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The Exodus

When Fidel Castro threw Cuba's cigarmakers out of their factories, he unwittingly re-created an industry
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

Twenty soldiers stood at the entrance to Carlos Toraño Sr.'s tobacco farm in Pinar del Río, Cuba. They were the army of the revolution, the vanguard of Fidel Castro. It was 1960, doomsday for Cuba's cigar industry. The head soldier told Toraño that his property and tobacco warehouses were no longer his. It was time to step aside. Toraño was an imposing man, 6 feet tall and some 215 pounds. An opera singer, a tenor, he spoke in a loud, booming voice. Five hundred of his workers stood behind him as he made his stand on the farm called Esperanza, Spanish for hope. "This is a private farm," he shouted. "You cannot come in." The standoff at the gate lasted three days,

but ended when the soldiers threatened Toraño's workers, telling him their blood would be on his hands. "People will die," they said. "My father," says Carlos Toraño Jr., who was 17 at the time, "decided to go."

All over Cuba, similar scenes were unfolding. Soldiers seized Fernando Palicio's Hoyo de Monterrey factory, the home of Punch, Belinda and Cuba's greatest double coronas. Four men in a jeep drove up to the offices of the Quesada family business, brokers of Cuban tobacco since the 1880s. The Communists sealed their safe, claiming it in the name of the revolution. On September 15, 1960, Castro plucked the greatest gems from Cuba's cigar crown. At 5:30 p.m, soldiers entered the H. Upmann factory, the home of Montecristo, and took it from Alonso Menendez and Pepe Garcia. An hour later, soldiers marched beneath the famed marquee of Partagas, taking the fabrica from Ramón Cifuentes, the dashing cigar man with a passing resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. "They came inside and said, 'We're here to intervene the company,' " Cifuentes recalled in 1991. "And they didn't allow me to take anything from there."

That day, Cuba seized 16 cigar factories, 14 cigarette plants and 20 tobacco warehouses. Torn from their businesses, their bank accounts frozen, Cuba's tobacco giants were rendered paupers. The plunder was universal, but it was particularly bitter to Toraño Sr., who in 1957 had given Castro 100,000 pesos -- worth $100,000 at the time -- to finance his battle against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Now the man he had bankrolled was taking everything.

In his 1999 book Cigar Family: A 100 Year Journey in the Cigar Industry, Cuesta-Rey's Stanford J. Newman, now 86, recalled the day in a different fashion. "Castro himself showed up at Carlos Toraño's office in Havana," wrote Newman. "Accompanied by a soldier brandishing a machine gun, Castro barged into Carlos's office and confronted him. 'We are taking over your business,' Castro said. 'Listen, Fidel. I've been a good friend to you. Remember how I always sent money to you up in the mountains? Please don't do this to me.' 'You're just a damn fool,' Castro said. 'Now get out!' "

In the days, months and years that followed the plunder, the cigar barons of Cuba fled their mother country, settling around the world. There was no Cohiba. Americans had never heard the name Macanudo, Padrón cigars didn't exist and only Ybor City, Florida, locals had ever smoked an Arturo Fuente. Cuban seeds had yet to be planted in Central America.

From this loss, an industry was reborn. The exodus made the non-Cuban cigar industry, spreading Cuban-seed tobacco around the globe and turning cigarmakers into chefs forced to blend foreign tobaccos into new creations as they tried to re-create the taste of their lost home.

Fooled by Castro

Castro seized Cuba on New Year's Day, 1959, and many saw him as a savior. "I was in Cuba when Fidel Castro came down from the hills. He looked like he was Christ," says Frank Llaneza, the patriarch of Honduran Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars. "Everyone was very happy. That changed very quickly."

"It looked as though he was being a democrat, saving the country from Batista," says Edgar M. Cullman, 84, chairman of General Cigar Co. Toraño Jr., now 59, agrees: "Ninety-five percent of the population in Cuba thought that Fidel would come in and be a democrat. He had never sold himself as a socialist or communist."

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