When Fidel Castro threw Cuba's cigarmakers out of their factories, he unwittingly re-created an industry
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."
Though he later revealed himself as a communist, Castro showed a knack for capitalism by trying to recruit some of Cuba's cigar elite. The government asked Cifuentes to run all of Cuba's cigar factories. "They asked me to stay," said Cifuentes. "They offered to give me all the control of all the factories. I said no." Days later, he left Cuba for New York City.
Silvio Perez, who had managed several tobacco farms owned or operated by the Toraños, was offered a job running fields under the Castro regime. He, too, declined, and was given 24 hours to leave.
Most of the exiles left Cuba with nothing, or close to it. Menendez had $7 in his pocket when he emigrated to Miami with his wife and children, and lived in a house with 10 other family members, until their landlord kicked them out at Christmastime. Perez washed cars. Cifuentes' wife took a job working at Bloomingdale's.
The confiscations came in waves. "There were different laws that confiscated different things at different times," says tobacco grower Nestor Plasencia. His family owned two farms in San Luis, Cuba, until October 1963, when a government official and a group of soldiers arrived to claim their 2,500 acres of land. "The only thing they let us keep was our house," says Plasencia, who was 14 at the time.
Americans may have had less interest than would be expected in what was happening to the cigar brands produced in Cuba.
America of the 1960s was a nation that lived on Cuban tobacco but smoked very few cigars that were actually rolled in Cuba. Most of the cigars were made domestically, with Cuban tobacco as a sole or prime ingredient.
"Back in those days, Havana cigars weren't the big sellers," says Sal Fontana, vice president of sales and marketing for Caribe Imported Cigars Inc. and a 51-year veteran of the cigar business. "Domestic cigars were 95 percent of the business."
Americans smoked around 7 billion cigars in 1960, more than a billion more than in 1950. Most of the cigars were green, with candela wrappers. The popular size was 6 1/2 inches by 42 ring, a lonsdale. Cigar factories were operating in Tampa, Florida; Trenton, New Jersey; Owensboro, Kentucky; and elsewhere. A man could walk into a store that sold cigars -- an intersection on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue might have had four shops, one for each corner -- drop a quarter on a counter, and leave with a top-quality Clear Havana, made entirely from Cuban tobacco in the United States. For less money, he could buy a cigar with Cuban tobacco on the inside, wrapped with a Pennsylvania wrapper or binder, or perhaps a Connecticut wrapper. If he were a Rockefeller, he would spend more. "The biggest selling Cuban cigars were three for a dollar," says Sherwin Seltzer, who began selling cigars in Manhattan in 1958, right out of college. "They had cigars that sold for $1, but you had to be a millionaire to buy them."
Faber, Coe and Gregg, Seltzer's employer, was the leading distributor of Cuban cigars, and a force in the industry. "Faber was king," says Mark Goldman, a longtime cigar retailer and the owner of House of Oxford Cigars. "A Faber salesman walked into your store, you stopped what you were doing and took care of him, because you needed him more than he needed you."
Tampa cigarmakers warehoused their tobacco in Cuba and imported it by boat on a regular basis. In 1962, Stanford Newman, now the chairman of the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and then the owner of one of the biggest cigar companies in Tampa, was waiting on a $500,000 shipment of Cuban tobacco. He had just secured a letter of credit from the Royal Bank of Canada, one of the few banks still doing business with Castro's Cuba, when he received a telegram from the secretary of state announcing that President John F. Kennedy had just signed the Cuban embargo. He was able to stop the shipment -- and save his half million dollars -- but now he was cut off from his tobacco supply and sitting on less than a two-year inventory. He wasn't alone.
When Kennedy banned Cuban products, America's cigarmakers found themselves cut off from their supply of raw materials. It could have been worse.
The aptly named Angel Oliva Sr., a Cuban workaholic, tobacco broker and farmer, bought precious time for the American cigar industry by purchasing most of Cuba's 1960 tobacco crop, some four million pounds of tobacco. (An equally impresive purchase was made in 1959 by another tobacco legend, Heller E. Meerapfel, of M. Meerapfel Shne A.G., who bought almost all of Cuba's crop that was for use outside of Cuba and the United States.)
