When Fidel Castro threw Cuba's cigarmakers out of their factories, he unwittingly re-created an industry
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Consolidated Cigar used its Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana primarily for tobacco processing, making a few Primo del Reys, a brand it received in the Moro Cigar Co. acquisition of 1966.
The Dominican Republic's rise in the cigar world was aided by the fall of the Canary Islands. By 1980, the Canaries were losing their appeal as a manufacturing base, with rising labor rates, striking workers and currency exchange problems.
Gulf + Western, owners of Consolidated Cigar and Insular Tabacalera, decided to shift production to its tobacco plant in the Dominican Republic. Canary Island cigars at the time were bunched by machine, and only the wrapper was applied by hand. Competing brands, notably Jamaica's Macanudo, were made entirely by hand. When Gulf + Western shifted its cigar production from the Canaries to La Romana in the early 1980s, it brought along its bunching machines. Gulf + Western tried to rush the job, workers struggled to learn how to use the machines, and the company had a quality problem, opening the door to its Jamaican competition.
In 1984, billionaire Ronald O. Perelman bought Consolidated from Gulf + Western (he would later sell it, reacquire it, take it public and ultimately sell it to France's SEITA) and his new management team led by Theo Folz overhauled La Romana's cigar-making operation. Folz decided that the cigars would be made by hand. He had Richard DiMeola meet with general manager David Lacey and Josè Seijas (now the manager) to plan the conversion of the plant into a handmade cigar-making facility. Today the factory is part of Altadis, the world's largest cigar company, and the factory is the biggest in the Dominican Republic, churning out tens of millions of cigars a year, among them Montecristo, H. Upmann and Romeo y Julieta. Benjamin Menendez plays a role, overseeing production of the Dominican version of his father's old Montecristo brand.
In only 10 years, the Dominican Republic had become the leading producer of premium cigars for the American market. Dominican imports surged, from 5.8 million cigars in 1977 to 33.7 million in 1981. Today they account for half the market, and in 1988 a stamp of approval was given to the country when Davidoff announced that little Tabacos Dominicanos S.A., owned by Hendrik Kelner, would make its world-renowned brand instead of Cuba. The first Dominican Davidoffs shipped in 1990.
The Dominican Republic would ultimately replace Jamaica as the premier place for the production of handmade cigars outside of Cuba. In October 2000, General Cigar closed its Kingston cigar plant, shifting the remaining Macanudo production to the Dominican Republic. Soon after, Consolidated Cigar stopped making Royal Jamaicas in May Pen, Jamaica.
The Legends Die
The men who fled Cuba lost their businesses to Castro, but they retained their optimism. "The manufacturers thought they were all going back to Cuba," says Sherwin Seltzer. In October 1991, Ramón Cifuentes, the best known of Cuba's cigar émigrés, traveled to New York for an interview with Marvin R. Shanken and James Suckling, a year before Cigar Aficionado was launched. It had been 30 years since he left Cuba, and he hadn't returned. "I will go back," he said, at the end of the interview. "I think, very soon, it's going to happen."
Ramón Cifuentes and his brothers, who jointly owned the Partagas brand, made a deal with General Cigar in 1974 to make a Jamaican Partagas. "I think he got disillusioned that he was never going back to Cuba," says Edgar Cullman. To this day, General (which later shifted production of Partagas to the Dominican Republic) pays a royalty fee to the Cifuentes family.
Cifuentes never made it back to Cuba. He died in 2000 at the age of 91. Fernando Palicio, who sold his brands to Villazon, and Alonso Menendez both died in 1965. Toraño Sr. died in 1970.
For Cuba's emigres, no memory is as bitter as the day they or their families lost their businesses, their assets, their fortunes. But there is some solace in what came of their ordeals. If not for the revolution and resulting embargo, there would likely be no Dominican cigar industry, no Honduran tobacco, no Ecuadoran leaf. The exodus turned Cuba's cigar men into creative blenders, master craftsmen who still experiment with tobaccos from around the world, trying to find new flavors as well as trying to revive the flavors of their youth.
In 2001, to commemorate the departure of cigarmakers from Cuba, Toraño Jr. and his son, Charlie, created a cigar in Honduras called Carlos Toraño Exodus 1959. "Most of the Dominican, Honduran and Nicaraguan cigars enjoyed throughout the world today owe their origins to the dozens of these cigar families," Toraño Jr. said at the time. "Much of the choice tobaccos grown in these countries and elsewhere comes from Cuban seeds smuggled off the island by these expatriates."
It is a fitting tribute to an unforgettable period in history, one that truly revolutionized the cigar business.
"Most of the cigars that are made today," says Toraño Jr., "there's always some Cuban family somewhere in there."