Abel Expósito Diaz, the former assistant director of the cigar shop at the Partagás Factory in downtown Havana, wants nothing more than to put the last three years behind him. He has opened a new cigar bar and restaurant, called Casa Abel, just one block off the Malecón in Havana. He has his freedom, and he is traveling abroad to attend cigar events. And, he is finally able to say that he was cleared of all wrongdoing in a case that dragged on for the last three years, without any clear public announcement of what he was accused of doing wrong.
He walks around the rooms of his new business, waiting for old friends to come visit. He is moving forward.
But it is hard to forget the nightmare that began at 7 a.m. on October 24, 2012. Three security officials knocked on the door of Expósito's apartment in Vedado, not far from Old Havana, and whisked him away for questioning. The first stop was the Partagás cigar shop, where they searched the premises. Then he was taken to prison. The raid and the arrest led to a five-month imprisonment, with nearly a month worth of long interrogations, sometimes lasting 12 to 16 hours.
"I was never mistreated," Expósito says during an interview at the new restaurant in Cuba. He says that there was a pool, and the food and his bed were good. "I was very comfortable while I was in prison. I even taught a cooking course...There were a lot of rumors about what was happening to me, but I can tell you that none of them were true."
The truth was already tough enough for Expósito to handle. He was removed from his job at Partagás, a post he had held since 1996. (He began working at the shop two years earlier, in 1994.) During those 16 years, if you were a cigar lover heading to Havana, you stopped in to see the man running the Partagás shop, and you were very likely to buy some cigars from him. The walls of his inner sanctum, the VIP lounge, were jam-packed with photos of celebrities from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Gérard Depardieu, and just about every international movie star who ventured to Cuba during those years.
The authorities questioned him about unbanded cigars that he had in his office at the shop, Expósito says, but they never directly accused him of any wrongdoing. He says the most he ever learned was that someone had denounced him, and he was being investigated for "illicit activities regarding the unauthorized sale of cigars."
"I had cigars that came from the factory that I used as promotions, giving them out to my good customers and friends who came to the shop," Expósito says, adding that the cigars amounted to about eight bundles in total. "And I had 63 cigars in my house that I had for my personal consumption."
Expósito says that nothing else was amiss in the cigar shop. "All the documents were in order and every cigar in there had proof of origins." He said that the shop had been audited over the years at least three times and everything had always been done properly.
"I wasn't expecting what happened. It was a shock, and I was surprised," he says. "If you're a robber or a thief, you are waiting to get caught. But I had always had good results at the shop, and I was always lauded for my work for the country.
"I just figured it was a mistake," he says. "In fact, for the entire first week, I thought it was a mistake, and I would be getting out the next day."
The next day didn't come for nearly four months, and then Expósito was released without any clear indication of why he had been arrested, nor what the charges were nor what the next step was going to be. During that time, the authorities had confiscated his computer and had investigated his wife and his son, Abel Alfredo Expósito Villar, who is working with his father in his new venture at Casa Abel.
"I was free [after four months]," Expósito says, "but I was living with the fear of prison all the time."
The authorities eventually returned all the personal possessions that had been taken from the family during the first round of Expósito's interrogation.
"If they had found anything suspicious, they would not have given anything back," Expósito says, "and I wouldn't be in Havana today."
It took nearly another two years before the court hearing that led to his exoneration. The final hearing took place in late 2014. "There had always been delays," Expósito says, "but the final hearing was only four hours long, in front of two judges and my lawyer, and a couple of other people."
Once he was freed, he began thinking about his next step, and that led to Casa Abel. The restaurant is on the second floor of one of the old buildings on San Lazaro, a street just one block off the Malecón; you reach the main dining floor by a steep staircase from street level. It is decorated in a simple postmodern style with wooden chairs and tables, and there is a smoking lounge with leather couches on metal frames. From some tables, you can see the ocean off the Malecón, and there are small tables on an even smaller balcony above the street. There is a walk-in humidor, where the wines are also stored. Smoking is welcome on the premises.
The menu is standard Havana fare; a marinated chicken dish called Pollo Abel, shrimp, lobster and a grilled fish of the day. Grilled pork, beef and lamb round out the main menu items, but Abel also offers up some traditional Cuban fare such as vaca frita and ropa vieja. The wine list is not extensive, but there are plenty of affordable selections from Chile and Spain, a Chianti and a couple of French red wines. There is a full bar with plenty of top spirits, and the rum selection includes both Havana Club and Santiago brands.
The cigar list also offers plenty of choices for a cigar aficionado. There are Cohiba Behike 56, for cuc 47.50 (about $53 given the penalty for exchanging U.S. dollars for Cuban convertible pesos), a Cohiba Robusto Supremo Edición Limitada 2014 (43 cuc), a newly released Montecristo Churchill Añejado at 22.60 cuc, and the top-priced Partagás Lusitania Gran Reserva (73.50 cuc). There are also three cigars tagged "de la Casa," a Robusto, a Perla and a Laguito, ranging in price from about 5.75 cuc to 8.00 cuc. The list also includes brands such as H. Upmann, La Gloria Cubana, Punch, El Rey del Mundo, Romeo y Julieta, Hoyo de Monterrey, Juan Lopez and Cuaba.
For now, Expósito is holding court at the restaurant, and is thankful for the reviews that have already started to come in on the various travel-related tourism sites. And the last three years of his life are quickly fading into memory.