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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

(continued from page 1)

Newman remembers his first look at Cameroon leaf in his book Cigar Family. Shortly after Kennedy signed the embargo, a package arrived at Newman's Tampa offices. Inside were samples of a dark brown leaf, which he quickly had rolled into cigars. "My God, that's the best tobacco I've ever had outside of Cuba!" he yelled.

Cameroon tobacco is grown in West Africa, not only in Cameroon but in the Central African Republic. The French controlled the tobacco harvests there in the 1960s, and the tobacco was grown by the tobacco monopoly SEITA. Unlike Havana tobacco, which had been purchased by handshake deals and long-standing relationships, Cameroon was bought at an annual auction in Paris.

First used by European manufacturers, the wrapper began appearing on American machine-made cigars, including Newman's Cuesta-Rey, American Brand's Anthony y Cleopatra and Bayuk's Garcia Vega and Phillies, by the 1960s. (The auctions, which always seemed to irk buyers, became less and less popular. By 1993, SEITA pulled out of Cameroon, and it was M. Meerapfel Söhne that brought the wrapper tobacco back in the mid-1990s.)

Meanwhile, Menendez had sold Insular Tabacalera to conglomerate Gulf + Western in 1971 for $7 million. In 1977, he left the Canaries entirely, to go into business with his brother, Felix, who was making cigars in Brazil. At the time, the Canaries were shipping 21 million cigars a year to the United States, making it by far the leading producer for the U.S. market.

Gaining ground on the Canaries was Jamaica, which had seen an influx of Cuban émigrés long before the revolution. During the Second World War, Britain passed a law stating that its precious hard currency had to be kept within the commonwealth. Cubans moved to Jamaica -- a British colony -- and opened cigar factories, exporting brands made with a blend of Cuban and Jamaican tobacco. Brands such as Royal Jamaica, CrËme de Jamaica, Flor de Jamaica, Temple Hall and Palamino became popular.

Jamaica's modern ascension as a major cigar-producing country began in 1969, when General Cigar's Cullman toured Kingston's Temple Hall Factory. Impressed by the workers and fond of the island, he bought Temple Hall, the owner of a sleeper brand named Macanudo, which wasn't sold in the United States at the time.

Cullman hired Ramón Cifuentes to teach his employees how to make premium cigars -- at the time the company only made cigars by machine -- and the fight between Montecruz and Macanudo began, Canary Islands versus the island of Jamaica. By the early 1980s, Macanudo had dethroned Montecruz.

Sowing Seeds in Central America

Before they looked for rollers, the cigarmakers needed tobacco; the quest began to find a country where leaf that tasted similar to the forbidden fruit of Cuba could be grown. In 1956, Llaneza, who had married a Nicaraguan woman in 1954, planted some tobacco seeds in Nicaragua out of curiosity, and brought the cured leaves to Cuba in 1957. Daniel Rodriguez, who rented and managed Cuba's greatest tobacco farm, El Corojo, was one of the pioneers who grew the early plots of Cuban-seed tobacco in Nicaragua soon after fleeing Cuba in 1960. Oliva, leery of Fidel Castro, planted a tobacco farm in the Honduran town of La Plata in 1960. "We had a jump on producing tobacco outside of Cuba," says John Oliva Sr., who now runs his late father's tobacco company. In 1961, Jacinto Argud"n from Cuban Land and Leaf Tobacco Co., formerly the largest tobacco operation in Cuba, planted a crop in Honduras in the Jamastran Valley, on land that is today farmed by Julio Eiroa, who came to the Valley with his father, Generoso. By 1963, Llaneza was blending Honduran tobacco with Cuban.

Despite its early start, Nicaraguan tobacco didn't share the same quiet success of the Honduran product. A trial planting in Sebago, near Estelí, the modern home of Nicaraguan cigar production, "was a failure," says Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, the current owner of the oldest cigar factory in Nicaragua, Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua S.A. Later plantings were more successful, but Nicaraguan tobacco took longer to catch on than its Honduran counterpart.

