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Cigars For Hope

Cigarmakers and their customers have a warm heart for the needy
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

Chateau de la Fuente looks like a paradise. The Dominican tobacco farm is immaculate, decorated with rows of exotic flowers, gazebos with thatched roofs and elaborate mosaic floors, and scores of majestic royal palm trees, some of which poke up through the white shade that covers much of the 190 acres of planted tobacco. This is where the Fuentes grow wrapper for their Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, and they have clearly spared no expense, making sure every last detail is perfect.

But off the farm is a different world, one of abject poverty, sadness and unfulfilled dreams.

One moment cigarmaker Carlos Fuente Jr. is showing off his freshly planted crop of Cuban-seed tobacco, the next his SUV is snaking down a rocky road flanked by meager homes. He pauses at one, which is etched with religious sayings and crosses. This is the town of Caribe.

The homes are shacks, and seem impossibly frail for this part of the world, where hurricanes are an annual threat. Walls fit at odd angles, most floors are made of dirt and the road is often the sole place for children to play. As the car comes to a halt, a group of shoeless children walk out to see the visitors.

A young boy with old eyes, his body lean and already hard from work, stares at the vehicle. "La projecta," he says, over and over.

"La projecta."

He's asking to join the project, the Cigar Family School, created by the Fuente and Newman families and financed in part by thousands of generous cigar smokers. The Cigar Family Charitable Foundation has given more than $1 million to the school, which is one part education center, one part health center, one part community gathering place. It's a rare oasis of hope in this area, a place where some must feel they have been overlooked by man and God alike.

Fuente is hardly alone. Charity is a large part of the corporate structure of many cigar companies, most of which operate in areas teeming with the world's poor. When Hurricane Georges stormed through the southern Dominican Republic in 1998, killing hundreds and ripping the roofs from homes, Consolidated Cigar Corp. (which later became the core of Altadis U.S.A.) opened its checkbook. It helped out the citizens of La Romana, home to the company's biggest cigar factory and the hardest-hit part of the country.

"When the storm hit La Romana, the company gave more than $1 million," said Janelle Rosenfeld, vice president of advertising for Altadis U.S.A., which makes Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and many other cigars. The aid came mostly in cash, but also included tarps for roofs damaged by the storm, plus food, all flown to the Dominican Republic by a plane chartered by the company.

Others also pitched in. "Employees at our home office [in Fort Lauderdale, Florida] donated clothing and food," said Rosenfeld. "And that all went down in the private charter plane."

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