Cuban Cigar Wars: A Legendary Exile Braces for U.S. Re-Opening


A report by Jonathan Levin for the American Journal of Transportation.

Manuel Quesada puffs on one of his creations—a funky-looking thing called a Q D’etat—as he tells a story about the Cubans getting under his skin. It was at a dinner last year in Germany, when Cigar Journal honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Everyone rose for a standing ovation, except the people at the Cubatabaco table, the representatives of the state-run monopoly.

To be fair, the presenter had just recounted how the Quesada family had to flee the island in 1960, their business having been seized by gun-toting forces loyal to Fidel Castro. It was a decidedly uncomfortable several few seconds, ending only when an executive from another table scurried over and persuaded the Cubans to get to their feet.

“They were shamed into standing up,” Quesada says, stewing over it. “I consider myself to be a kind and peaceful man, but do not piss me off. That’s why I don’t go to Cuba. Because they will piss me off.”

He’s some 800 miles away at the moment, in his family’s hazy cigar lounge in Santiago, the colonial city in the heart of the Dominican Republic where he, his father, brother and a cousin built a new tobacco enterprise in exile. It’s a 20-minute drive from the red-brick factory that produces Quesada Cigars’ iconic hand-rolled Fonsecas, everything from short, stubby robustos to giant Churchills, most fitted with the signature red and gold band, and all sold exclusively in the U.S.

Many of them look just like the Fonsecas manufactured to this day back in Havana—parallel-universe twins marketed everywhere but the U.S., thanks to the six-decade-old trade embargo, and another reason for Quesada to, frankly, be pissed off.

He’s insulted by what he views as an uneven, inferior product and infuriated that it’s held in such high esteem around the world. Sure, Cuba’s clay-rich soil produces terrific tobacco, but the dedication to the craft of cigar rolling has evaporated under communist rule. “We have nothing to fear from that country,” he belts out in near-perfect English imbued with a hint of southern twang he picked up over the years. “There’s no pride, there’s no care.”

Ever since John F. Kennedy slapped the embargo on Cuba, the communists and the exiles have never competed against each other in the U.S. market. What will happen when they do is a favorite topic in cigar circles. America represents about a third of the $21 billion global cigar market, which Cuba would love to tap and producers like Quesada definitely do not want to lose.

There’s no telling when the sanctions might finally end. President Donald Trump has yet to officially weigh in on Cuba relations. (A pronouncement of some type is expected soon.) But ever since his predecessor Barack Obama began re-establishing ties with the island in 2014, there’s been a greater sense of urgency in the cigar world to planning for the time when wrappers tagged “Habana, Cuba” appear in U.S. shops.

“We talk about it all day long,” says Quesada, who turned 70 in April. “We will give them the fight of their life. We’re not unprepared.”

The scion of a century-old Cuban tobacco clan, he was 13 when the Castro troops stormed his father’s tobacco brokerage. Manuel Jr. fled to Miami with his mother and siblings; Manuel Sr. was forced to stay behind for a year to teach the bureaucrats his business. It happened to all the families; the communists nationalized nearly all commerce on the island where Spanish occupiers stumbled upon tobacco five centuries ago.

The tobacco refugees scattered to Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, even the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, searching for soil and climactic conditions like Cuba’s, the perfect combination for producing rich, slow-burning leaves. They recreated their old labels.

Today, there are two called Partagás, two called La Gloria Cubana, two called Montecristo, two called Romeo y Julieta, and two called Hoyo de Monterrey—one made for the U.S. market, the other produced in Cuba to be sold everywhere else. It’s the same duality that reigns in the rum industry: Bacardi produces the expat version of Havana Club, while the Cuban government has partnered with Pernod Ricard to distill its Havana Club; the two sides have been feuding in court for years over control of the trademark.

Almost all the cigar refugees would in time sell their brand rights, and they eventually made their way into the hands of Scandinavian Tobacco Group A/S and the U.K.’s Imperial Brands Plc. (Imperial is aggressively playing both sides of the trade, having also formed a partnership with Cubatabaco to distribute all its cigar exports.)

The Quesadas kept the business in the family, cultivating a 155-acre farm in the Dominican Republic and also sourcing leaves for its blends from Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, the U.S. and Peru. Some of the blends, in fact, have elements of the old Cuban flavor. In the 1960s, someone managed to smuggle a supply of seeds off the island, and the company today grows five varieties of Cuban tobacco.

“A little envelope with grams of seed will grow a whole country,” Quesada says.

That Cuban tobacco grown in Cuba soil is a superior raw material to that found anywhere else on Earth is of little debate among the cognoscenti. There’s just something about the orange-hued clay of the Pinar del Rio valley that runs along the island’s western tip. Where there’s some disagreement is whether that raw-material edge always translates into a better finished product.