Julio Eiroa, who left Cuba in 1958 and fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, began working with Oliva Tobacco in 1963 in Jamastran, near the Nicaraguan border. "The results were so incredible that Oliva first and, later, Jimmy Corral, said that it was as good as the best of the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba," says Eiroa, now 64. Corral, the maker of the Bering brand in Tampa, partnered with Eiroa in establishing Danl", Honduras's first cigar factory, in 1963, a venture that failed.

Being a pioneer had its risks. Honduras is primitive today, but in the 1960s it was even less developed. Getting to a farm meant driving a tractor across streams and through fields. Living conditions were barbaric. On a 1962 trip to the first tobacco farm in Honduras, Llaneza drank the water and was stricken horribly ill. As he lay in bed, moaning in pain, the doctor traded his stethoscope for measuring tape. "What are you doing?" croaked Llaneza. "Measuring you for the box," said the doctor.

Llaneza survived, and he formed Honduras American Tobacco S.A. (HATSA) in 1963. The Cofradia cigar factory became the first export-oriented cigar factory in Honduras. In 1969, as Tampa's workforce was getting old and hard to replace, Llaneza moved production of Punch and Hoyo to HATSA, which then had a second factory in the southern part of the country, in Danl". Punch and Hoyo became some of the largest non-Cuban brands in the world. General Cigar bought Villazon in 1997, for $81.4 million.

Llaneza wasn't alone when he first went to Honduras. He was joined by Oliva, as well as Juan Francisco Bermejo, a Cuban èmigrè who soon moved to Nicaragua. In 1964, Bermejo joined with Miami's Simon Camacho to create Nicaragua's first cigar factory, Nicaragua Cigars S.A., in Estelí. The Cuban émigrés had a third "partner," Anastasio Somoza, the dictator who ruled Nicaragua and apparently had time to be a businessman.

The partners first wanted to call their cigar Hoyo de Nicaragua, then settled on Joya de Nicaragua, trademarking the brand in 1970. The full-flavored Nicaraguan puro became a major seller in the United States. "In 1976, we sold nine million in the United States alone," says Martinez Cuenca. The brand proved exceptionally hardy, surviving a U.S. embargo, revolution, Somoza's 1979 overthrow, and the burning of the factory, which was rebuilt with brick in 1980.

Nicaraguan tobacco was a huge draw for those in America who missed the flavor of Havanas. Llaneza used it to wrap his Honduran cigars, and Nicaraguan puros were even smoked in the White House. By 1977, Nicaraguan cigar exports were nearly as large as those from Jamaica and Honduras, but still only about two-thirds the size of the market leader, the Canary Islands.

The flavor of Nicaraguan tobacco impressed many in the Cuban-American community. Jose Orlando Padrón came from a Cuban tobacco family that had begun growing tobacco in the 1880s. He left Cuba in 1961, settling in Miami, and in 1964 he opened a small cigar factory, making cigars using Brazilian, Puerto Rican and Connecticut tobaccos. He wasn't entirely satisfied. "I realized I was not reaching the same flavor of the Habano," he says. In 1967 a Nicaraguan businessman named Roberto Martinez visited Padrón in Miami to show him a few tobacco samples. "I took a few leaves and did what I used to do in Cuba when I wanted to taste a cigar," says Padrón. "I rolled a
rustic cigar over my right thigh and lit it. On my second puff, I told Martinez, ëI am smoking tobacco from the second Cuba.' "

In 1970 Padrón shifted his production to Nicaragua, and began growing his own tobacco, from Cuban seed.

Nicaragua may have seemed a haven to the exiled Cubans, but they soon faced a familiar, bitter problem: nationalization. In July 1979, the Sandanistas took over the Nicaraguan government and seized the tobacco industry, just as Castro's minions had done in the early 1960s. "They confiscated my farms two times, once in Cuba, once in Nicaragua," says Plasencia, who had emigrated to Nicaragua in 1965 and bought farms there in 1970.

The Toraños, who began farming in Nicaragua in 1967, were prepared. "We had leased farms -- we learned our lesson in Cuba," says Toraño Jr.

