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Manuel Quesada: The Gentleman of Cigars

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

It is nearly midnight on a Friday at an upscale Santiago, Dominican Republic, restaurant. The waitstaff is staring blankly at the ceiling, lingering only because one table of cigar makers has yet to finish a cigar-and-Port-fueled three-hour conversation. Traditionally, Dominicans stay in on Friday evenings, but right now nobody at the table heeds the clock, the local customs or the curt maître d'. The rules that hold this circle of men together in discourse are as old as tobacco itself; older, in fact, because only fire, gold or the opposite sex could provide men with this much purpose, devotion and satisfaction.

At the moment, Manuel Quesada is holding court. Quesada's great-great grandfather started brokering tobacco leaf in Cuba in the 1880s and, four generations later, Manufactures de Tobacos S. A. (MATASA) manufactures some of the finest cigars in the world: Fonseca, Romeo and Julieta, Licenciados, Sosa, Casa Blanca, Jose Benito and a new release in the American market, Cubita (which has been sold in Europe for three years). On his left, Carlos Fuente Jr. (maker of Fuente, Cuesta-Rey, Ashton, Bauza, Montesino and the highly touted newcomer Chateau de la Fuente) and his brother-in-law Wayne Suarez listen quietly, while Hendrik Kelner of Tabacos Dominicanos (TABADOM: maker of Davidoff, Avo, Griffin's and Troya) sits across from Quesada and nods his head in steady agreement.

Quesada's reverent tone has transfixed his audience. He is talking of a different era in the cigar world. In his smooth, Spanish-accented baritone, Quesada hypnotizes everyone with stories of the cigar world before Castro. His hands emphasize his words, cutting shapes in the blue smoke. "In Cuba, the rollers all lived above the factory. They worked six days a week and on Sunday afternoons they would go out socially. But if a roller came downstairs and wasn't wearing a coat and tie, he wasn't allowed to leave.

"These men had reputations, and when they went out they represented a trade." Quesada ("Manolo" to his friends) pauses to take a sip of Port, and we wait for him to continue. "My God, the things these people did with tobacco. They used to tell their kids to play in the tobacco bales and they would make games with it. They would stack the bales in such a way that it all fit together like a puzzle. You could unpack a bale and put it back together exactly as you took it apart. And not one leaf in that bale would be broken. The genius and the time...they don't exist anymore."

The times have changed. But the minds at this table remember. Earlier in the day, Quesada sat in his office behind a rickety desk and explained exactly why he is making cigars in the Dominican Republic and not in Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica--or Cuba. From the mid-1880s until 1960, Quesada's great-grandfather, grandfather, father and several generations of uncles brokered tobacco out of Havana and sold it around the world. In the 1930s, one uncle started to buy and resell Dominican tobacco, creating a permanent family foothold on the island of Hispaniola. By the time Castro came to power, Sobrinos de A. Gonzales (the company founded by Quesada's great-great-grandfather) and Constantino Gonzales (founded by a great-uncle) were the largest tobacco brokers in the world. In April 1960, Quesada's family was forced out of business.

Quesada tells the story in his usual deep, considerate Spanish lilt. But when he gets to the subject of the Cuban Revolution, his voice changes to a matter-of-fact monotone reserved for the weary recounting of painful memories. "Four guys in a jeep with machine guns came to the door, asked for the key to the safe, sealed it and one said, 'this vault has been intervened by the government; nobody can touch it.'

"In August of 1960, my brother and I were sent to Miami, and [the following month] my mother and two sisters came. My father stayed for a year educating Castro's men on how to run his business. One day they told him, 'go. Don't come back.' "

Manuel Quesada Sr. left Cuba and shortly after settling in Miami, he flew to New York and asked the Royal Bank of Canada for a $200,000 loan. "We had been doing business with that bank since 1907," Quesada recalls. "With no collateral, they loaned him the money in 1961."

Quesada's father used the loan to buy warehousing facilities and leaf in the Dominican Republic and began to grade, select, warehouse, sort and finally sell Dominican and other tobaccos to the same European and South American cigar makers who used to buy Cuban leaf from the Quesada family's Havana-based operation.

By the late '60s, some Miami-based cigar makers began to buy leaf, including Juan Sosa. The ties between the Sosa and Quesada families were already in place as Sosa's family had farmed and made cigars for domestic consumption in rural Cuba and the Quesadas owned a portion of Sosa's business. However, Sosa was beginning to have difficulty finding rollers for his Miami-made cigars. Because of rising labor costs and an aging workforce, Sosa shifted production to Santiago in 1972, and MATASA was born with Quesada in command of a four-legged table, a phone and three rollers. A couple of bales of tobacco sat on the floor beside the table. The opening capital of the company was $100.

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