The End of the Embargo Could Kill Miami's Cuban Cigar Industry | The Daily Pulp | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


The End of the Embargo Could Kill Miami's Cuban Cigar Industry

When did you last travel to Cuba?" the man demanded. "And when was the last time before that? And before that?"

The questions cut through the decades. The room was bigger now. The windows were no longer barred. Men in suits had replaced soldiers in fatigues. And the crackle of firing squads had faded into history.

But for José "Pepe" Montagne, the interrogation echoed back to 1964. Back to when he was a baby. Back to when it was his father -- not he -- being hounded by Fidel Castro's henchmen.

"Would you welcome the overthrow of the present Cuban government by force?"

"Are you a member of any organizations of Cuban-Americans?" the man in the suit continued. "Would you welcome the overthrow of the present Cuban government by force?"

Forty-one years after imprisoning his father, the Cuban government had now come for Pepe. In a law office high above Coral Gables, Castro's attorneys grilled him not about democracy or freedom of speech or civil rights, but about something even more dangerous for the revolution: cigars.

"Would you agree that Cuban cigars are generally known to be of high quality?" one of the lawyers asked.

"Not at this time," Pepe shot back.

"So they were at some point in time?"

"They had relevance," Pepe said. "I'm thinking about pre-Castro Cuba."

For the next six hours, the attorneys would probe Pepe about tobacco varietals and trademark law. Habanos S.A., the Cuban government's state-owned cigar company, was suing Pepe in U.S. federal court. His offense? Calling his cigars "Guantanamera" -- a name Cuba claimed and now wanted to slap on its own stogies.

That was 2005. Ten years later, Pepe is still battling the communist country in court. He's not alone. Over the past decade, the Cuban government has gone after scores of American cigar makers and vendors -- most of them Cuban exiles living in South Florida. For local tabacaleros, these legal battles add fresh insult to old injuries. Many fled Cuba at gunpoint, only to find themselves dragged to American court by a country still on the list of state sponsors of terror.

Now, as most of America looks forward to the imminent fall of the embargo as an opportunity to visit the island or smoke a stogy, Miami's Cuban cigar makers fear what might happen next. Chased out of Cuba as Castro took over their tobacco fields, many refounded their companies in America. Some, like legendary cigar maestro José Padrón, have risen to the top of the trade. Keeping Cuban cigars out of the States enabled these exiles to thrive in South Florida, arguably the capital of America's cigar industry. But in recent years, as the embargo has begun to teeter, the Cuban government has gone after its competitors in preparation for the day when its products can finally invade El Imperio.

With President Barack Obama now pushing to restore ties between the embittered rivals, Cuban-American cigar makers have the most to lose. Pepe, for one, could soon find himself out of business, buried under a wave of new lawsuits and cheap Cuban cigars.

This trademark tussle is just the tip of the pilón when it comes to trouble in the tobacco industry. There are $100 million wrongful death lawsuits, $50 billion hostile corporate takeovers, smuggled tobacco seeds, and suspicions that Cuba is already secretly circumventing the embargo with its cigars.

The end of the embargo will have an impact far beyond tobacco, of course. When Congress finally repeals the 55-year-old blockade, Americans will flood the island with dollars and ideas about democracy. Whether this will lead to regime change or retrenchment is as hazy as a Havana smoking parlor.

But cigars will be at the center of it all. More than a half-century after Fidel and Che Guevara swept down from the Sierra Maestra with puros perched on their lips, cigars remain crucial to Cuba. They are one of the country's biggest exports, a rare growth industry in the socialist state. They are also a powerful symbol of the country and its storied history. Cuba may be a tiny tropical island, but in the multibillion-dollar cigar industry, it is still a titan.

To explore what cigars and the waning embargo mean for both Cuba and the United States, New Times dived into court records, interviewed experts, traveled to Nicaragua, and smoked enough stogies to slay a bear. In part one of a two-part series, we tell the tales of Pepe, Padrón, and their predecessors -- the backstory of a global industry on the brink of massive change.

"Nobody knows what is going to happen next," says Pepe, who, with his shock of white hair and ever-present cigar, bears a striking resemblance to Hannibal from The A-Team.

"This is more than my business. It's my passion, my life," he says. "I'm fighting against an entire country! It's like a housecat trying to fend off a hungry lion."

The history of Cuba is one of tobacco and turmoil. Like tendrils of smoke, cigars wind their way through the country's troubled past. From Christopher Columbus to Fidel Castro, the island's bloody story can be wrapped inside leaves of Nicotiana tabacum. And as fruit of the island's rich soil, cigars symbolize not only the nation's promise but also its painful decline.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael E. Miller

Latest Stories