Daniel Rodriguez, the last man to run Cuba's famed El Corojo plantation before the Cuban revolution and an instrumental force in improving the quality of tobacco grown in Nicaragua, died April 21 in Miami. He was 76.
Located in the renowned Vuelta Abajo tobacco region in Cuba's western Pinar del Río province, El Corojo was not only a farm, but the birthplace of Corojo tobacco, a genetic strain developed in the 1930s and '40s by Daniel's father, Diego Rodriguez. By careful selection and coddling, Rodriguez chose the very best of each crop, ending up with El Corojo, considered by many connoisseurs to be the finest tobacco ever grown in Cuba. "El Corojo is a legend," said Adelaida Perez Fuentes, a granddaughter of Diego Rodriguez, in the Summer 1995 Cigar Aficionado story on El Corojo. "My grandfather and uncle created a genetically distinct plant. It was a different color, a different texture and a different size. They took the seeds from that and continued to develop it."
The El Corojo plantation's roots date back to 1920, when Diego Rodriguez rented the tract from the Allones family. The Roderiguezes never owned the original piece of land, but expanded it by purchasing neighboring properties sharing the same soil and microclimate, and by the late 1950s the farm totaled nearly 400 acres. After Diego Rodriguez died in 1956, Daniel carried on his tradition of treating the workers well, even paying them to finish the harvest before he fled Cuba in early 1960 Fidel Castro's rise to power. Workers living near El Corojo had fond memories of both men when interviewed in the mid-1990s. "Daniel and Diego were real gentlemen," said Jesus Rodriguez, a distant relative who spent his life working at El Corojo. "They were devoted to this property and also to the workers."
After leaving Cuba, Rodriguez and his brother Diego grew candela tobacco, first in Quincy, Florida, and then in nearby Havana, Florida. In 1968, Daniel Rodriguez was approached by Anastasio Somoza Debayle, then the president of Nicaragua, to bring his farming talents to Central America. His brother stayed in Florida, while Daniel went to Jalapa with his family, where he grew vast tracts of Cuban-style tobacco on several farms and was an essential part of Joya de Nicaragua, the country's namesake cigar brand.
"During the Sandinistas, he developed the biggest tobacco operation in Central America," said Julio Eiroa, the longtime cigar tobacco grower from Honduras and the former owner of Camacho Cigars. "He was a hard worker, a good friend and a good father. We were like brothers—he was one of my best friends."
Just as his father lost the Corojo plantation to the Cuban revolution, Daniel Rodriguez left the tobacco business during the Nicaraguan war between the Sandinistas and Somoza's forces, which led to battles in his tobacco fields and the burning of the Joya de Nicaragua factory. "My father left the business because of the revolution," said Daniel Rodriguez Jr. "He got involved in cattle ranching in Florida."
Cuba stopped growing Corojo wrapper in the late 1990s, opting for hybrids with more resistance to disease. The Rodriguez family once held the trademark on Corojo, but it expired and the family didn't renew it, said Rodriguez Jr., and now it's a term that many cigar companies use.
Daniel Rodriguez's daughter Rossana and his son-in-law Henry Vilar, still work in the cigar business, owning two cigar shops in the Miami area.
Rodriguez underwent a kidney transplant eight years ago, and later contracted cancer of the hip. The hip cancer ultimately led to his death.
Rodriguez is survived by his wife, Sylvia, his children, Daniel Jr., Diego, Sylvia and Rossana, and 14 grandchildren.