"Angel Oliva knew this would happen," says Lew Rothman, 56, owner of JR Cigars, who was working at his father's cigar store when the embargo was signed. "He brought in the last big shipment of Cuban tobacco, and he divided up that shipment and he kept everybody in Tampa capable of making bonded Havanas for a few years. It was Mr. Oliva who really stopped the business from going off a cliff."
Many people in the cigar business still use the honorific "Mr." when referring to the late Oliva, even Llaneza, who worked with him for decades. Oliva won the hearts of his clients for life by not gouging them on that last shipment of Cuban tobacco that he brokered from Cuba.
Oliva's shipment was crucial, but it was only one crop, and wouldn't last long. People needed more tobacco. Cullman was one of many cigarmakers in a bind. He and a group of investors had purchased General Cigar a year before the embargo for about $25 million. The company made White Owls, William Penn and Tiparillo cigars, all by machine. All of them with Cuban tobacco. "We had to figure out what to make, and how we were going to make it," says Cullman.
The scramble was on for substitutes. "When we got the embargo, we bought tobacco left and right by telephone," says Alfons Mayer, the retired former senior vice president of tobacco for General Cigar. "We were buying Puerto Rico, Dominican, Colombian; people went to Brazil, we went all over Honduras, our native tobaccos here [in the United States]; we used some Java, some air cured, we made blends, blends, blends. People went to different areas to try and grow tobacco. There was a lot of trial and error."
Manufacturers reworked their blends. "For a lot of them, it was a disaster," says Llaneza. Bering, the No. 1 Clear Havana in America prior to the embargo, went from production of 400,000 cigars a day in Tampa to "almost nothing," says Llaneza. The change from Cuban to non-Cuban dethroned the brand.
While many cigar companies sold their stocks of Cuban tobacco, Llaneza and his partner, Dan Blumenthal, bought as much as they could. "The American Tobacco Co. started changing their blends," says Llaneza. "They had more Cuban tobacco than anybody. We bought a lot of the Cuban tobacco that they had."
Thanks to its massive inventories of pre-embargo Cuban tobacco, Villazon was able to use at least some Cuban leaves in its Bances brand until 1965. "That was Villazon's break -- they bought all the Cuban tobacco," says Seltzer. Llaneza adds: "We went from being the smallest manufacturer in Tampa to the largest."
By gathering as much Cuban tobacco as possible and, later, by creating blends that were Cubanesque and strong, Villazon crafted itself into a cigar powerhouse. Blumenthal and Llaneza cut deals with Fernando Palicio to make the cigar brands he lost in Cuba. In 1965, with Palicio on his deathbed, Villazon acquired the U.S. rights to Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.
Villazon's star was rising, but making cigars in Tampa was becoming expensive, and aging rollers were harder to replace. Villazon and other Tampa cigarmakers began to look offshore.
A New Place to Roll
Even before the embargo, Cuba's tobacco men had been looking for new places to make their cigars. Benjamin Menendez, who watched as soldiers took his father's factory away in 1960, moved to the Canary Islands, opening Cia. Insular Tabacalera S.A. in 1961 with four cigar rollers. His father was an investor. The local tobacco grown on the Canaries, a group of islands off the northwest coast of Africa, wasn't a draw, but the country's cigar-making tradition, which dated back to the eighteenth century, was.
Menendez had an early hit with Flamenco, a Connecticut-shade cigar distributed by Faber, Coe and Gregg, which had lost the rights for handling Cuban cigars before the Kennedy embargo. Menendez struck gold with the launch of Montecruz, an unapologetic copy of the Montecristo brand that his family had lost in Cuba. Made with Cameroon wrapper, a dark, toothy leaf that would soon prove a worthy substitute for Havana wrapper, Montecruz quickly became the No. 1 premium cigar in the U.S.
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.
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."
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