Drew Estate — where they came from and what's next in the "Rebirth of Cigars"

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Sunday, January 29, 1995. Chances are you were stocking up on beer, prepping chip dip, and maybe rifling through your closet for your Stan Humphries Jersey (which you’d learn later that night wasn’t all that “lucky” after all). Everyone’s focus was on Miami, one of the epicenters of the American cigar industry, but cigars had nothing to do with it. Joe Robbie Stadium would play host to Super Bowl XXIX, in which the San Francisco 49ers wrote the unhappy ending to the San Diego Chargers’ Cinderella season.

In New York City, one guy who couldn’t have cared less about the game (he’s not a sports fan) was heading into the first chapter of his own unlikely success story. That was Jonathan Drew’s first official day in the cigar industry, and it surpassed all of his wildest expectations.

“It wasn’t Monday yet. I thought, ‘This is preposterous. Holy shit. I just made $500,” said Jonathan, recalling that day from his Miami apartment in the Wynwood Arts District. He didn’t know it then, but his retail cart in the World Trade Center was the start of a journey that would change the way many thought about how cigars are made and marketed. Some serendipitous meetings, a fresh perspective, and a tragic accident all converged to create the Drew Estate you know today.

New York Beginnings

Jonathan attended and graduated from law school, even interning at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. While he was a law student, he — along with some friends, including Drew Estate cofounder Marvin Samel — made some money with a beach share house on Long Island. They took it upon themselves to offer their tenants some amenities, which meant cooking breakfasts and — more importantly — providing stogies. That last one quickly became a service Jonathan was known for well beyond the walls of his share house.

“I was a cigar smoker and everyone knew I had the good cigars. People knew I was the cigar guy. So everybody in the Hamptons was coming from all sorts of different share houses to stop by and get cigars from me. So sometimes I would charge them what I paid, sometimes I would give out free shit, sometimes I would give out Macanudo Miniatures, or Macanudo Caviars, and I would have all this other shit. That’s when I started to think I would open my own cigar shop, because I needed cash. So I opened up my first cigar shop as a retailer at the World Trade Center in Manhattan on the ground floor.”

 
 Young Marvin Samel and Jonathan Drew plotting during the early days of Drew Estate

Young Marvin Samel and Jonathan Drew plotting during the early days of Drew Estate

 

The roughly $500 he made on his first day selling cigars from a cart — keeping fans near the 5’ x 4’ humidor to keep it cool and getting some help with the setup from his mom and dad — put him on his way toward paying the cart’s monthly rent, which he says was about $3,000. It was also the beginning of the formation of the business’s identity, which is informed by not only the struggle of its leaders to keep it afloat and innovate, but also by the gritty hip hop culture in each of the places it’s called home. That identity developed as the business branched off into different aspects of the cigar trade — namely humidors, as well as cigar sales and distribution for other established brands.

“That was way back in the day. I had the red and black lumberjack jacket with the hat to match,” Jonathan said, alluding to the lyrics of Juicy. “It was good times. I was on J Street in Manhattan, and right next to me was Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella Records. They were nobody. In that time period, you had Biggie blowing up in New York, you had Puff Daddy, hip hop was in a transitional period.

And that’s really important to the earliest days of Drew Estate. Because one of the things that always distinguished us from everybody else is that we weren’t a cigar company. We knew we weren’t a cigar company from minute one.”

Rather than a cigar company, Drew Estate sees itself as dealing in lifestyle and experiences. It’s an approach that separated them from their competition in the earliest days and continues to do so today. In the earliest days, when Jonathan was running things from Dumbo, Brooklyn, just beyond the end of the Manhattan Bridge that’s a hallmark of Drew Estate branding, that lifestyle brand approach began to reflect the company’s New York City roots. In fact, a year after the cart business launched, the company’s first brand, La Vieja Habana, was rolled in New York City by a small company called La Rosa Cigars. And then it wasn’t.

“The guy who made those cigars, Antonio Al- manzar, got decapitated,” said Jonathan. “They slid in the rain under an 18-wheeler in his car and his head got taken off.” The freak accident created a need to find a new manufacturer for La Vieja Habana. That’s when Jonathan hooked up with Nick Perdomo.

“Nick was supposed to make them in Miami, but his dad had moved to Estelí,” said Jonathan. “So I was going out to Nicaragua every time he did, eight or nine times a year in ‘96 and ‘97.”

At the time, Jonathan was also considering having La Vieja Habana made by other companies. For instance, he said he came close to going with Ernesto Pérez Carrillo, who was making his cigars in the Dominican Republic. Instead, frequent trips to Estelí brought Drew Estate closer and closer to the next chapter in its story, and Jonathan Drew closer to his next home.

Estelí

“It was very creepy. You would go to Nicaragua and everything was riddled with bullet holes,” Jonathan said. “People were not proud to be making cigars in Nicaragua. It wasn’t like it is now where ‘Nicaragua’ is written all over everything.”

It’s hard enough living under the conditions that seem to come standard in any Central American economic or political system. At the time Jonathan started getting to know the country, Nica- ragua was also reeling from the Contras and the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Goods and services were in scarce supply, and getting a business off the ground — especially as a gringo with more of a cultural gap to bridge than many of the Cuban families whose companies had put down roots (think Padrón, Perdomo, etc.) — wasn’t easy.

“No place in Central America is as loving of people as Nicaragua. Nowhere at all in Central or South America is as safe as Nicaragua. Nowhere,” said Jonathan. “Including Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, nothing. But that’s not what it was back then. It was rougher. Women couldn’t get makeup. Forget cell phones. The roads were bad. Medical equipment and needs were really bad. Couldn’t get cars either. Getting a telephone line took a year. I couldn’t get a bank account open for almost two years.”

At first, Jonathan made the transition to Nicaragua by living in the Perdomo factory. That was about the time that he crossed paths with Jeff Borysiewicz, his longtime friend and owner of the Orlando-based Corona Cigar Company.

“I remember when my supplier of Lars Tetens cigars didn’t sell them anymore. I was all pissed off because the rumor was some young lawyer dude from New York named Jonathan Drew was the one doing the distribution. I immediately didn’t like him even though I’d never met him,” Jeff said.

 Jonathan Drew strikes one of his signature poses at his Miami apartment.

Jonathan Drew strikes one of his signature poses at his Miami apartment.

“I was down in Nicaragua with Nick Perdomo, who was making our Cielo cigars. American Airlines had lost my luggage, and while I was over at Nick’s office this guy came by,” Jeff said. “Kinda looked like a hippie dude. It was Jonathan Drew. I was feeling kinda dirty because it was all dirt roads and working on the farm gets you even dirtier, right? I didn’t have any clothes and John said, ‘You look about my size. I’ll send my driver with some clothes for you.’ Sure enough, about an hour later, some dude came by with a backpack and a fresh change of clothes. The clothes weren’t my style. John was always wearing that funky stuff that he wears, but that’s all right. I had a clean shirt and a clean pair of shorts.”

Jonathan’s kind gesture had already begun to change Jeff’s impression of him. But what he saw later that night was probably what really cemented their friendship. Jeff is roughly Jonathan’s age, and Jonathan was proud of the way he’d begun to build Corona — getting minimal sleep on the couch, working long nights from his home, going years without writing himself a paycheck. When he dropped by the Perdomo factory to see Jonathan again, Jeff realized they had a lot more in common than he imagined.

“It was about 11:30 at night. I’ll never forget it. He had a bucket of white paint and a roller in his hands — like what you would paint the walls in your house with — and he was painting the wooden boxes for his new brand, Natural. It totally changed my perception. This wasn’t some rich, hotshot young lawyer. This was a hard workin’ dude who’s doing the same thing as me.”

The transition from having a retail cart in New York City to sleeping in a factory in Estelí happened in a relatively short time. By 2002, Drew Estate had grown to the point of having more than 200 employees. But the struggles hadn’t ended; the company made headlines in Nicaragua when it was forced to lay just about all of them off.

“I’m a true tobacco guy. I lived in the factory for 14 years. I didn’t go to Nicaragua once a month, once a quarter, and stay at the hotel near the factory. I lived in it. Me here and the tobacco there,” said Jonathan, motioning toward a spot a few feet away. “I was constantly doing the dumbest shit you could ever imagine, number one because I didn’t know what I was doing, but also because whatever I did do that was working, there was no one else to do it but me.”

You were smoking graffiti, you were smoking hip hop, you were smoking the life and struggle that is now considered a lifestyle.
— Jonathan Drew

Just as Drew Estate owes its Estelí identity to the moment the decision was made to have cigars manufactured by Perdomo, it owes its survival to a woman named Candida, who owns an Estelí restaurant called La Confianza. The restaurant’s name translates to “trust,” and she put two years of it into Drew Estate, feeding the team for that long before they were able to pay the tab.

“These are not rich people,” Jonathan said. “So, many years later, when we opened factory 2 across the street (from our main facility), I called Candida to the stage and told the story.”

Candida was doing more than feeding a cigar company. She was fueling ideas that, as Jonathan likes to put it, were disruptive in their industry. And that started with an infused cigar brand called ACID.

