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A Crisis of Identity: Cuban Cigars
Partagás. Romeo y Julieta. Montecristo. Cohiba.
These are among the most legendary cigar brands ever created. In the United States, the world’s largest premium cigar market, they are primarily known as Dominican cigars; for the rest of the world, however, they are Cuban cigars.
Both Cuban and Dominican versions are certainly good cigars; yet despite their shared names, the cigars contain completely different tobaccos, and offer completely different experiences of body, flavor, and aroma. What gives?
The story of how these and other cigar brands came to exist in both Cuban and non-Cuban versions is inseparably intertwined with Cuba’s own history, as well as that of Central America, the United States and Spain.
Columbus “Discovers” Tobacco
Tobacco was used in the Americas long before Columbus’ arrival. Besides its useful analgesic and curative properties, it served the natives as a sacrament to be smoked in shamanic and other ceremonial contexts, and to consecrate an agreement. In fact, when Columbus arrived, he noted in his journal that “the natives brought fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance.”
Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, crewmembers aboard the Santa María, were among the landing party, and are credited as the first Europeans to observe the smoking of these dried leaves. They described dried tobacco wrapped in leaves of palm or maize, “in the manner of a musket formed of paper.”
De Jerez is believed to have been the first European to smoke tobacco; he subsequently brought the habit back with him to his hometown of Ayamonte. Upon his return to the mainland, however, he was jailed by the Spanish Inquisition, which argued that only the Devil could give a man the power to exhale smoke from his mouth.
Seven years later, he was released. By then, smoking had become enormously popular in Spain and beyond. So it goes.
Birth of the Modern Cigar
With a monopoly on commerce with the New World, Spain became the first European country to commercialize tobacco. Its first tobacco factory was established at the beginning of the 1500s in Seville; it produced snuff, cigarettes wrapped in maize leaves, and primitive cigars that became popular among the lower classes.
By 1531, the Spanish Crown was cultivating tobacco in Santo Domingo; 50 years later, it expanded to Cuba. Cuba’s tobacco proved especially popular for its quality, and by the early 1700s, was being used in the manufacture of modern cigars, as we know them today. In 1717, Spain implemented a tightly-controlled royal monopoly over Cuba’s tobacco production. It is around this time that cigar manufacturing is estimated to have begun in Havana.
By order of the crown, Spanish tobacco production was centralized from numerous factories to Seville’s Real Fábrica de Tabacos, which opened its doors in 1758. It was the second largest building in Spain at the time, eclipsed only by the RoyalPalace, and employed thousands in the manufacture of snuff, modern cigars, cigarettes, and other tobacco products.
Over time, however, labor issues contributed to the decline of quality in Seville’s cigars. Factories employing women exclusively not only created a better product, but because of wage inequality, did so at a lower cost. To complicate matters, Spain’s royal monopoly of Cuban tobacco ended in 1817. With the door for competition flung wide open, Havana would enter to challenge Seville’s longstanding dominance in cigar manufacturing.
Havana: A Star is Born
With lower labor costs and locally-sourced materials, Havana cigars were better and cheaper than those made in Seville and elsewhere. Havana rapidly became synonymous with cigars; distinct subcultures developed among her tobacco farmers, warehouse workers, and factory workers. The first trademark was established in 1834, for the Por Larrañaga brand.
For the next 125 years, Havana’s cigar business would flourish, surviving separatist tensions, the possibility of annexation, three wars, and ultimately Cuba’s independence from Spain. In that time, cigar brands sprouted up like so many flowers in a field. Among them were Partagás, in 1845; Romeo y Julieta, in 1875; and Montecristo, in 1935.
Honorable Intentions vs. Unintended Consequences.
Castro’s Revolution certainly began with honorable intentions. To be sure, President Fulgencio Batista’s regime had become brazenly corrupt. His military coup of 1952 undermined the elections, and it was all downhill from there.
Batista leveraged longstanding crime families in the U.S. for his own personal enrichment, granting them sweetheart contracts that included construction, casinos, resorts, racetracks and more, and taking a piece of the action for himself. Havana became a destination for wealthy Americans; her citizens came to view there Americans with a particularly vile disdain.
All the while, Batista ingratiated himself to Cuba’s wealthy elite, ensuring they became ever richer and the working class ever poorer. He blotted out dissent with iron-fisted censorship of the media, and tasked his Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities with the assault, torture, and public execution of suspected communists and sympathizers. Meanwhile, Havana sank into a pit of mafia-run gambling, drug trafficking, and prostitution rings.
Cuba had been essentially a client state of the United States since winning it’s independence from Spain; her economy was thus almost solely dependent on the United States. As John F. Kennedy noted in 1960: At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40 percent of Cuban sugar lands- almost all the cattle ranches- 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions- 80 percent of the utilities- practically all the oil industry- and supplied two thirds of Cuba’s imports.
As part of the revolutionary effort, Castro effectively leveraged these political and economic tensions, while portraying American-style capitalism as the chief force oppressing the Cuban working class.
On September 15th, 1960, Castro’s government seized an estimated $25 billion in private assets- a figure close to $200 billion in 2012 dollars.
Private businesses were nationalized, granting the state control over the cigar and other industries. Cubatabaco, Cuba’s state tobacco company, was formed in 1962, and assumed control of tobacco production and distribution. Thus robbed of their fields and factories, a generation of cigar makers and brand owners fled the country, taking with them their history, brands, and a pocket full of tobacco seeds.
