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A career of cigar smoke and determination

ESTELI, Nicaragua Jose Orlando Padron, who believes that cigar smoke brings him luck, has puffed his way through some challenging situations over the years.

As a young man he smoked his way from Cuba, where his family grew tobacco in the prime Pinar del Rio region, to a life in exile in Miami. Most of the land where his grandfather began growing tobacco in the late 1800s, and where his father continued the tradition, was nationalized by Fidel Castro's government shortly after the revolution that brought it to power in 1959.

In Miami, Padron smoked through a series of odd jobs, raising enough money to start a small cigar company of his own. Padron Cigars, in the city's Little Havana district, began in 1964 with a single employee rolling cigars. Back then Padron would sell the day's production for about 30 cents apiece to fellow Cuban exiles.

Growing the company has not been easy. His buildings have been bombed and burned in political disputes in which he says he never took part.

His crops in Nicaragua have been wiped out by hurricanes. On top of that, a Reagan-era trade embargo on Nicaragua blocked him from selling what he grew.

"Still, I think I'm lucky," he said, estimating this year's production at 5.5 million cigars.

Padron's company has grown steadily over the years, as has its reputation. Industry experts regularly give his full- bodied cigars some of their highest ratings. In Cigar Aficionado magazine's latest ranking of the 25 best cigars in the world, the Padron 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo was No.3, behind a Dominican and a Cuban.

"It teems with flavor from the first puff, and the carefully cured tobaccos remain tasty and elegant until the very last," the magazine said of Padron's offering.

Padron is credited with helping to put Nicaragua on the map when it comes to tobacco. With the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba restricting access to its cigars, the search for other quality locales has been fierce.

After the revolution in Cuba, most big producers shifted operations to the Dominican Republic, but Padron swears by Central America, where he says the conditions are most similar to those in Cuba. Eleven of Cigar Aficionado's top 25 cigars now use at least some Nicaraguan tobacco.

Padron, 80, began working on his father's tobacco farm at the age of 7 and is still a hands-on manager a lifetime later. He now shuttles between Miami and Managua and is a near-constant presence on the factory floor, plucking bad leaves off the table and leaving a trail of smoke behind him.

"Don't even talk about life without cigars," said Padron, who speaks in rapid- fire Spanish and sticks his nose into tobacco leaves to take in the pungent scent as some might smell a rose.

In the 1970s, Padron began growing tobacco derived from Cuban seed in Nicaragua's fertile Esteli region. It seemed an ideal locale, with a climate resembling that of Cuba and rich, tobacco- friendly soil. But politics interfered.

In 1978, as Sandinista revolutionaries battled the longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza, Padron was regarded by some as sympathetic to the strongman. His Nicaraguan factory was burned.

Still, he kept smoking, and eventually he was back producing cigars in this country. To do so, he had to meet with the local comandante, or commander, and make the case that he was employing hundreds of Nicaraguans and not meddling in politics.

The crises did not let up. In 1979, he and other Cuban exiles went back to Cuba to negotiate the release of political prisoners. In a meeting with Castro, Padron was photographed handing the leader one of his cigars, which riled some of Miami's anti-Castro hard-liners so much that they repeatedly put bombs in his factory in the ensuing years.

"The picture was in the paper and, bang, people were saying, 'Padron is a Communist,'" he said. A group called Omega 7 claimed responsibility for the attacks, which backfired in the long run. Many in Miami sympathized with him and bought more of his cigars. Padron posted this quotation from Jose Marti, the 19th-century poet and fighter for Cuban independence, on his factory wall: "Men are divided into two groups - those that love and build, and those that hate and destroy."

In 1985, the Reagan administration imposed a trade embargo on Nicaragua, which effectively ended Padron's ability to get his Nicaraguan cigars to his U.S. customers. "I got hit again," he said.

He hustled some bales of tobacco out of the country to continue producing for a while, then opened an operation across the border in Honduras. But when the embargo was lifted in 1990, he was back in Nicaragua. "I'm a survivor," he said.

The challenges he faces these days seem small in comparison.

There is the Nicaraguan government's recent decision to restrict the harvesting of local cedar, which he uses to make cigar boxes. Counterfeit Padrons have also begun appearing on the market, prompting him to put an advertisement in a local newspaper warning customers about imitations and to put a special band bearing a serial number on each of his super premium cigars, which cost as much as $25 apiece.

Padron scoffs at the health notices he is now required to put on the boxes warning that cigars carry the same cancer risks as cigarettes. "The cigar doesn't hurt you," he said.

Padron shares the running of the business with his family - Jorge, Orlando, Rodolfo, Lisette and Elizabeth Padron. Confident of the company's future leadership, he is nonetheless bracing for the unexpected.

"A businessman has to be thinking all the time, dealing with problems," he said, puffing away. "I do it best when I'm smoking."

One of his worries is the Nicaraguan presidential election of Nov. 5, in which Daniel Ortega, a former president and leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, stands a chance of winning again. Padron has learned enough not to side with any of the candidates, but he is worried that trade relations with the United States may suffer if Ortega wins.

As for returning to Cuba one day if the trade embargo there is lifted, Padron said he would leave that decision for the next generation.

"I'll be in a box by then," he said, sending out a billow of smoke.

Source: International Herald Tribune