Disruption

“So you had three market segments: premium, short filler, and flavored. What is ACID? ACID is its own segment. That’s one of the things Drew Estate is known for: creating market segments that didn’t exist. With the ACID brand, we created a market segment in the infused premium cigar,” said Jonathan, noting that tobacco was altered or blended with flavoring ingredients by ancient people long before there was such a thing as the long filler cigar. “That was modern era. We journeyed back in time to where the taste profiles were based with taste and aroma that wasn’t straight tobacco. ACID was nothing new, but it was new for the market at our time. ACID was raw. You were smoking graffiti, you were smoking hip hop, you were smoking the life and struggle that now is considered to be a lifestyle.”

ACID went on to become (and still is) a monster brand in its own right; it is among the world’s best-selling long filler cigar brands and comes in more than two dozen variations. Further innovation in infused cigars came in the form of the company’s partnership with the Kahlua brand, which spawned the industry’s first coffee-infused cigar. Drew Estate became known for the infused market segments it had created.

“You take an Acid Kuba Kuba, and it looks a thousand times nicer than a lot of the other high-end stuff out there. Appearance, construction, consistency,” said Drew Estate Master Blender Willy Herrera.

 
 Jonathan shows off tobacco in a curing barn.

Jonathan shows off tobacco in a curing barn.

 

That success brought with it a new set of challenges. As the company looked to expand into more traditional cigar products, it needed a way to challenge the perception that it couldn’t possibly compete with companies with more legacy and expertise in that space. As Jonathan points out, many consumers assume that the addition of Liga Privada cigars to its portfolios was enough to pull that off. But the truth is that another, far more innovative project opened the door for things like T52.

“When our transition time came, we weren’t known as Drew Estate; we were the ACID guys,” Jonathan said. “Think of what happens with a child actor. They’re already locked into people’s minds as a set value. How did Drew Barrymore transition into becoming a real actress? It’s very difficult. Everybody’s interpretation is set in stone, so you have to disrupt people’s impression and make them decide whether what you stand for fits in their value set. There was something that opened the door for Liga Privada, and that was Cigar Safari.”

Considering the state of Estelí when Drew Estate got its start, it shouldn’t be surprising that there wasn’t much cigar tourism to speak of there at the time. Cigar Safari helped not only to make Estelí a leisure and learning destination for cigar smokers, but also to open their eyes — for the first time — to the idea that Drew Estate could be a credible player in traditional cigars. Cigar Safari hasn’t changed a whole lot since it began. Guests still visit the Drew Estate facilities, experiment with creating their own blends, and get to know Nicaragua through a variety of cultural experiences.

“I had never been to Central America before,” said Billy Walsh, an Orlando police sergeant and part-time employee at Corona Cigar. “It was amazing all the way around. The only thing was that it was short; it was only like three days. So it felt like when we flew in, we were flying right back out. I thought, ‘The next time I come here, I have to spend more time because the country is beautiful.’”

This coming March, Billy will embark on his tenth and eleventh Cigar Safaris.

“In the beginning, I was more of a Padrón and Fuente guy,” Billy added. “But after going on the Safari and experiencing their blends ... Yeah, that definitely hooked me. I’ve smoked most of what they make, and it’s exceptional to me. I think each Safari reinforces that over time.”

Early on, Cigar Safari guests tended to be people with wider influence in the cigar world: retailers, media, that sort of thing. It had at least a somewhat similar impact on them, and Drew Estate had a much easier time of breaking into traditionalists’ humidors with products like the ones in the Único Serie. The company has expanded on that experiential marketing model with more accessible (because you don’t need a passport) Barn Smoker events, which bring smokers closer to the farms that produce some of the more unique American tobaccos used in Drew Estate products. For instance, one recent Barn Smoker was held at Jeff Borysiewicz’s Florida Sun Grown farm just outside Orlando.

“That was where people could see and experience the commitment of everybody (at Drew Estate),” Jeff said of Cigar Safari. “These guys are the real deal. They’re legitimate cigar makers.”

The next episode

All these years later, a trip to La Gran Fábrica Drew Estate can make it easy to lose sight of where the company came from. The facility that produces Drew Estate products and hosts Safaris feels — especially as compared to other cigar factories — like it’s part museum, part theme park, part factory. Jonathan Drew has been at the center of that from the beginning, but he hasn’t been alone. Aside from having benefitted from the generosity, example or mentorship of people like Candida, Nick Perdomo, Kiki Berger and José Orlando Padrón (to name just a few), the company has managed to create a culture that generates real buy-in from its employees.

“People feel like they’re part of something,” Jeff said.

 
 Willy Herrera outside of Drew Estate HQ in Miami

Willy Herrera outside of Drew Estate HQ in Miami

 

It’s why those smokers most familiar with the company know Jessi Flores, who is now the director of Subculture Studios (the arm of the company that produces so much of its custom art and swag), but started out as Jonathan’s driver and translator shortly after his arrival in Estelí. It’s why Manuel Rubio, who many remember seeing at the Drew Estate factory working a low-level job when he was 18 years old, is now the factory’s manager.

And it’s why another guy who started at the bot- tom in Estelí, Pedro Gómez, went from manag- ing Cigar Safaris to running around the United States as one of Drew Estate’s most beloved ambassadors.

“Everybody is equal in the company,” said Willy, who created blends like Herrera Estelí and Norteño. “We bring up from within. All our management in Nicaragua are people who started at the ground level, whether it was stripping veins off of wrapper, or drivers, or as assistant to one of the key people. Those are all in our management now. I like the fact that everyone is happier (at Drew Estate). You go to some other factories where people don’t even look up from their tables. Here, you walk into our factory, people are looking and smiling and saying hello.”

The team Drew Estate has built now pumps out some of the most respected cigars in the world across a variety of segments, including infused products, traditional cigars, and more recent additions to the portfolio, like Kentucky Fire Cured.

“I would say (the variety) makes things different for me in that, because of all these different branches, I have a much broader audience. So I’m not just dealing with the traditional guy,” Willy said. “I deal with the infused guy, I deal with the traditional stuff, the Herrera stuff, everybody. I have a much bigger audience than the guy who just has a brand with two or three lines. I’ll talk to a lot of these hardcore infused guys, and by the end of the day they’re smoking a Herrera Estelí, or an Undercrown Shade. It’s always good because the bigger the audience, the more chance you’ll have to introduce something new to them.”

The newest addition to their team is CEO Glenn Wolfson, who is a newcomer to the premium cigar industry and is transitioning from a long career consulting for companies like Walt Disney Company, Purina, Kraft, and United Airlines.

I deal with the infused guy, I deal with the traditional stuff, the Herrera stuff, everybody. I have a much bigger audience than the guy who just has a brand or two with three lines.
— Willy Herrera

“I’ve never come across a culture like this in my life,” Glenn said. “The thing that makes it really wonderful, wacky, and wild is that it’s incredibly familial. The way people pull for each other, the family values, the fact that they really care for each other. We are the brand in many ways. The way we dress, the ink on our arms. It’s a creative, innovative organization. We’re rebels with a cause. It will forever be Rebirth of Cigars. We’ll always be progressive, innovative and disruptive. It’s been in our blood since Marvin and Jonathan founded the company.”

These days, Jonathan is branching out even further. After the sale of Drew Estate to Swisher, he’s launched his latest project, John Drew Brands (expected to launch officially in February 2017), which will introduce a selection of craft spirits to his résumé and present new challenges in terms of how people perceive his expertise and credibility. He knows he’s not known as a “whiskey guy,” and because of that, he might have an uphill battle making a success of products like his new Brixton Mash Destroyer, which is a four-year Kentucky bourbon mashed with a five-year Florida rum — another instance of Jonathan’s insistence on changing the status quo. With the grit and hustle that he drew from after moving to Estelí in the late ‘90s, along with the help of the institution he’s built in Drew Estate, he might just pull off his next disruption.

“John Drew Brands is based right at Drew Estate. They were really great to me, they built out my offices for me and my team,” said Jonathan. “If you want to know what the early days of Drew Estate was like, all you need to do is look at John Drew Brands. We’re going through those early growing pains that Drew Estate went through when I came into the cigar industry.”

Fidel Castro is dead. Now what?

 Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro.  (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Fidel Castro is dead.

That was the big news late Friday night. The longtime dictator, whose younger brother succeeded him 10 years ago — about the time Cigar Snob was hitting the scene — was no more. And just as soon as the news was out there, we began to see a wide range of reactions in the media, on the street, and, in some cases, in our homes.

Heads of state like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama drew criticism for their official statements in the wake of Castro’s death.

Kiko Alonso (himself the son of a Cuban father and Colombian mother) became, at least for the weekend, Cuban Miami’s new favorite athlete, as he ended the Dolphins’ win over the 49ers by tackling Colin Kaepernick — who had recently drawn the ire of Cuban exiles by engaging in the kind of Castro apologist talk about the despot’s history that Cubans have been hearing for decades. The significance of the play wasn't lost on Kiko; he later shared a photo of the hit, including the caption "Vamos Coño" (which translates loosely to "Let's go, damnit") and the hashtag #cubalibre (free Cuba).

