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An Interview with Charlie Toraño

We sit down with the president of Toraño Cigars for a wide-ranging discussion.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

(continued from page 2)

Q: Did they offer to buy the Toraño brand?
A: The Toraño brand was not for sale.

Q: What about your numbers? Will they expand the factories?
A: The factory will expand, because the factory anticipates sales expanding.

Q:You refer to it as one factory, although there are two factories.
A: For me it's always one entity, we call it one entity, two campuses.

Q: What is your linchpin cigar?
A: The flagship of the Toraño brand is the Exodus 1959, and this year marks 50 years since [the Cuban] exodus. We've always been very careful to say we're commemorating, not celebrating, because what happened in Cuba was tragic then, and it's tragic today. I think this Exodus 1959 50 Years cigar is about the fact that we triumphed as an industry. I'm really excited about this blend. I think we can take pride in our Cuban roots.

Q: Speaking of Cuba, the news is all about the Obama Administration flirting with normalizing relations with Cuba. It certainly seems that this Administration has the best chance of any in memory of dropping this embargo. If this happens, what happens to the cigar industry and what will change about Toraño cigars?
A: First, I want to say it is my sincere hope, and reasonable request, that if the embargo is lifted, and we talk about "normalizing" relations with Cuba, we do so in an environment where we see significant changes in human rights, elections, and the freedom of the Cuban people to enjoy the fruits of their labor. [Also] we have to be allowed to go and open up a cigar factory, finance growers of tobacco, and compete against those brands that would be exported from Cuba to the U.S. I'm not asking to be paid back for the land that this government stole. I'm just saying that you cannot and should not allow the free flow of cigars from Cuba to the U.S. and not allow the families who had brands, who had factories, who had tobacco to go to Cuba and compete in our own market against what Cuban brands are brought in.

Q: Does it bother you? It happened to so many people in the cigar industry—the factories were taken, the fields were taken.
A: I was born in '67, and it bothers me today as if I were standing on that farm with my grandfather and it was taken from me today as it was 50 years ago. I think it would be another injustice to suddenly be in our market, after having spent 50 years recreating the cigar industry that was taken from us, and to suddenly see an influx of Cuban cigars back into the U.S., and yet [not be able to] go in there and simply compete. I'm asking for a level playing field. I'm not asking for special favors, in spite of the injustices that were done. Too many times, it seems to me, normalizing relations with Cuba is posed by asking one question: should we or should we not undo the embargo? I think it's the wrong question.

I tell some of my friends, who don't spend as much time speaking about the Cuba issue, I always give them the simple example: "I just want you to imagine I'm going to go into your house, I'm going to take all your property, take all your bank accounts, I'm going to put your mother or brother in prison, and then 50 years go by, and now it's time to go back. And the same guy, the one who took all that stuff from you, is still the same guy at the door." So it is personal. It has to be personal. And we weren't the only ones. We're just one of thousands, or hundreds of thousands. You want to undo the embargo? Undo the embargo, but don't let cigars flow freely into the U.S. unless we can go in and compete.

Q: It's complicated.
A: It's complicated, but it doesn't have to be.

Q: Do you think those in power in the United States think about this?
A: I truly believe that the people that will make the decision on the embargo are thinking in dollars and cents. The idea that decreasing the embargo is not about business, that's false. If the Obama Administration were to release the embargo, that is a business decision. It's a political decision, but with massive business consequences. I understand that, because I am a businessman.

Q: If all things worked out with a level playing field, what Toraño blends would you make?
A: We'd be into another exciting time in the cigar industry. Imagine if Toraño could come out with a cigar with the best of Cuban tobacco and Nicaraguan tobacco, or Cuban and Dominican? There are so many possibilities. I look forward to the day that we can blend legally with Cuban tobacco. I want that day to come, and I want it to come quickly—I just want it to come in a way that's fair and just. As a manufacturer, we're missing a great tobacco, Cuban tobacco. No question about it.

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