Many of Nicaragua's tobacco men moved across the border to Honduras, and after Nicaragua returned to normal, many returned. To this day, Plasencia, perhaps the largest farmer in Central America and one of its biggest cigarmakers, and Padrón, maker of Nicaragua's best-known cigar brand, maintain second cigar factories across the border in Danl" just in case. Toraño is spread around the cigar-making world, in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The Creation of Little Havana

Although Padrón makes his cigars in Central America today, he still has his office in Miami's Little Havana. He's hardly alone. Many cigar companies are headquartered there, and the city has a host of chinchalles, small cigar factories that make cigars for the local market or for tourists. But before the Cuban revolution, there were no cigar factories in Miami.

As Cubans poured into Miami after the revolution, a cigar culture emerged. In 1961, Simon Camacho opened Miami's first cigar factory, and later began making Camacho cigars. (The brand is now made by the Eiroa family in Honduras, who purchased the rights to Camacho in 1995, five years after his death.) In 1964, three men opened factories within months of one other in Miami: Padrón, Efraim Gonzalez, who later created the Dos Gonzalez brand, and Juan Sosa, who now works for Arturo Fuente. It would be four more years before Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Sr., a former member of the Cuban senate, would open El Credito Cigars Inc. The tiny shop brought La Gloria Cubanas to the United States, and the brand became Miami's most famous cigar.

Miami grew in importance as a cigar-making town, but it would prove to be a temporary outpost. The city had just one decade of true prominence. Expensive labor would be its undoing. By 1970 Padrón had moved production to Nicaragua, and Sosa was looking for a better place to make cigars.

Sosa, who emigrated from Cuba at the age of 22, taking a job parking cars in Miami Beach, had a difficult time making cigars in America. Finding tobacco was a chore. "We were using what we could find," he says. "Every few months, we had to find a new blend." He would use Connecticut or Costa Rican wrapper, Wisconsin binders and, later, some Dominican tobacco. "We saw no future to grow in Miami anymore. It was very difficult to find labor," Sosa says.

The Rise of the Dominican Republic

Today's Dominican Republic is the world's biggest producer of premium cigars, dwarfing even Cuba, but in the early 1970s Dominican cigars were unknown in the United States. What the country did have was tobacco. La Aurora S.A., the nation's largest company, opened in 1903. And, a member of the Quesada family began buying and reselling tobacco from the Dominican Republic in the 1930s, establishing an early foothold in the country.

In 1967, Toraño Sr. went to the Dominican Republic with Cuban seeds and began working with the Dominican Institute of Tobacco to develop better tobacco. The country grew mostly cigarette tobacco at the time, and was only two years removed from a civil war.

The Dominican Republic had little hope of becoming a major cigar producer until 1973, when the Dominican government opened the Santiago free trade zone. Santiago had a supply of lush tobacco -- the central Dominican town is situated in the heart of the Cibao Valley -- and a large, cheap workforce. The country beckoned to Miami manufacturers such as Sosa, who was trying to escape the soaring labor rates of Little Havana.

In 1974, Juan Sosa and Manuel Quesada joined forces to create a cigar factory called Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (Matasa), the first factory in the Santiago free trade zone. They had some tobacco and $100 in working capital. Their first cigar was called Sosa.

"There were no big boys at the time in the D.R.," says Sosa, "no Fuente, no Consolidated, no General. I had a very, very hard time explaining to the people where the cigar came from. They said, ëWhere?' "

The biggest brands of the day were rolled in the Canary Islands, many with Dominican tobacco. But no one wanted a Dominican cigar. "The transition from Miami to the Dominican Republic was very tough," says Sosa.

The country's nascent cigar industry bore little resemblance to the powerhouse it would become: today, Altadis (which owns Consolidated Cigar Corp.), General Cigar and Arturo Fuente are the country's largest manufacturers. Fuente, which began as a chinchalle behind the Ybor City home of founder Arturo Fuente, wouldn't move to the Dominican Republic until 1980, after fires had burned the struggling family out of Nicaragua, Honduras and Tampa. It wasn't until the 1990s that the company's fortunes rose and it became a major player.

General Cigar began working with the Dominican government in 1974 to grow wrapper tobacco, especially the green, candela leaves that were popular at the time, but it didn't roll its first Dominican cigars until 1978.


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