 

Vamos Coño !!!! 🇨🇺🇨🇺 #finsup #miamidolphins #cubalibre

A photo posted by Kiko Alonso (@elbravo_47) on

 

The streets outside iconic Cuban restaurants in Miami, especially La Carreta and Versailles, were packed with jubilant crowds.

And in Cuban exile homes all over the country, champagne was uncorked as families toasted to the final assurance that this one monster in particular would never terrorize them, their families, or their countrymen again.

Carlos Eire, who won the National Book Award for his childhood memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, ran through some of the reasons we should all be glad Fidel Castro is dead — and some of the things we should never forget about how he lived — in a Washington Post op-ed.

In sum, Fidel Castro was the spitting image of Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” So, adiós, Big Brother, king of all Cuban nightmares. And may your successor, Little Brother, soon slide off the bloody throne bequeathed to him.
— Carlos Eire

This isn’t so much a celebration of a death as it is the manifestation of the catharsis that comes with knowing a man who did so much evil is finally out of the picture for good. It’s a loud sigh of relief (leave it to Cubans to sigh loudly and to the beat of congas accompanied by clanging pots and pans) at the kind of guarantee of safety that only biology and time can provide.

A few days have gone by. As the dust settles and everyone begins to litigate the significance of this event, many of us are left asking ourselves and everyone around us the same question we’ve asked every other time it’s felt like Cuba was on the verge of turning the page to a new chapter of its history.

Now what?

For those of us with lived or inherited experience with Castro’s evil, treating this as some kind of moment of victory or justice would be to lose sight of what's important. Fidel Castro lived a long, long time. He died on his own terms, in privacy, and for every last second that nature and science and the unlimited resources that come with being the owner of nearly 12 million slaves would grant him. His brother and his tyrannical government survive him while millions of those who actively opposed him did not.

Whatever catharsis there might be on the island of Cuba is felt in secret except by those who are willing to risk their lives or their livelihoods to express themselves. One person in Cuba described the mood on the street to a member of our staff as “tranquilo, pero extraño.” Calm, but weird.

If what matters is the lives of Cubans, nothing has changed. Cuba's constitution still makes it the most repressive regime in the hemisphere, and the system is such that new generations of government are deeply incentivized to keep it all in place.

Fidel Castro — to the extent that this is possible for any mortal — had the last laugh. That's nothing to celebrate. The silver lining is that all that energy people used to leave their homes at the drop of a hat at 2 in the morning to bang on pots and pans, and toast with cigars and rum (including some, ironically enough, purchased from Castro's monopoly, helping fund his life support) and all the time we've spent debating the potential impact of Castro's death... all that can also be used to make sure that his last laugh doesn't echo for very long.

For our part — and on this I think I can say that I speak for everyone else at Cigar Snob — we’ll continue to use our platform to speak some truth about Cuba in a media space that can sometimes seem eager to romanticize the island and ignore its dark side, perhaps because it’s hard to enjoy Cohibas and Havana Club when you’re reminded the brands' owners wear olive green fatigues and jail their competition.

Fidel is dead. But this fight isn’t. Some things are bigger than cigars.

Cuba between the lines

Ten years ago, Cigar Snob was born as Cuba entered into a new era in its history.

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Egberto Escobedo was born and raised in Camagüey, Cuba. It’s his official place of residence on government records. Yet, when he goes home to Camagüey, Egberto is deported — not from Cuba, but from Camagüey. See, he moved to Havana to be with his wife, but he still has family in Camagüey. Sometimes being deported has meant being taken back to Havana. Other times, it’s meant being put in a patrol car and dumped on the highway nearly 200 miles outside Camagüey.

So what did Egberto do to so thoroughly piss off the Cuban government? He’s on the coordinating committee of the Forum for Rights and Liberties, an independent Cuban organization whose name is pretty self-explanatory. The Cuban government doesn’t encourage groups like these. It certainly didn’t appreciate Egberto’s heading into Camagüey with copies of the speech Barack Obama had delivered in Havana during his historic March 2016 visit. He and other dissidents had plans to study the speech closely and figure out what their take would be.

“My wife and I — and activists like us — are the victims of beatings and other mistreatment in the streets and in police stations. In Camagüey, they’ve declared me persona non grata,” said Egberto. “A government official told me that he wouldn’t allow me to go into the province. I have a 22-year-old daughter there who I haven’t seen in three years and he told me I couldn’t see her. I told him, ‘We’ll see.’” At about 1 a.m. the morning of our phone interview, he had been spirited into his own hometown, where he’d hide out at a relative’s home until he was “deported” all over again.

A new chapter in Cuba

Cigar Snob debuted May 20, 2006 (Cuba’s Independence Day). In July of that year, Fidel Castro’s health took a sharp turn and his brother Raul — who had been Cuba’s minister of the armed forces since the regime took power in 1959 — assumed the role of acting president in Cuba. He officially became president in 2008.

Frequent readers of this magazine know we don’t rate or report on Cuban cigars. From the beginning, the magazine’s owners and employees have fielded questions about why that is; the answer is simple. For one thing, those cigars are generally not legally accessible to our overwhelmingly American readership. For another, all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes. Thanks to the fact that the timing of Cigar Snob’s birth coincided with Fidel’s permanent switch from olive green fatigues to Adidas track suits, our history has run in parallel to a new chapter in Cuban history.

... all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes.

Almost immediately, speculation began as to whether Raul would — even if only out of necessity — rule as a reformer.

“In the economic sphere, when Raul Castro took over from Fidel Castro nearly 10 years ago, he began introducing a series of small reforms in the economic domain,” said Dr. José Azel, a scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. “One of those reforms was to allow a certain amount of self-employment in precisely 171 activities. They have now been expanded to something like 206 activities, but they’re all domestic activities. None of them have anything to do with the external sector, and they are trades such as repairing cigarette lighters, selling fruit, repairing umbrellas, and things like that.”

Self-employed Cubans are referred to as cuentapropistas. The categories of independent work in which Cubans can legally engage are as narrow as the examples José listed. You can obtain a license to sell fruit on the street, but you’ll technically need another license if you’re going to also make your living peeling fruit, he said.

  Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image:  Reuben Strayer )

Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image: Reuben Strayer)

“This is not a private sector as we understand that term in the United States — you know, sole proprietorships, corporations, partnerships and the like. These are individuals that have been granted a permit by the state. They don’t have the kind of legal standing that we associate in the West with the private sector,” said José.

They’re limited, but the changes have made a difference in some Cubans’ lives — albeit a small one compared to how they’d benefit from even freer markets. Egberto is skeptical.

“Over the 56 years this regime has been in place, it has on various occasions freed the market in order to lift the economy. They know free market measures develop the economy. And every time they do it, they later begin to undo the freedoms they had allowed because they are afraid of losing economic control over individuals,” said Egberto. “I don’t think they’ll change their politics; their system survives thanks to totalitarian control of the market. We’re in a time of crisis, and they’re allowing people to be self-employed because the government can’t provide jobs. As they begin to recover economically, they’ll scale back those freedoms.”

Another important change Cuba has undergone is the abolition of its “white card” system. Until 2013, Cubans with valid passports needed what amounted to a trip-specific exit visa in order to leave their own country, a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Cuba is a mocking signatory.

“If the world’s six billion inhabitants could travel any time they wanted, the jam there would be in the skies of the planet would be enormous,” said Ricardo Alarcón with a completely straight face in a forum in 2008. At the time, he was president of Cuba’s National Assembly (the country’s legislative body). He’d been asked to explain the logic behind the white card absurdity.

When white cards were done away with, Cubans who had been denied permission to travel took full advantage. One of them, blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World, has been traveling persistently, whereas just a few years ago she’d been unable to leave despite countless invitations to accept awards, give lectures, and sit on panels about Cuba. She and others are rushing to get all this travel in before the Cuban regime changes its mind. There’s concern about the decision being reversed or — more realistically — passport renewals being denied to those who the Castros prefer not to see challenging the government’s narrative abroad.

The thaw

A little more than a year before Cigar Snob’s first issue, Barack Obama was sworn in as a U.S. Senator. He won the presidency in 2008 and has been as much of a game changer for Cuba as Raul. Under Obama, U.S.-Cuba relations have changed as much as could be expected without Congress lifting or altering the embargo. Diplomatic ties have been almost completely normalized, with each country’s interest section becoming a full-fledged embassy. Restrictions on American travel to Cuba have been loosened.

 Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana  (Photo:  IIP Photo Archive )

Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana (Photo: IIP Photo Archive)

Though Cuba had begun to allow its citizens to own certain consumer tech, Cuba’s unchanged totalitarian core was revealed in 2009, when USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for delivering satellite and computer equipment to Jewish communities. Ricardo Alarcón (champion of air traffic control) accused him of working for American intelligence agencies and Alan ended up in prison for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” until a controversial 2014 prisoner swap.

The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations continues to evolve, but it’s hard to see any moment eclipsing Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in symbolic significance. It’s easy to find glowing reviews, though, so let’s go to Egberto for another take.

“His visit was a fiasco,” said Egberto. “The Cuban government is capitalizing on it abroad as a tool to undo limitations imposed on it. These people have more experience than Obama does and know how to neutralize his efforts. They’ve begun to make life harder for cuentapropistas with higher taxes. Eventually, you’ll only have a small number and they will be controlled by the regime. That’s not freeing the market.”