For Giuseppe Ruo, the cigar sommelier at London’s Wellesley hotel, the answer is an unequivocal yes. He finds Cuban cigars so far superior that he refuses to stock anything else in the hotel’s walk-in humidor, the U.K.’s largest. But Jorge Luis Armenteros, who trains cigar experts at Princeton-based Tobacconist University, sees things a bit as Quesada does. The communist government just doesn’t have the entrepreneurial spirit, he says, to keep pace with the exiled artisans and newcomers who’ve taken up the craft in surrounding countries.

Today, Fonseca is one of four brands that Quesada Cigars sells. Each brand contains multiple lines; each line contains multiple shapes and sizes. They consistently make their way onto lists of the world’s best smokes compiled by Cigar Aficionado and Robb Report.

Quesada never doubted he’d come face to face with his old Cuban nemesis at some point, and he figures there’s at least one surefire way to ensure he can profit from such a scenario: striking an accord over the Fonseca name, with Havana agreeing to have his company distribute the Cuban versions in the U.S.—or possibly allowing him to make his own cigars with Cuban tobacco. Both sides would profit instead of squandering time and money in court. (There are many other elements to Quesada’s plan that he didn’t want to discuss publicly.) Habanos SA, a unit of Cubatabaco, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The incentive to avoid a drawn-out legal battle will be great for both sides, says Frank Herrera, a lawyer who knows how messy such disputes can be. One of his clients, Miami’s Guantanamera Cigars Co., got sucked into a more than decade-long court battle after the Cuban government launched its own product of the same name and claimed the American producer was misleading people into believing its cigar was from the island—Guantanamera is a popular Cuban folk song. The case is ongoing.

“Before we even get to that boiling point, these companies will find some middle ground,” Herrera says.

The most famous tussle is Cohiba v. Cohiba, over whether General Cigar Co. has the right to the U.S. trademark. Cubatabaco, which makes Cohibas of its own, has been trying to cancel that trademark in a case that’s been dragging on for 20 years. The backstory might be one reason for the Cubans’ persistence: Cohiba was created especially for Castro back in the 1960s.

For Quesada, the fight will be over his five Fonseca lines. They may not be not his best cigars—a critic recently labeled one of them a mere golf-course smoke, fit for those preoccupied with other things—but they account for a third of Quesada Cigars’ annual revenue.

The brand is legendary. Registered in 1907 by Francisco E. Fonseca, a Cuban-American with a Van Dyke beard whose visage appeared on the box, it eventually found its way to the exiled Sosa family in Miami, with whom the Quesadas teamed up before acquiring sole ownership in 1995. By then, Quesada had earned an undergraduate degree in the Dominican Republic, served an Army tour in Vietnam, gone to graduate school at Florida State University and returned to the family business.

To this day, he keeps a vintage Fonseca box in his office at the factory, where maps of Cuban and Dominican tobacco-growing regions cover the walls. He taps a thinning arsenal of prerevolution Cuban Fonsecas to enjoy at Christmas and other special occasions.

Quesada has made a nice life for himself and his family in the Dominican Republic, where one of his two daughters works with him in the business, along with a niece and nephew. He lives in a house he built in the La Rinconada neighborhood, with a pool and a man-cave stocked with a chaotic assortment of books, CDs, distilled beverages and, of course, copious amounts of cigars. He always wears a shirt with pockets, because he needs a place to stash his “children,” as he calls them. (If his wife asks, he smokes one or two a day, tops.)

The cigar industry has grown in Quesada’s lifetime and come under new pressures. Give him an opening, and he’ll rant about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s plan to mandate that cancer-warning labels be slapped on his carefully crafted and varnished wooden boxes.

But the process, for the most part, hasn’t changed since the days of the Spaniards in Cuba. At a palm-thatched barn about an hour from the border with Haiti, workers rely on time-honored methods to prepare recently-harvested tobacco. Quesada buries his nose in a pile of leaves. “Beautiful!” he exclaims, describing them as having just hint of sweetness.

Nearby, a man in a tank-top prepares a pile for delivery to the factory with the elaborateness of a religious ceremony. The leaves have to be just wet enough that they won’t crack during the journey, and he occasionally dips a shrub called azahar in a water basin and flicks the shrub at the tobacco. The tap-tap-tap of the droplets tell him when there’s sufficient moisture.

It is this dedication to the craft that Quesada swears you won’t find back in Cuba.

Looking out at the lights of the Santiago skyline and the tobacco fields beyond, a glass of Barceló Imperial rum in one hand and a Quesada Keg cigar in the other, he expounded on this point a while the night before.

“Cuba has that image that cigars are Cuba. In spite of everything they’ve done to damage that, they still have it.”

“But it’s not theirs. It’s ours.”

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