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The Padron Family: A Nicaraguan Legacy

Despite Wars in Nicaragua and Bombings in Miami, Jose Padrón Has Built a Thriving Cigar Business
Jim Daniels
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

Jose Padrón is wandering through a field of soft green leaves under a brilliant Nicaraguan sky. He's wearing a striped oxford shirt with a fountain pen in the breast pocket, and as he strides with his head down, looking intently from side to side, he looks like a man late for the office because he's lost his car keys in a very big garden. As he passes among the rows, a slight breeze rolling in off the mountains urges the leaves to brush gently against his black pants. Señor Padrón, walking quickly, scans the tobacco plants until his eyes suddenly fix on something; he stoops to inspect the bottom of a plant. Tearing off a small, tender leaf, he examines it closely, pulling at the stringy roots and running his fingers over the slender stalk. Satisfied, he straightens up, and pulling a long, black maduro cigar from his shirt pocket, bites the end off and fires it up with a plastic lighter, inhaling deeply. He waves the lit end under his nose, breathing in the aroma, and quietly examines the cigar, turning it slowly between his fingers. Replacing the cigar between his teeth, Padrón takes a moment to look out over the field, and in his Cuban-accented Spanish declares, "Ta bueno" (It's good).

All of the tobacco used for Miami-based Padrón Cigars (officially known as Piloto Cigars Inc.) comes from private farms in northern Nicaragua, including a few that Padrón owns. Padrón, 71, is a third-generation Cuban cigarmaker who oversees his entire business, from seed to cigar, an operation that includes farms and a factory in Nicaragua and another factory in Honduras. The Nicaraguan factory is in the town of Estelí, a rough two-hour drive north of Managua along the Pan American Highway, a road littered with ominous craters.

As is the case with much of northern Nicaragua, signs of the Sandinista war against Somoza, and later the contras, are everywhere. At the Estelí factory, scores of bullet holes made by automatic weapons that were once trained directly at Padrón's business appear alongside the factory name, Tabacos Cubanica. Jose Padrón's passion for producing exceptional cigars has cost him time, money and almost his life.

Jose Padrón has built a thriving cigar business amidst obstacles so fierce that his success is as much a testament to the tenacity of his vision as it is to the quality of his cigars. He has survived two wars, four bombings and an attempted kidnapping. Despite all this, Jose Padrón today produces more than three and a half million cigars a year, some of which are ranked among the very best in the world. But his path to success has been as rough as the roads of northern Nicaragua.

In 1961, Jose O. Padrón left Cuba after his family's tobacco farms were confiscated by Fidel Castro. After a brief stay in Spain and a year working odd jobs in New York, he saved enough money to travel to Miami, where the Cuban Refugee Program paid him $60 a month while he looked for work. He found work cutting lawns during the day and doing carpentry at night. By 1964, Padrón had saved enough money to rent a storefront in Little Havana and, with another man, turned out 200 hand-rolled cigars a day. (The storefront remains the company headquarters today.) His superior Cuban-seed cigars, which he sold for 25 cents, were a big hit with the Cuban-American community and, after a few years during which he added rollers, his production climbed to 7,000 cigars per day.

Then in 1970, in search of additional experienced cigar workers--a resource in sparse supply in Miami--Padrón set up his Tabacos Cubanica company in Estelí, the center of Nicaragua's tobacco-growing region. The favorable climate and rich soil strongly reminded him of Cuba's famous Pinar del Río province, where his family's tobacco farms once flourished. The business soared, and by the mid-1970s Padrón had about 300 people working in his factory and 98 acres of tobacco under cultivation. But by the end of the decade, Padrón learned that there was another, more ominous link between Nicaragua and Cuba--a common political climate that would prove to have a dramatic and threatening effect on Jose Padrón's life and business.

In 1978, Padrón returned to Cuba as part of a humanitarian mission that met with Castro to encourage him to release political prisoners held in Cuban jails. As a result, more than 3,000 prisoners were eventually released. But when word of Padron's meeting reached Miami's Cuban exile community, the more reactionary elements were incensed. A photograph of Padrón handing Castro a cigar ran in a local paper, fueling the rhetoric and inciting a number of prominent Cuban radio commentators to jump on the anti-Padrón bandwagon. A boycott of Padrón Cigars was called, and the business suffered. But the most serious outcome of the crisis came in the form of four powerful bombs, placed (on separate occasions) at Padrón's Miami headquarters. Three of them were detonated, causing extensive damage to the Miami office as well as emotional trauma to Padrón's family. At the same time, an equally deadly crisis was gaining strength and threatening Padrón Cigars in Nicaragua.

The Sandinista movement was gathering momentum in 1978 in its drive to overthrow the Nicaraguan dictator (and tobacco grower), Anastasio Somoza. Although Padrón had no business connection with Somoza, enraged mobs nonetheless attacked his factory in Estelí, harassing his employees and burning his factory and warehouse to the ground. Padrón was able to continue production by moving some tobacco to other parts of town, and he eventually established another factory. After the Sandinista victory the following year, Padrón took steps to protect his inventory, moving his tobacco to various locations in and outside the country. Padrón Cigars managed to maintain production despite numerous work stoppages called by the Sandinistas.

Over the next five years, the Nicaraguan factory continued to make cigars despite periodic interference by the Sandinista government and the effects of living under great political uncertainty. During one shutdown, workers from the Padrón factory took to the streets of Estelí, marching in favor of allowing Padrón to reopen the factory. Stones were thrown at many of the marchers. Although the business was allowed to reopen, the atmosphere remained very tense.

One day in the early 1980s, the local Sandinista commandant, Gen. Elias Noguera, came to the factory. Jose Padrón told the general that Tabacos Cubanica provided necessary employment for the community, adding, "If you make it hard for me to do business here, I'll leave." The Sandinistas looked into Padrón's past and, after discovering that he had been politically neutral, and more important, had never aligned with Somoza, allowed the business to continue. They agreed that the factory provided much-needed employment for the town. At one point, the Sandinistas even changed their plans to draft Padron's workers for the war against the contras. However, because the political environment remained so volatile through the early 1980s (the Sandinistas were in a bloody war of survival with the U.S.-backed contras), Padrón took steps to create a contingency plan to move his business in case the situation deteriorated. His intuition proved prophetic.


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