The scenario Egberto describes — in which the Cuban government closes doors shortly after opening them — has played out before. Today, travelers to Cuba enjoy paladares (private restaurants usually run out of homes) and stay in casas particulares (think sharing economy lodging, a la Airbnb, without the software). Those businesses only came out of the black market shadows in the mid-90s, during Cuba’s “Special Period.” At the time, Cuba’s extreme poverty couldn’t be helped by the Soviet Union (which had just collapsed) or Venezuelan oil money (Hugo Chávez wasn’t around yet). The U.S. embargo was in full effect — no exceptions for cash-up-front trans- actions, food or medicine. As conditions worsened on the island, the people’s protest for freedom grew louder, peaking in August 1994. In response, Cuba began to allow paladares, but then raised taxes on them in February 1996 and stopped issuing new licenses altogether that April. They even cracked down and shuttered independent restaurants that had become direct competition for government- owned establishments. Baruch College professor Ted Henken wrote that at least one paladar owner he interviewed in Havana saw her licensing fees go up from $23 to $775 in a six-year span. The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month. That’s pushed lots of people back into the black market. I know; I’ve eaten at a clandestine paladar. The shrimp was delicious. It’s also worth pointing out that licenses to for paladares and casas particulares allow their owners to cater either to Cubans or to foreigners, effectively creating an apartheid system against the country’s own citizens.

Cuba has made similar moves in agriculture, the arts, and other areas. So what should Obama have done differently to ensure the change that took place while he was in the White House was more durable?

“Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press,” said Egberto. Obama wasn’t quite hidden, but it’s true that his meeting with some of Cuba’s most prominent dissident voices had a decidedly diminutive quality to it that contrasted with the visible nature of his speech at the Teatro Nacional, his attendance at a baseball game with Raul Castro, or his sightseeing jaunt through Havana. There were cameras at the meeting, but it seemed like a slapped-together affair and was, indeed, crammed into a tiny space at the very large U.S. embassy. Case in point: you probably didn’t know that meeting even happened.

Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press
— Egberto Escobedo, Cuban dissident

Among the 13 dissidents present at that meeting with Obama: José Daniel Ferrer, the head of Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU); Guillermo Fariñas, best known for activism for unrestricted Internet access; Berta Soler, the leader of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), who attend Mass every Sunday before silently marching through Havana demanding the release of political prisoners; and Antonio Rodiles, the founder of Estado de Sats, an independent Web series in which Cubans discuss everything from art to economics. Berta and Antonio were in the minority who actually told Obama that he should have stayed in Washington.

“For people to find out what was said in that meeting with some opposition leaders, those leaders practically had to call separate press conferences in other places to tell people about it,” said Egberto. “The Obama administration should have been more critical and less fearful. And he should have done more to ensure that the details of his trip were made known in Cuba, not just outside of Cuba.”

Crack in the dam

“Once this stuff really starts happening in Cuba, it’s going to go like light speed,” said Matt Brady, who has years of experience in democracy promotion and studying government transitions. “Once there’s a crack in the dam, the water is just going to gush. And there’s nobody — not the Cuban government, not the U.S. government — that is going to be able to stop the flood that is going to happen.”

Matt is well versed on the subject of Cuba. He has years of experience in democracy promotion work in that country with Freedom House and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. But the dam metaphor only relates to money flowing into and out of Cuba. Whether that dam’s bursting will have implications for political freedoms and human rights is a big question mark.

“Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not,” Matt said. “Once you allow companies to set up cell towers or airlines to establish roots, they’re going to expect to lose money for one to two or three years, hoping that they’ll end up with a pole position for a monopoly or something close to a monopoly. That’s the jockeying that’s happening with the hotels and the airlines.”

Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not.
— Matt Brady

While there’s disagreement on whether this was the ideal path for the relationship between the American and Cuban governments, just about everyone has come to terms with the idea that the travel and trade restrictions loosened by Obama won’t be tightened any time soon. So what does that mean for people on both sides of the Florida Straits? For one thing, at least some amount of American investment will continue in Cuba. Companies like Carnival, American Airlines, Airbnb, Netflix and Sprint will continue to pump money through the crack in the dam Matt described. Either until the dam will break, leaving them in a great position, or the cracks will be patched by Cuba’s communist government, leaving American businesses on one side and their money on the other.

“Companies know they’re going to lose money for a bit, but they essentially are going to set themselves up and there’s nothing that the government can do,” said Matt, “unless they start seizing assets again [in Cuba], which is possible. You could have that. You really could. That’s the X factor.”

Matt laughed at the idea. What else can you do? After all, this is the same regime that nationalized billions of dollars’ worth of American assets when it first assumed power. And it’s still the case that foreign ventures in Cuba must be owned in partnership with the Cuban government. That can be a dangerous proposition, especially since Cuba’s tourism industry and other sectors that interact with the outside are controlled by the military.

In the cigar world, we have a recent example of the hazards of investing on the island. Cigar Rings prints a large number of the cigar bands you see every time you walk into a cigar store. Its owner Albert Montserrat ended up in the Dominican Republic when he moved there from Havana about 10 years ago. He’d gone to Cuba from Spain thinking he’d find a stable opportunity printing labels for Cuban cigars. It wasn’t too long before he gave up on the Cuban government pulling its weight in the partnership. He was essentially forced to cut his losses and leave. In Cuba, there’s nobody to complain to or sue. You just lose.

“Let’s consider the seventh congress of the Communist Party that closed [in April],” said José Azel, referring to the meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party officials in which Raul Castro was elected to another five years as the head of the party. The first such congress was held in 1975. “Raul Castro and all the Cuban leadership and even Fidel Castro made an appearance to make absolutely certain — so there would be no misunderstanding — that there is not going to be a change in Cuba’s economic or political models.

“The purpose of economic activity [in Cuba] is not to enrich anyone, and in fact when people talk about the Chinese model, when Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms in China, which were far more extensive and profound than the economic reforms in Cuba, Deng Xiaoping made the statement that to get rich is glorious. He was trying to change the mindset,” said José, addressing the enormous communist country that so many people point to when drawing comparisons on everything from U.S. diplomacy to the prospect of gradual political and economic reforms. “Raul Castro has made the statement that the accumulation of wealth will not be allowed.”

José thinks it’s more likely that Cuba, years down the road, could come to resemble what he called the “kleptocracy” of Putin’s Russia, in which the old guard of the military and KGB took roles as captains of industry.

“You’re going to have an oligarchy,” Matt said. He also sees Russia as being the best place to go for a look at what Cuba’s economic and political sphere might become, albeit way down the road. “Fidel and Raul in particular have developed these state-owned companies that control large sectors — tourism, foreign exchange, banking. The money from the outside is going to flow into these companies and people that are in charge of them are going to pillage the companies. That’s already started happening. How will the Cuban people react?”

The more things change

 Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana.  (photo:  People In Need Cuba )

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana. (photo: People In Need Cuba)

Plenty of people are more optimistic about Cuba’s future. Even Matt describes that Russian-style oligarchy as a step toward something more free, more fair. But it’s important to face the reality that having an embassy in Cuba and seeing an American president touch down in Havana are not sure signs that significant or lasting change is happening in Cuba. In fact, while Barack Obama was in the air on his way to Havana, dozens of members of the Ladies in White were arrested during their weekly march. There’s little indication that any of the economic openings translate into a Cuba where people have political freedoms, an independent press, or a government that can go more than a week without beating peaceful protesters in the street. Case in point: Cuba’s National Commission for Human Rights, an independent (and, therefore, illegal) organization that tracks human rights violations on the island, reported that the Cuban regime had made at least 1,380 arbitrary political arrests in the month of April alone, bringing the 2016 total to at least 5,351.

So these half-baked changes — which have had bigger implications for foreign investors, tourists and Cuban officials than for the average Cuban — leave us at Cigar Snob and you, the smoker, with things to think about. What should our relationship with Cuba look like, as a publication and as individuals, and what should be prompting us to change that relationship?

Here is just some of the video of the arrests that took place while Air Force One was on its way to Havana.

 
 

“I’d suggest that people who visit Cuba try to create their own agenda for the trip,” said Egberto of what he thought travelers should keep in mind while in Cuba. “They should try to carve their own path inside of Cuba, independently. If you’re taken by the hand to specific locations (chosen by the government), you’re not going to get to know the real Cuba. When you see what the government wants you to see, you might think, ‘They’re on the right path.’ It’s a lie. But Cuba is not only coffee, tobacco and rum. If our economy is freed, if private enterprise is allowed, Cubans are creative enough to create great things in a way that is sustainable.”

I know from experience that Cuba’s government manipulates travel experiences to preserve the facade. In 2009, I was turned away at José Martí International Airport. A security agent told me that I was not allowed into “any part of the country,” then escorted me back to the Mexicana Airlines plane that had taken me to Cuba and had me board. No boarding pass, no interrogation, no air marshal. Just an arbitrary, extrajudicial determination that I was too dangerous to let in. It probably had something to do with all the dissidents, underground journalists and artists I had met with during previous trips.

