Hecho en Miami

They look, smell and smoke like Cubans. So why not sell 'em that way?

Juan Penton stands amid the debris of his ruined shop, seething with anger. Hunks of ceiling are strewn about the floor, deck chairs lie turned on end, and piles of furniture rot in the corners. The air reeks of mold, and the dust has grown so thick that Penton's feet kick up small, swirling clouds as he walks. His rage is almost palpable. It seems to grow with each step.

Penton, 44 years old, is burly, with a round, nearly bald head, and a chubby, handsome face. His neat shorts and good silk shirt belie hands that are calloused and scarred from ten years of woodworking. He has the muscled arms and legs of a man who has labored his entire life. Opening a small door towards the back, Penton steps inside a small, crumbling room. "The humidor," he says, gesturing towards a wall where plastic-wrapped bricks of cigars are strewn across shelves and messily heaped inside a few cardboard boxes.

"They're all ruined, all of them," he mutters disgustedly, picking up a bundle, squeezing it, and watching the soggy cigars bend in his grip. There are a few hundred bundles in various stages of decay. "This is nothing," Penton adds dismissively. "This whole room was full."

Antonia Penton Figueroa says her husband's ongonig fight with Altadis is putting a strain on their family life
Jacqueline Carini
Antonia Penton Figueroa says her husband's ongonig fight with Altadis is putting a strain on their family life
Over six months, Penton's warehouse caught fire, got hit by a hurricane, and was raided by Miami-Dade Police
Jacqueline Carini
Over six months, Penton's warehouse caught fire, got hit by a hurricane, and was raided by Miami-Dade Police

He closes the door to the broken humidor — needlessly — and proceeds reluctantly into the south part of the warehouse. It is cavernous; mounds of cut cedar seem to stretch forever in the gloom. The whole room, Penton explains glumly, was for five years devoted to the making of cigar boxes: Here are precut sides, there are long stacks of the wooden sheets from which he made the tops and bottoms. Lying in a moldy pile on one table are the little green garantías, bills of authenticity that Penton included with each empty case.

But only one box in the room interests him now. Ignoring the others, Penton bends down and picks up a single case that bears on its lid the unmistakable image of a fiery Fidel brandishing a cigar. Inscribed in black letters beneath the figure is the brand's name, "El Dictador," with an epigram below it, reading, "Mas de 40 años de dictadura, robando, encarcelando, y asesinando al pueblo de Cuba." ("More than 40 years of dictatorship, robbing, incarcerating, and assassinating the people of Cuba.") Penton grins.

It's his own brand. For years his dream was to produce and market El Dictadors. He claims the cigar would have sold like crazy, especially in Miami. "Even the police loved it," he says, his smile widening. "They were all admiring the boxes."

It was a costly dream: Penton's wife quit her job as a dental assistant to help him with his business, while he poured his life's savings into El Dictador cigars. But on December 15, 2005, Penton's plans were summarily crushed: Miami-Dade police raided his warehouse on East Tenth Court in Hialeah, arresting and charging him with two counts of trafficking in counterfeit goods. Three months later Penton and four others were federally indicted, busted in the single biggest and most bizarre campaign against cigar counterfeiters in Miami history. Operation Smoke Ring, as it was dubbed, brought together a lottery-winning counterfeiter turned snitch, an undercover cop, a U.S. Attorney, and the Miami-Dade Police Department working hand in hand — or hand in purse — with Altadis U.S.A. — the richest, most powerful cigar conglomerate in the world.

On December 21, 2006, after an eight-day jury trial, U.S. District Court Judge Federico A. Moreno sentenced Penton to five years' probation and five months' house arrest. But the Hialeah man maintains his innocence and is appealing. He is convinced that he was set up, and that behind Altadis lurks an older, even more powerful enemy. "Fidel Castro," he says with an anger he's cultivated throughout his entire life, "Altadis is Fidel."

The history of Cuban cigars is steeped in intrigue, blood, global politics, and greed. Wrapped in pungent leaves of tobacco is the story of the island herself. Cigars represent the richness of the soil, the fortitude of the people, the hope of the beleaguered economy — all rolled into a single perfect thing.

Cuba's love affair with cigars dates back at least a couple thousand years. When Columbus and his sailors landed in the Caribbean, they found the indigenous Tainos smoking dried tobacco rolled up in plantain leaves. The explorer took some back with him to Europe.

In the years that followed that voyage, Europeans settled the island. And, busy as they were decimating the Indians, they found time to acquire a voracious appetite for tobacco. A new industry was born: The first manufactured cigars were produced in the Seventeenth Century in Spain, using Cuban tobacco. But the leaves lost flavor when they traveled; a century later cigar production took off on the island itself.

Shortly after the revolution, Castro took over Cuba's cigar factories, nationalizing the industry and driving out many of the tobacco barons, who left and started new factories in Miami. At first Miami tabacaleros imported leaves from the motherland. But on February 7, 1962, President Kennedy announced an embargo on trade with the island. (Legend has it that days before the takeover, he put in a massive cigar order.) We were, it seemed, cut off forever.

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