25 brands remained in Cubatabaco’s portfolio, including Partagas, Romeo y Julieta, and Montecristo. The pre-Revolution, indeed rightful, owners of these brands, however, also maintained their claim of trademark ownership.
A Havana by Any Other
Here’s where the story takes a turn for the convoluted.
Through a series of trademarks, mergers, and acquisitions, the vast majority of “Cuban Heritage” brands produced outside of Cuba are owned by two giant European firms: Swedish Match and Imperial Tobacco Group.
The Partagas brand and factory were established in 1845 by Don Jaime Partagas y Ravelo, a mainland Spaniard who had spent a number of years in the tobacco business. The Cifuentes family acquired the trademark in 1900. The Cifuentes family licensed the Partagas name to General Cigar in 1978, which produced it first in Jamaica, then Santiago, the Dominican, where it’s still made today. General Cigar was acquired by Swedish Match, a deal finalized in 2005.
Romeo y Julieta was originally launched by partners Inocenio Alvares and Mannin Garcia sometime in the 1850s, though the trademark was officially registered in 1873. It won several awards, and was acquired by Jose “Pepin,” Rodriguez Fernandez in 1903.
Thereafter it experienced a tremendous boom among European and America’s wealthy elite, thanks in no small part to Rodriguez’s gimmicky style of self-promotion. Sir Winston Churchill famously preferred Romeo y Julieta, which produced a vitola in his honor.
While still made today in Cuba, a Dominican version is also produced at Tabacalera de Garcia, the Dominican Republic. A trademark for Romeo y Julieta was registered by Lankering Cigar Company in 1976. Hollco-Rohr importers acquired the trademark, and introduced the brand to the American market in 1979. Hollco-Rohr was acquired in 1998 by Spain’s state tobacco monopoly Tabacalera for $53 million. Tabacalera merged with SEITA of France to form Altadis, which was purchased by Imperial Tobacco for $17 billion in 2008.
The Montecristo brand was created in 1935, when Alonso Menendez bought the Partiulares factory in Havana.
A year later, Menendez, Garcia y Cia was formed through a partnership. The brand’s namesake is Alexandre Dumas’ famous The Count of Monte Cristo. The novel was reportedly a favorite of the factory’s cigar rollers, who pooled their money to pay a lector to read books and newspapers aloud for entertainment during the workday. The lector tradition continues in Cuba today.
Following nationalization, Menendez and Garcia fled to the Canary Islands, where they continued to produce the brand. However, due to a trademark dispute with Cubatabaco, they were forced to discontinue manufacturing the brand. Production was moved to La Romana, the Dominican Republic and produced for the United States market. Eventually they sold their brand to Altadis.
Of these brands, Cohiba is by far the youngest. The legend goes that one of Castro’s bodyguards was smoking a cigar in the mid-1960s. Impressed with its aroma, Castro questioned the man on the origin of the cigar.
After learning that a friend of his bodyguard was rolling them personally, he sought out the man and inquired about the blend. Now armed with a recipe, he set up a factory to produce the cigars, which began formal production in 1968. The cigars were produced under tight security for Castro and top government officials, and weren’t marketed for sale to the general public until the early 1980s.
With the United States’ refusal to acknowledge Cuban trademarks, General Cigar was free to trademark and market a competing Cohiba cigar brand in the United States. It did so in 1978, much to the ire of Cubatabaco, introducing its so-called “Red Dot,” Cohiba. It has since released several line extensions, including Cohiba XV, Cohiba Black, and Cohiba Puro Dominicana.
But wait… There’s more.
Complicating matters even further is the fact that in 2000 Altadis, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco Group, purchased a 50% stake in Habanos, S.A., the arm of Cubatabaco that controls the global marketing, distribution, and export of cigars and other tobacco products.
Cohiba itself was the subject of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Cubatabaco in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The court confirmed General Cigar’s exclusive ownership of the Cohiba trademark in the United States in 2005. Cubatabaco’s appeal to the United States Supreme Court was denied, thus finalizing the matter. [The appeal has since been taken up again, with a lower court handing a win to Cubatabaco; an appeal remains unheard by the Supreme Court.]
Here’s the rub
Should the United States ever open up trade with Cuba, there is a possibility that some of her most legendary brands will never see the light of day here.
Altadis, as a stakeholder in Habanos, S.A. has a claim to both the Cuban and non-Cuban versions of Montecristo, H. Upmann, Por Larranaga, Romeo y Julieta, La Corona, Cabanas, and Santa Damiana.
However, in the United States, Altadis’s biggest competitor is General Cigar Company, which in addition to Cohiba, owns and markets the Belinda, Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch, Partagas, Ramon Allones, and Bolivar brands.
With Cubatabaco’s legal options all but exhausted in the United States, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which General would relinquish control of those highly successful cigar brands, nor should it: with the exception of Cohiba, these brands were stolen away from their rightful owners when Castro seized them in the aftermath of the revolution.
Will Habanos, S.A. establish new brand names for those Cuban cigars it cannot legally market in the United States? Will it focus on the brands in can sell? Will it elect not to sell the cigars here at all? Will trade even open? Only time will tell.