In fact, the U.S. embassy in Cuba recently said Cuba’s government has a practice of treating American citizens who were born in Cuba as Cuban citizens while they’re visiting the island. In other words, Cuba doesn’t recognize the rights and legal protections that Cuban natives would enjoy while returning to the country of their birth. This is clearly meant to intimidate the travelers most likely to spread subversive ideas.

Even non-Cubans can feel it. In December 2015, filmmaker and YouTuber Casey Neistat posted video commentary about his own trip to Cuba. “I was there as part of a technology delegation,” he said in one of his vlogs. “We were supposed to meet with our Cuban counterparts and discuss technology and what it could do. The Cuban government actually stepped in at the last minute and said no to a lot of the things we wanted to do and a lot of the things we wanted to discuss. And a lot of what we were there to do was compromised. They dictated the terms of what turned out to be a very boring panel that should have been interesting. This idea that a government can tell you what you can and cannot say is something that I know nothing about.”

 
 

Especially if you’re traveling to Cuba as part of a tour group, it’s unlikely that you’re getting an unfiltered view of what life is like there. Hamlet Paredes, who joined Rocky Patel to create his own cigar brand, Tabaquero, arrived in the U.S. a little more than a year ago from Cuba, where he was one of the cigar industry’s star cigar rollers and ambassadors (which is at least part of the reason he speaks such good English). He still has family in Cuba, and he’s more optimistic than Egberto is about the impact of Obama’s diplomatic efforts. That said, he has some similar takes on how travelers to Cuba should approach their visits.

“It depends on the objective of each traveler. When I visit a new country, I like to get to know its people and see its reality. Most tourists are in a fishbowl and they’re shown everything that paints the country in a positive light. Meanwhile, they’re walking right by the reality and don’t even see it,” said Hamlet, adding that eating at paladares is one way to get a closer look at the lives of ordinary Cubans.

Those opportunities to engage with Cuban cuentapropismo are more limited if you’re planning a cigar-centric trip. None of the limited categories in which Cubans can run licensed businesses involve making cigars or growing tobacco, for example. For the foreseeable future, Cuba’s cigar industry will be monopolized by Habanos, which markets every cigar manufactured there. Even if Cubans were allowed to open independent boutique factories tomorrow — which is highly unlikely since the Cuban government has no interest in creating competition for its cash cow — it would take a long time for Cubans to build the skill sets necessary to compete.

“There are things we’re not used to,” said Hamlet. “I’m still learning to do things like negotiate. Those are things I never had to do in my country because everything is so tightly directed by the state. That kind of thing will happen to those who go into business for themselves.”

In the meantime, we at Cigar Snob will be anxiously awaiting substantive change in Cuba. God willing, we’ll be reviewing independent brands produced in small, independent Cuban factories.


Editor's note: The story above appears as it did when it ran in the print edition of Cigar Snob Magazine. Shortly after that issue shipped, it was reported that Cuba would be "legalizing" small- and medium-sized businesses. What exactly that means and how it will impact Cubans — especially in the long term — is unclear, especially considering that the country is still ruled according to a constitution that (among other things) gives the state the ability to legally lay claim to any property it wants.

At the source of Florida Sun Grown tobacco

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

This article was first published in the July/August 2015 issue of Cigar Snob

As the barn door opens, Jeff Borysiewicz is beaming. He’s got that look that you’ve seen on the faces of friends who are about to unveil their new sports cars. It reminds me of that look that comes over Old Man Parker in A Christmas Story when he steps outside to admire the leg lamp in his window.

But Jeff isn’t showing off a Corvette (or even a leg lamp). Once the door is open, he steps inside and pulls out in a John Deere tractor that looks like it’s been cared for as well as anything in a car collector’s garage. He brings it out of the barn, and into an open space, maneuvering it deftly — expertly, even. Expertly because back in high school, long before he was the proprietor of Corona Cigar Co., Jeff was the state of Florida’s tractor driving champion. Twice.

 Jeff Borysiewicz smokes a cigar among the tobacco at his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm in Central Florida.  (image: Zach Ramsey)

Jeff Borysiewicz smokes a cigar among the tobacco at his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm in Central Florida. (image: Zach Ramsey)

“You know why I only won two?” he asks rhetorically, ready to deliver the nostalgic brag about his teenage tractor dominance. “I was too good. They didn’t let me compete anymore.”

We’ve made a lot of road trips from Miami to Orlando to see Jeff. He’s always interesting, always humble, always ready to tell you something you didn’t already know. He speaks in semi-hushed tones, pausing often to make sure he’s doing a good job and you’re grasping everything he’s says. This time, something’s different. Jeff isn’t just engaged; he is excited.

Really, really excited.

These days, when Jeff’s in the tractor, he’s not collecting trophies. He’s growing tobacco. That’s right; Orlando’s top tobacconist now has a foot at each extreme of the cigar lifecycle: one in retail space and the other at his 20-acre farm in Clermont, Fla., where he’s running Florida’s first premium cigar tobacco harvests in nearly four decades.

“There are states that have cigar shops, but almost every state used to have cigar factories,” he said. “Believe it or not, there are quite a few states that used to grow cigar tobacco. Florida was one of those. Florida grew cigar tobacco from the 1800s to the last crop, which was in 1977. I always knew there was cigar tobacco grown in Florida, but I didn’t realize how big it was. [Florida] was actually the second largest producer after Connecticut. What I found even more amazing was that Florida was the first to grow shade. So when you hear about Connecticut shade, it was actually started in Florida. Then they implemented it up in Connecticut.”

He knew he wanted to reverse the trend that he, like the rest of us, has seen in places like Tampa, where rich cigar history has been relegated to just that — history. He notes that as you drive through Tampa, many of the buildings seem to serve as “tombstones” for the factories that once operated there. For instance, there’s the Ybor factory building, which has historical significance not only for Tampa and the cigar world, but for the Cuban revolution, as it has connections to Cuban national hero José Martí’s time in exile.

That building now belongs to the Church of Scientology. Unfortunately, cigars don’t appear to play much of a role in Dianetics.

“I thought it would be really cool if, in a small way, we could resurrect Florida cigar tobacco,” Jeff said. “So I started doing my homework.”

Planting seeds

Jeff, who had also been a member of the Future Farmers of America (a national organization for middle and high school students) as a kid, has long been passionate about agriculture. In fact, while you can’t yet buy cigars with his tobacco in them yet, Corona Cigar customers are already benefitting from Jeff’s green thumb. His might be the only shop in the country with a “Watermelon Wednesdays” special. If you spend $25 on cigars, you’ll also go home with a free watermelon grown right alongside the tobacco.

Fusing his longtime passions, he took to the business of learning all he could about tobacco, how to grow it and its history in Florida.

“Agriculture and farming were always passions of mine. When I was 15 years old, one of the jobs I had was working in a commercial citrus grove. But I couldn’t afford to become a farmer, because you can’t become a farmer unless you have land. Unless your dad had it and died and passed it on, you’ve got to buy it. Land’s not cheap.”

During his successful career in premium cigars, Jeff was drawn more to farms than factories. Finally in the position to own the land he needed to join the world of tobacco growers, he now has tobacco growing on 10 of his farm’s 20 acres (which he acquired in 2012).

Of course, being one of the country’s top cigar retailers also put him in the position to pick some of the brains of the leaders in cigar tobacco. “I have a good network of people who know what they’re doing,” Jeff said. “I talked to Eduardo Fernandez. He was supportive. He was like, ‘Here are the seeds. Try it out.’ And then once we started growing I went up to Connecticut and met a few farmers up there. So we have a pretty good network of agronomists and farmers that grow tobacco — whether it’s in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Connecticut or even Kentucky.”

Still, Jeff is trying to do what nobody else has in his generation. When you’re doing something this different, the playbook can’t be the same. And everyone who’s been there and done that in Florida is either dead or decades removed from the business. There have been challenges on practically every front, so Jeff and others involved in the project are updating and revising Florida’s premium cigar tobacco playbook as they confront even routine issues. For example, the pests and diseases in Florida aren’t quite the same ones that other tobacco growers contend with. Jeff’s farm has a barrier of tall sugarcane around it (among other measures) to keep grasshoppers out.

“The biggest problem we have in America is the cost of labor. That’s not just a problem with tobacco. That’s with everything in agriculture. America is great when it comes to mechanized agriculture. That’s why we’re the leader when it comes to growing corn and grains. But when it comes to fruits and vegetables, that’s why we have such a hard time. What it costs for a farm laborer in Nicaragua (to work one day) there — it’s one hour’s pay for us,” said Jeff, adding that harvesting tobacco adds layers of complication, since there’s more opportunity for error and loss in the curing barns.

Despite that complication, a visit to the Clermont farm at the end of a workday gives you a look into a small but vibrant operation. Workers seem happy with the job and appreciate what Jeff — who is here frequently and has made it a point to get his hands dirty — is trying to accomplish. They even ask for more of the cigars that Jeff is handing out; you don’t tend to see that kind of interest in cigars among the staff at many foreign farms and factories.

Fruition

After having given Criollo tobacco a shot with his inaugural crop, Jeff currently growing nothing but Corojo 99, which he says is more expensive to grow since it offers a smaller per-acre yield than Criollo.

