system, not a dictatorship. Little did we know that 45 years later, we would still be talking about it.
Q: Your father had given him money.
A: Probably over a million pesos at that time, which is a lot of money for that time. We're talking about a lot of money. I remember the discussions between Ramon Cifuentes [the maker of Partagas who was anti-Castro from the beginning] and my dad. My dad said, "You're crazy, you don't know what you're doing."
Q: When word of the nationalization first got to you, what went through your head?
A: We realized very soon after Fidel came into power that we had made a major mistake, because this was a communist revolution and that there was no way to put it back. The tobacco and the sugar [industries] were the most important ones, so they were the first two that he took over. And you had a lot of people who began to ostracize you because you were not part of the revolution. So the first concern was your family. My brother-in-law was arrested, was let free and was exiled. He left for Peru and then to Spain. My mother, my sisters, my nephew, they all followed.
Q: Was it easy to leave at that point still?
A: It was easy. I remember all that we could take out was $100.
Q: What happened to all your family's wealth?
A: All the bank accounts they'd taken over, the farms were taken over. We lost everything. The Toraño family begins to exit the island. We were in Jamaica, very close with General Cigar. My father lived in the Dominican Republic. Francisco [one of Santiago Sr.'s brothers] lived in Mexico. Jose, a cousin on my father's side, moved to Costa Rica and to Panama. Arturo [another cousin] went to Jamaica and to Brazil together with me, and in 1980 [several of us] went to Ecuador and we went to Mexico. So like I always say, the history of the Toraño family is the history of the tobacco world. That's why in today's world my feeling is, of course, that the best tobacco is grown and the best cigars are made outside Cuba.
Q: Let's talk about your father's journey to the Dominican Republic.
A: When my dad went to the Dominican Republic, he knew in his heart that the soil in the Dominican Republic was very similar to the conditions in Cuba. My dad was working with the Institute of Tobacco. In 1968, he became independent of the Institute. Of course, in the 1970s—late 1960s and 1970s—the big wrapper in the States was candela. So [for most of] the growers who were in South America and Central America and the Dominican Republic, if you were involved with wrappers, you were involved with candela.
Q: Your father died at a fairly young age.
A: Dad died in 1970, when he was just 57. It probably was about 11 o'clock. He was growing candela. You have to get the tobacco sheds very hot through either gas or coal. So you had to watch for burning embers. You had to have people supervising all the time, but you cannot be inside of the shed more than a couple of minutes at the maximum, due to the heat. For those 36 hours, whatever it took, it was very dangerous. So my father comes into this house and he finds these people sleeping. They said my father's heart blew from his rage at finding these people asleep, and the threat was that the whole thing could burn down. He just dropped right there. By the time they took him back to Santiago, he died.
Q: That's terrible.
A: Probably there has never been in the history of the Dominican Republic somebody who loved the Dominican Republic more than my father did. He would have been the happiest man to have seen what happened to the Dominican Republic during the 1990s. He was in love with the Dominican Republic. He believed the Dominican Republic would have been bigger than Cuba.
Q: Your dad died in what year?
Q: Now where were you at this time?