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Cuban cigars, American politics

It is the summer of our discontent. Two separate announcements - a left hook followed by a right uppercut - have walloped Tampa's once vaunted cigar industry.

Congress has imposed steep sin taxes on tobacco products, and in June, Hav-A-Tampa announced it was shutting down its last factory. Only the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. remains in what was once the cigar-making capital of America.

"The cigar industry is to this city what the iron industry is to Pittsburgh," boasted the Tampa Morning Tribune in 1897. Tampa's prosperity rested upon "the smokeless city of smokes," as highly skilled artisans rolled millions of cigars each year. In street corner shops across urban America, boxes of Tampa Beauties, Tampa Times and Tampa Nuggets became a fixture.

Man versus the machine

The demand for premium Tampa cigars seemed inexhaustible between the 1880s and late 1920s. America's middle classes expanded exponentially during this era, and a middle-class banker or lawyer signified his status with a Tampa-made cigar. In 1909, the Tampa Tribune sneered that not even a new federal tax on cigars could slow down the demand for panatelas and coronas.

"What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar!" Woodrow Wilson's forgettable vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, proclaimed. The Indiana politician was complaining that tabaqueros in Tampa were producing more expensive and more popular hand-rolled cigars than machine-made cigars in Philadelphia or Fort Wayne.

Politicians, physicians and rivals all took aim at Tampa cigars. During World War I, a "smokes for soldiers" campaign sent Bull Durhams to doughboys, resulting in dramatic gains for American cigarette companies. At the same time, newspapers began to report that Cuban immigrants used spit to seal the tips of cigars.

After the war, the Great Depression devastated Tampa's cigar industry. Many cash-strapped consumers surrendered their beloved cigars for cheaper - and more addictive - cigarettes. The industry never recovered.

In 1931, local manufacturers blamed their economic woes on the exalted lectores, men who read popular novels to crowds of workers. A bitter strike ensued, resulting in the removal of the beloved readers. Lectores may have been lightning rods, but their absence failed to restore sales. Poetically, the radio began replacing the reader precisely at the time that machines began to replace the skilled cigar roller.

The cigar industry received a temporary boost during World War II, but the federal and state governments imposed taxes to raise money.

International intrigue

Peace and prosperity did not restore Tampa's reputation. Ybor City, home to increasing numbers of elderly and unskilled workers, went into a period of steep decline. A 1947 Tribune headline, "3000 Jobless Cigar Workers," typified the era.

Between the late 1940s and 1960s, when the U.S. surgeon general linked smoking to cancer, scores of Tampa cigar factories shut down or moved to Pennsylvania. What politics and consumption failed to dislodge, interstate highways and urban renewal completed, destroying scores of historic brick and wooden factories.

The cedar cigar box with its "Made in Tampa" products was becoming as obsolete as a cigar store Indian.

One story perfectly encapsulates the plight of the local cigar manufacturer. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy summoned his press secretary, Pierre Salinger.

"Pierre, I need some help. I need a lot of cigars," the president said.

"How many, Mr. President?" Salinger asked.

"About a thousand Petit Upmanns." And he needed them by the next morning.

The next day, an exhausted Salinger presented the beaming president with boxes of the prized Cuban-made cigars. Promptly, the president reached into his desk and signed the Cuban Embargo, making it illegal to purchase such cigars.

Even worse, the embargo cut off the supply of Cuban tobacco essential for Tampa's cigar industry. Salinger later said, "We tried to exempt cigars, but the cigar manufacturers in Tampa objected."

Tampa's cigar industry still employed 6,000 people as late as 1962. Old Tampa cigar families such as the Fuentes scrambled to find a suitable substitute for Cuban tobacco, smuggling Cuban tobacco seeds into the Dominican Republic or Honduras.

When this author interviewed an elderly woman leaving the soon-to-be closed Perfect-Garcia factory in 1982, she remarked, "We're the last of the Mohicans!"

Source: Tampa Tribune