“We’re sticking with what customers see more value in. If we were trying to do yield, we would grow Habano 2000. But that’s not what this is about,” he said, putting a flame to a single cured leaf he’s pulled from the barn to demonstrate what he describes as the cigar’s suede aroma. I hold the leaf in one hand (the other holds some fresh corn I’m snacking on after pulling it right off the stalk next to the tobacco plants) as we walk up and down the field. It burns slowly, steadily, and evenly until there is nothing left of it.

 Jeff Borysiewicz examines tobacco in the curing barn on his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm.  (image: Zach Ramsey)

Jeff Borysiewicz examines tobacco in the curing barn on his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm. (image: Zach Ramsey)

Jeff’s tobacco, grown under a new company he formed for this project called Florida Sun Grown (FSG), offers smokers the promise of something new, which doesn’t come along every day in tobacco. Jeff is confident not only that the revival of premium Floridian cigar tobacco will — at least in a small way — bring new excitement to cigars, but also that he (and any Florida growers who follow his lead) will be able to do business without running into some of the marketing issues that Connecticut growers have.

“Connecticut never protected the name Connecticut,” he said, referring to the use of that state’s name to describe certain kinds of tobacco regardless of the tobacco’s provenance. “That’s the biggest issue they have [is that] they allowed the industry to call tobacco Connecticut shade when it isn’t Connecticut shade. It’s Ecuador. And I understand why people do it. If you can buy tobacco that looks like Connecticut shade, might even be a little cleaner, tastes similar, why not buy it for half the price? But as a retailer, I see customers don’t know whether it’s Ecuador or Connecticut.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture, according to Jeff, is “actually good” about helping people in the agriculture industry certify to consumers that their products are of Floridian origin. Jeff and other farmers have orange farmers to thank for that. In the ‘70s, Jeff says, they worked with the state to stamp out products claiming to be made from Florida oranges when, in truth, they were made from concentrate (especially Brazilian) and merely packaged in Florida.

“We get what’s called a certificate of origin from the Department of Agriculture that certifies this tobacco is from Florida. That’s the lesson that the guys in Florida learned on orange juice that the [tobacco growers] in Connecticut never learned,” Jeff said, noting that that’s of particular value given Florida’s reputation. “Florida’s historically known as the cigar state. We’ve got the cigar city of Tampa. We’ve got the little factories in Miami. And Florida, fortunately, has a perceived premium value to consumers when it comes to agricultural products.”

Jeff’s hope is that, some day, we’ll see a cigar whose most noteworthy leaf — the wrapper — was grown on his farm.

“Eduardo Fernandez, who I hold in really high regard, says, ‘Always shoot for growing wrapper, because when you grow wrapper, you’re always going to get filler. But if you’re not shooting to grow wrapper, you’ll never get wrapper.’ So we teach our farm staff that we want only good tobacco going up on the sticks [in the curing barn] to dry,” he said. For now, wrapper-quality tobacco remains less likely because the Corojo 99 that FSG is growing tends to be too thick and heavy, especially since none of it is grown under shade.

Absent wrapper tobacco, Jeff would be pretty excited to see his product in just about any part of a cigar. He describes the profile of his Florida Sun Grown Corojo as having the flavor and aroma of suede, “like a pair of desert boots.”

Just when we’ll see (and smoke) this tobacco in our cigars is unclear.

All in time

For now, there’s no word of any product release around a blend that includes Jeff’s Florida Sun Grown tobacco. But that doesn’t mean it’s not on its way. FSG has a twentieth-anniversary project in the works with Davidoff that should incorporate the Florida tobacco, and Drew Estate — thanks in part to Jeff’s good friend Jonathan Drew — has bought multiple crops from Jeff.

“We’re hungry for that circle to be completed,” Jeff said. The eagerness in his voice is unmistakable. This guy wants people to taste what he’s been growing. “We want to get cigars back so we can sell them and others can sell them. Once the tobacco’s gone, it’s out of our hands.”

That eagerness isn’t only rooted in the raw excitement of a newcomer to the tobacco growing scene. It also comes from a desire to see a return on the investments Jeff has made. Drew Estate — the only company currently buying tobacco from Jeff for anything other than a Corona store exclusive — is taking a more deliberate approach to decisions about the tobacco. Jonathan Drew says that the first batch of tobacco the company bought has been fermenting in Nicaragua (in pilones with Broadleaf) for about a year and a half now and test blends have begun.

The second crop, weighing in at about three tons, was enough to create a dedicated pilón for fermentation. While the company didn’t have enough wrapper tobacco in that crop to reach its wrapper goal, they remain optimistic, as it can take a long time to achieve not only quality, but consistently wrapper-grade tobacco.

“You could take a lot less risk by buying tobacco that’s already out on the market,” said Jonathan in an interview at his Miami office. “It’s a very risky proposition what Jeff and Drew Estate are doing. When you think about Drew Estate, our strength is American tobacco. I’m interested in cultivating American tobaccos. Who buys the most American tobaccos of premium cigars? When it comes to American tobaccos for premium cigars, there is no bigger purchaser right now — not Altadis, not General, not Davidoff, not Fuente. I think this will be the third year in a row that we’re the largest purchaser of American tobaccos for premium cigars. And the largest purchaser of tobacco from the Connecticut River Valley. We buy the most.”

This is Jeff’s dream and Jeff’s vision. I’m a character in his play.
— Jonathan Drew

Clearly, Drew Estate has an interest in purchasing American tobaccos; Jeff’s farm might provide yet another way for them to expand their portfolio of cigars featuring American leaf beyond tobaccos from Connecticut and Kentucky. And that’s just what Jeff has been trying to do. Further, Jeff has his own passions that his latest project fit into perfectly.

For one thing, he’s a Florida guy through and through, and he’s deeply passionate about playing a role in reviving the premium cigar identity of the state in which he was raised. For another, the co-founder and former chairman of Cigar Rights of America wants to demonstrate in yet another way that keeping government regulators away from premium cigars is an issue that can benefit all kinds of American workers.

But mostly, when you tour the Florida Sun Grown farm with Jeff, you realize that he’s excited — giddy, even — about the idea of making something and having that become a part of his livelihood. From curing the crops to repairing farm machinery, Jeff clearly loves every aspect of his passion project.

“This is Jeff’s dream and Jeff’s vision. I’m a character in his play,” said Jonathan. He makes sure to add, though, that he thinks it’s too early to tell whether and how Jeff’s tobacco will figure into the industry. “It’s like we’re in the second inning … It takes six, seven, or eight years before you can say that you have something that’s consistent every year.”

“What will end up happening is, I’m hoping, that we’ll be able to have [our tobacco in] some national brands,” said Jeff.

Some things can’t be rushed, and yet Florida tobacco’s day in the sun can’t come soon enough.

Midnight in Havana: a look at dictatorship and change in Cuba

 

This piece was published in the January/February 2015 issue of Cigar Snob.

Changes in U.S.-Cuba policy conjure up old Cold War images, but the island dictatorship’s authoritarian grip is tight as ever.

It’s midnight in Havana and I can’t find Jorge Luis García Pérez (or “Antúnez” as most people know him). I’m not exactly in great shape thanks to my American diet and general lack of discipline. And my skin doesn’t look like that of a young guy who’s spent a lifetime browning under the Cuban sun. I’ve never felt so conspicuous.

I’m also scared shitless. It’s my first time in Cuba. Being the yuma walking around a Cuban neighborhood in the middle of the night with a suitcase is one thing. It’s quite another when that suitcase is actually a care package for the man widely regarded as the communist island’s Mandela. He was only released from prison a couple of years before our meeting (after serving 17 years), which means visiting him is an easy way to brand myself an enemy of the revolution—even if I am only carrying clothes for his kid, along with medicine and a cell phone for him. All things that the Castro government has made it practically impossible for the peaceful activist to get his hands on without outside help.

A dark figure pops out onto the sidewalk. “¿Me estás buscando a mí?” Are you looking for me? Thank God.

For the next couple of hours, Antúnez gives me a rundown of life in Cuba from his vantage point (a unique one, to be sure). He lifts his shirt to expose a number of scars he says were left there by dogs that prison guards let loose on him for daring to oppose Castro’s government—especially after all that the revolution had done for blacks.

  Nick Jiménez, Antúnez and Antúnez’ wife Iris Pérez Aguilera (who founded Cuba’s Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights) in Havana in 2008

Nick Jiménez, Antúnez and Antúnez’ wife Iris Pérez Aguilera (who founded Cuba’s Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights) in Havana in 2008

And when he’s asked about what he hopes Cuba might look like in the future, he launches into an entirely unplanned, Cubanized version of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech. We’re in a small, poorly lit room in a dark corner of Havana. There’s no audience and no microphone. I get chills anyway. We’re just days from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which makes it all the more surreal.

That was 2008, during my first trip to Cuba. After a few more trips, the Cuban government appeared to have put me on some kind of blacklist, as I was turned away at Havana’s airport upon arrival for what would be my final trip at the tail end of 2009. A little student activism, volunteer work, and meetings with journalists and opposition leaders were enough to land me (as well as some friends) on Cuban blacklists. I’ve even seen video of internal meetings in which regime officials refer to the youth empowerment organization I was part of as engaging in cyber terrorism.

