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The Son of Montecristo

The Son of Montecristo Peripatetic Benjamin Menendez has left his imprint on nearly every cigar-making country
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 1)

They were glory days of Cuban cigars. Six large cigar manufacturers were operating at the time, and hundreds of smaller ones, remembers Menendez. With its 1,100 workers, none was larger than the H. Upmann factory, and its most prized brand was Montecristo. Menendez, Garcia also owned the much smaller Por Larrañaga factory.

Cigar rollers in those days had surprising power. "If they didn't like the conditions of the tobacco, if they found it too dry or too wet, they would start meetings," says Menendez. "If they didn't see progress, they might strike."

These were the days when a lector -- a professional speaker -- would sit in front of a microphone, reading the newspaper each morning and a novel in the afternoon to the workers. But the mike was available to the rollers, too. "If someone was unhappy, they could use the microphone. Anybody could get up and give a speech." Visitors to Cuban cigar factories might still be honored by the slapping of chavettas, the Cuban cutting knives, on the wooden boards used to roll cigars. A roller holds the edge of the crescent-shaped knife and slaps its flat side against the wood. In Mendendez's day, speechmakers who struck a popular chord would be rewarded with a round of slaps; but when the message wasn't warmly received, the workers would throw their knives in disgust at the wood instead. "It makes a totally different sound," says Menendez.

Cigarmaker pride was the mortar holding the factory together. "There was something in Cuba that I haven't seen anywhere else in the world," says Menendez. "It was the pride in making a size. We had an area on the cigar floor called the Senate, because only the highest-priced [cigar] sizes were made there. And it was a matter of pride. I have seen a man cry because he was demoted from a No. 1 to a No. 3."

That attitude changed after Fidel Castro marched into Havana on New Year's Day, 1959. The year before, Menendez had assumed his father's job of negotiating with the unions. Soon after Castro's forces overthrew the Batista government, the spirit of revolution swept through the H. Upmann factory. "The main thing I did every day was meet with unions," says Menendez. "Those last few months were very difficult times. There was so much revolutionary fervor."

Menendez remembers one talk with a union leader. "This fellow said, 'What we're looking for is the intervention, the confiscation of this factory, so that the profits are divided amongst the workers. I want a piece of this pie.'" Menendez turned to the communist delegate who was part of the meeting. "I said, 'Will you explain the concept of this revolution?'" The communist told the union worker that he was mistaken -- the goal was to take the factory and divide the profits amongst all the people of Cuba, not just those particular workers.

The end came quickly. On September 15, 1960, the Cuban government nationalized the country's tobacco industry. At H. Upmann, the militia arrived at 5:30 in the afternoon. The troops sealed the safety deposit box and forbade the owners from entering the factory. All bank accounts, company and personal, were frozen. The next day, when Alonso Menendez arrived at the front door, soldiers made him sign an affadavit. "One of the claims they made was that the owners had fled the country," says his son. "That was not true."

The Menendez family lost everything. The Cuban government took not only Menendez, Garcia, the company that owned the two cigar factories and a cigarette factory, it took the other businesses completely owned by the Menendez family, including an insurance company and a peanut oil company, the latter of which the family had planned to take public on the New York Stock Exchange. Money sat stockpiled at home for an emergency, but it was in Cuban pesos. Devaluation made them nearly worthless.

Life in the United States was difficult at first. The first Christmas Eve in Miami, Menendez's landlord came by "to wish us a Merry Christmas," he says. It turned out differently. He was living there with 11 other family members. "She sees all of us in the house, and she asks one of my younger brothers, 'Are you all living here?'" He said yes. The lease was for six people, not a dozen. "And she said, 'You have one week to get out.'"

Menendez sold cigarettes for Philip Morris in Miami, then moved to New York and trained in a Brooklyn foundry that made cigar-making machines, but he yearned to get back to the cigar business proper. In 1961, with his father as an investor, Menendez opened Compania Insular Tabacalera S.A. in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. There, Menendez created what would become one of the best-selling premium cigars on the American market: Montecruz. Packaged with a crossed sword logo and with all of four letters different from Montecristo, Montecruz was an unapologetic copy of the brand that had been taken away from the Menendez family.

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