Changes to U.S.-Cuba policy have a lot of people talking about Cuba in the past tense. Cold-War-this and 56-years-that. Images are conjured of missile crises and classic Chevys. But what’s Cuban life like now for the people who live there? And, what becomes of the people and projects that seek to change that reality for the better?

It’s not easy being freaky

On Dec. 17, 2014, Barack Obama announced changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba that would, among other things, allow travelers to Cuba to return with $100 worth of cigars. Naturally, American smoke shops were abuzz with rumors and speculation. When would we see Cuban cigars in our stores’ humidors? How do we get to Cuba to pick some up for ourselves? It seemed everyone was curious about just how far the limits had been pushed.

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera was, apparently, a little curious as well. On Dec. 31, just a couple of weeks after the announcement of the Cuban government’s “humanitarian” offer to release USAID contractor Alan Gross and 53 political prisoners, she began what has become perhaps her best-known performance. She announced that she’d be making her way to Havana’s Revolution Square (the iconic plaza that’s served as a venue for everything from the Castros’ marathon speeches to papal Masses to rock concerts) and setting up for a performance piece she calls “Tatlin’s Whisper #6.” The idea is pretty simple. There’s a podium and a microphone, and pretty much anybody can step up to express himself or herself for one minute. She’s done it once before, and there’s video online that shows some of Cuba’s best-known dissident bloggers taking their turns at the mic. It wasn’t about to happen a second time.

“They arrested her three times in three days,” said multimedia and event producer Diddier Santos. “The third time they had to jail her because every time she was released she would continue to insist on doing her work. Afterward, she kept demanding that people who were arrested for going to her performance be released. Those are the attitudes that will create a space and continue to push the boundaries.”

  A crowd of Cuban EDM fans at Rotilla (photo courtesy of Diddier Santos)

A crowd of Cuban EDM fans at Rotilla (photo courtesy of Diddier Santos)

Diddier knows firsthand about the stifling effect that Cuba’s dictatorship has on creative types. As we sit across from each other at a Coral Gables bookstore café, he tells me about his work in the Cuban arts world. As a longtime member ofMatraka (an independent production group in Cuba) Diddier is one of the founding producers of Rotilla. Think of Rotilla as Cuba’s beachy, electronic equivalent of Burning Man or Lollapalooza.

“I started doing production work in 2005 in Cuba, organizing different music concerts,” said Diddier, taking a sip from his espresso. “We were doing that kind of work. In 2007, I met one of the members of Matraka, Adriel Monzón. He lived nearby, so we’d meet up and talk about art and film and do different projects at home. We started getting closer through that work.”

Diddier was soon working with Matraka on a project-to-project basis, starting with a documentary about Cuban prostitution. In 2008, Diddier was offered a role as the producer of Rotilla, which was starting to see significant growth.

“It was a good challenge for me. From then on, I also produced the Festival Puños Arriba, which is a rap festival in Cuba, along with about ten other events a year with Matraka.”

In Cuba, there are lots of independent production groups (calling them companies doesn’t fit since, technically, they don’t operate legally). But few achieve the success that Matraka did with Rotilla. The event was known all over the island, even garnering favorable coverage on state-run TV news.

As Diddier explains, “[The festival had] always been committed to promoting culture and creating spaces. It’s not for commercialization, but rather an umbrella for emerging art. The principal motive of Rotilla was to promote electronic music, which was censored at that time in Cuba because it came from Europe and was seen as an ideological diversion. We were pioneers in that space. We also did that with rap—creating spaces, supporting rappers on various projects.”

As Rotilla became more popular, it was increasingly seen as a threat by the Cuban government. Not only were they drawing huge crowds to see DJs at an event the government hadn’t created, but they were also offering a platform to acts like Los Aldeanos, a duo of (arguably) Cuba’s best and most outspoken rappers, Aldo and El Bi. Consider these lyrics from their song La Naranja Se Picó.

Yo sé que hay leyes, pero perdone.
No controlan la emigración
ustedes están alimentando tiburones.
Esto peor se pone y quieren obligarme a que concuerde
No pienso doblegarme a su Cosa Nostra verde
Es que no entienden lo que hacen.
Los cuerpos están aquí
pero las mentes a 90 millas continuan en trance.
Ahorita los cubanos empiezan a tatuarse
el mapa de Cuba en todo el cuerpo a ver si pueden escaparse.

I know there are laws, but excuse me.
You’re not controlling emigration,
you’re feeding sharks.
Things only get worse and they want to force me to agree.
I don’t plan to bend to your olive green Cosa Nostra.
The people don’t know what they’re doing.
Their bodies are here,
but their minds are in a trance 90 miles away.
Soon, Cubans will start tattooing
a map of Cuba all over their bodies to see if they can escape.

Not exactly the kind of thing anyone expects the most durable dictatorship in the hemisphere to put up with.

“Literally, they stole [the festival] rather than censor it,” said Diddier. When Matraka refused to abide by the regime’s conditions for the event (namely government control of the set list), “they kept doing the event with the same structure. At first, they were even using our name, but we took some legal action and they at least backed down on that, renaming it Verano en Jibacoa(Summer in Jibacoa).

Partly out of a desire to broaden the scope of their work, and partly (maybe mostly) out of necessity in the face of government censorship of their events, Matraka went about creating documentaries. One of those, titled Ni Rojo, Ni Verde, ¡Azul! (Not Red, Not Green, But Blue!), tells the story of the Cuban government’s Rotilla takeover.

You can watch Ni Rojo, Ni Verde, ¡AZUL! here. Turn on the closed captions if you don’t speak Spanish.

 

“Until [2011], the press praised us as one of the biggest independently run events. For our security, our logistics,” said Michel Matos in an interview for the documentary. “We have plenty of examples we can show of this. Today, the press goes silent when faced with the scandal of our claims. Second, it goes toVerano en Jibacoa and doesn’t bother to mention its predecessor. It’s as if it had been a novel idea [the government] came up with all of a sudden.”

For many young Cubans, the government takeover of Rotilla was a major encroachment. “They’ve taken away one more thing. Us freaky people don’t have rights in this country,” said one festival fan in Diddier’s documentary. Freaky is a commonly used term in Cuba referring to youth subculture. “This was one of the only spaces where people could come to be themselves without any concerns, and it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Donald Duck as ideological diversion

It’s noon on a Saturday in 2015 and I’m looking for Antúnez again, this time in broad daylight. I’m walking up and down the hallways of one of the most Cuban apartment buildings I’ve ever been to. Cuban music, Spanish-language news and telenovelas blare from inside each unit. I was told he’d be in there somewhere, but he’s not answering his phone.

A burly black dude doing his laundry in the communal, outdoor washer bro-hugs his very old, white, shirtless neighbor. It’s like Dr. King’s dream, but Cuban. And more sweaty.

Oh. And this is Miami.

I’m told to wait in a ground-level apartment right near where the bro-huggers are hanging out. A man even older-looking than the shirtless one outside sits at a dining table fiddling with the knobs of his radio. He doesn’t look like he’s listening for anything in particular. It just seems like he doesn’t have much else to do today.

“You know,” he tells me after introducing himself as Blaz, “I’ve been Antúnez’s right hand for years now.”

And that’s when it hits me. I know this man’s face. I’m flashing back to 2008, when I met Antúnez … and a much smaller, frail-looking old man to whom Antúnez had introduced me. I’d been struck by the juxtaposition. One big, one small, one young, one old, one black, one white. An odd couple brought together by a shared struggle.

Here Blaz and I were all these years later. Sharing coffee and gearing up for another interview. Some things really don’t change.

“In some ways, we have to contend with the way life is lived in the United States,” says Antúnez as we ride in my car to our interview. “Here, there’s a routine of working until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, then heading home. On Saturdays and Sundays, you rest. In Cuba, it’s not like that. We’re struggling 24 hours a day. And we need 24-hour support from people in the United States, because repression doesn’t take breaks.”

  Antúnez refers to his 17 years as a political prisoner in Cuba as his “political university.”

Antúnez refers to his 17 years as a political prisoner in Cuba as his “political university.”

I’m trying to get as much out of Antúnez as I can. Luckily, I’m his ride home from this Little Havana cigar shop. When I first met him, we were in a run-down house and he was lifting his ratty t-shirt to show me the scars he has all over his body — mementos from 17 years of run-ins with dogs and guards in the Cuban gulag. Today, it’s a different story. He’s visiting Miami from Cuba and has about a month left in his trip. The leather cigar shop chair and the charcoal gray suit jacket he’s in are a radically different image, but the way he gets fired up about the evils of Cuba’s regime and his hope for the future tell me I’m talking to the very same guy.

“Cuban youth, unlike my generation, is harder to manipulate,” he says, pointing out that young people like Diddier and the kids who flocked to his festival lived a different Cuban youth. When he was a kid, Antúnez said, he couldn’t watchDonald Duck cartoons because the regime saw them as an ideological diversion. He didn’t see Superman until he got out of prison in 2007. And he read the classics, like the work of 19th century French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, in prison. Cuban libraries on the outside were packed with Marxist books. He calls Cuba’s political prison system his university.

Travel to Cuba and you’ll see that sort of thing is still going on. State-run TV is crammed with pirated American programming, to be sure. But Cubans are generally presented with American entertainment that paints life to the north as brutal, shallow and depraved. Think Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Grey’s Anatomy, but not Band of Brothers and Everybody Loves Raymond.

“But Cuban youth today have more information. Their parents can’t lie to them. And even their parents — who have struggled financially, were sent to labor camps and had to fight in Angola — are tired,” he said. “These young people don’t identify with the regime because they were never really formed by that regime’s ideas.”

Still, Antúnez knows that today’s regime is no less despotic, no less bent on controlling life on the island than the one that had him locked up for close to two decades for speaking his mind. Last year, about a month after he returned to Cuba from a trip abroad, he was assaulted at his home in the rural town of Placetas by government thugs who he says took a number of his few possessions, including his television and personal photographs that had nothing to do with his activism.

“The so-called Revolution has lost the most important thing: enthusiasm. A revolution without enthusiasm can’t exist. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Whenever an opponent of the government dies in a hunger strike and the government calls them mercenaries, the regime discredits itself. When you discredit every one of your opponents, you really only discredit yourself. This is a regime that doesn’t recognize any of the merit of any of its adversaries. Even those who diverge just moderately from the party line are ‘mercenaries.’ The regime has helped us that way, with their brutality and with their stupidity. They’ve been stupid. They’ve gone too far. When you ransack a house and take the computers, the documents, and that sort of thing, it’s unjustifiable, but it’s understandable. That’s what dictators do. But when you go into a house and take a TV, house keys, family photos, and all without a warrant, you’re the one who looks bad. When they do all this with impunity, they help us, because they’re breaking the law. Not just international law, but even their own law.”

Indeed, the Cuban government continues to put its intolerance of dissent on display, although the tactics have changed somewhat. Long-term political sentences like the one Antúnez served have become less common, giving way to targeted, strategic detentions that tend not to be quite so damaging to the global image of a regime that depends on tourism dollars to sustain itself.

When the regime has pursued long-term sentences, international pressure has won out. In 2008, it jailed Gorki Aguila, frontman of the underground punk rock group Porno Para Ricardo, for pre-criminal social dangerousness (a crime as ridiculous as it sounds), which carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison. International media attention led to the government’s settling for a public disorder charge. He had to pay a $30 fine.

That leaves him free — at least until the next arrest — to sing lyrics like these, from the song El Comandante.

El comandante quiere que yo trabaje
pagándome un salario miserable.
El comandante quiere que yo le aplauda
después de hablar su mierda delirante.
¡No, comandante!
No comas tanta pinga, comandante.

The comandante wants me to work
while he pays me a miserable salary.
The comandante wants me to applaud him
after he talks all his delirious shit.
No, comandante!
Don’t eat so much dick, comandante.

In 2014 alone, there were more than 8,000 political detentions in Cuba. The vast majority were short term. Planning to attend a controversial concert on the other end of the island? Detained. Got a meeting to plan a protest? We have a few questions for you. You’re coming with us. These are the sorts of detentions they used against bloggers and activists who had planned to participate in Tania Bruguera’s performance piece. By the time the police are legally obligated to let you go because they have nothing to charge you with, they’ve met their objective of keeping you from your work. What’s more, the international press doesn’t see much news in a few hours’ worth of jail time, so next to nobody even finds out what’s happened.

We cross the street from the cigar shop to Máximo Gómez domino park (yes, that exists in Miami). Despite his having been in South Florida for a while now, it’s Antúnez’s first time in Little Havana and he wants to make sure he checks this place out before he leaves town for Tampa and Washington, D.C., where he’ll be speaking to Cuban exiles and lawmakers about his struggle back home.

If there’s a place in the world outside of Cuba where Antúnez will be recognized, it’s this domino park. We meander through the domino tables where old Cuban men are too focused on their next moves to look up and notice him. As we leave the small park, Antúnez mentions how much he’s looking forward to showing people back in Cuba the photos and videos of this place. He says the regime has convinced Cubans that life in America is cold, lonely, and antisocial. His friends and neighbors will be surprised to see a park in Miami where strangers come together to play dominos … just like in Cuba.

Just then, a man near the park gate nods in agreement and says, “Hey. You’re from Placetas, right?” Antúnez confirms it. “Are you Antúnez?”

A wide smile comes over the man’s face and he proudly shakes Antúnez’s hand. He’s been in the States since his parents sent him here in Operation Pedro Pan in the ‘60s. As we walk away from the park, the fan rushes to tell his buddies what they’d missed while their heads were buried in dominoes.

Things are going to get better

Diddier hasn’t moved to the U.S. permanently, either. He’s still living in Cuba. Just taking long trips to the States, making sure not to exceed the two-year limit that the Cuban government set on travel abroad when it started allowing more citizens to venture away from the island (one of the few real concessions it’s made in the last decade or so).

“I think that, in the long term, [the recent policy changes announced by Obama] will be good for civil society. In the long term,” Diddier said. He pauses a moment as he thinks about what the changes might mean more immediately. “In the short and medium term, I can see how in art or other areas it might be helpful. It might be easier to get support from the U.S. government. I hope that the Cuban government doesn’t set some kind of double standard, where it’s OK for them to benefit financially from openings and not all right for others.”

Antúnez, as you might guess, has his mind pretty well made up on what the new policy means for change in Cuba. He recalls an exchange he had in a Miami shopping center. A woman recognized his face and asked whether he thought things would get better on the island as a result.

“I told her, ‘Yes. They’re getting better for the oppressive regime.’ They’ll have more resources with which to oppress the people,” he said. He leaves no room for confusion about his hard-line position. “There will be increased Internet access for people at government institutions and less for those who oppose them,” he said. “There will be development, but it will be unequal. The beatings, the incarcerations, and the invasions of our homes will continue, because the regime will consider itself to have been vindicated morally and economically.”

“I think the United States is breaking from more than 50 years of a policy of solidarity (with Cuban civil society),” he continued.

For all their differences on U.S. policy, both men seem to agree on at least these key points.

First, the core of the Cuban system of government has got to change. Like the broader Cuban community on and off the island, Antúnez and Diddier have different ideas about how we get there. But they both hope to see a Cuba free from the shackles of communism. Until that’s changed, there will be plenty of hunger for something new in Cuba.

“There are things that need to be rescued, things that need to be replaced,” Diddier said, “and things that need to be eliminated completely from Cuba.”

Second, change in Cuba is primarily the problem of Cubans. It’s not something that can be imported or imposed. In fact, depending too heavily on other governments to help can prove costly.

“If (after Obama) there’s a new U.S. government with another agenda, maybe an embassy opens today and closes tomorrow,” said Diddier. “It’ll be a political game. But that’ll be their problem. We, as a civil society, need to focus on capitalizing on any opportunities we might have.”

Third, Cuban civil society is better off with friends in the United States. And it’s not just about the embargo. For example, Antúnez says it used to be the case that he and others in Cuban civil society could head to the U.S. Interest Section in Havana and present evidence identifying Cuban government operatives who participated in beatings and other repressive activities. That was enough to keep those individuals from being able to obtain permission to travel to the States. That created a strong disincentive for people to participate in so-calledactos de repudio, or acts of repudiation, which are government-organized mobs put together to harass dissidents like Antúnez as they walk down the street or sit in their homes.

Under Obama, he says, his and others’ claims have fallen on deaf ears, and Cubans are more easily tempted to throw stones (often literally) when they know that it won’t hurt their chances of getting out of the country later on.

Finally, they both agree that change is on the way. When and how it arrives is another matter, but they agree that something’s got to (and will) give.

“I won’t leave (Cuba) or be silent because I have faith that change is coming,” Antúnez said. “Maybe I would leave if these were different times, with different possibilities and if I had faith in something else. I’m not interested in being a martyr. I don’t want to die. But I believe that this is my duty and I see a light of liberty at the end of the tunnel.”

We hear over and over that Cuba is “frozen in time.” But to suggest that Cuba’s been unchanged since 1959 misses the point. The island has been falling to pieces for more than half a century. Even people who travel frequently to see family will tell you that they notice the decay getting worse from trip to trip. From the paint peeling off of practically every structure in Havana to the antique cars that Cubans see as necessary evils while tourists (especially Americans) admire them nostalgically from their rented Kias and Peugeots, the country is blanketed in evidence that it’s gone too long under a system that’s effective only insofar as it’s managed to perpetuate itself. That is to say, the only thing that’s “frozen” in Cuba is the Castro regime. The rest of it has been slowly melting away.

Someday, we’ll all be able to travel to Cuba and exchange freely with everyone from our cab drivers to rappers to activists and bloggers—even independent tobacconists and cigar makers. For now, though, we’re still dealing with the same Castros, and they’ve made it pretty clear they’re not OK with that sort of thing. Here’s hoping that light at the end of Antúnez’s tunnel gets brighter in a hurry.


Nicolás Antonio Jiménez is the senior editor of Cigar Snob Magazine.

Email him at NJimenez@CigarSnobMag.com or connect with him onTwitter or Instagram.