If you read my articles regularly, you know I love writing about new blenders and cigar makers as well as recent concepts in cigar making. I just returned from Nicaragua where I spent several days with the Plasencia family and it reminded me how some of the oldest families in the business laid the foundation for what the cigar industry is today, despite any new developments in tobacco cultivation and production. Anytime I’m with Nestor Plasencia Sr., I keep a pen and paper within arms reach, as I never know when he’ll start talking about his family’s rich history in tobacco. Hearing his stories is absolutely mesmerizing as they tell a tale of success that came with many hardships and above all else, an unstoppable drive fueled by a passion for premium tobacco.
The Plasencia family is, without a doubt, the single most important family in the cigar industry. Their contributions over many generations have made tobacco what it is today. As the largest growers of Cuban-seed tobacco in the world, it is estimated that 9 out of every 10 cigars sold in the US contains at least one leaf of Plasencia tobacco. Not only does the family own five factories throughout Latin America, they also process about five million pounds of tobacco - all grown on their 3,000 acres of fields. All-in-all, they employ over 6,000 workers and grow dozens of seed varieties in Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama.
The Plasencia story, like most stories of the industry’s oldest families, begins in 1890s Cuba when Eduardo Plasencia immigrated to San Luis Cuba from Spain. His knack for farming and a mounting demand for tobacco during that era made for the perfect recipe of success. With his nephew Sixto Plasencia at his side, the two grew some of the most coveted tobacco in Cuba. It didn’t take long for the Plasencias to earn a terrific reputation, as buyers came from all over the island to purchase their tobacco. They also developed a strong reputation for their honesty and fair business sense. As the years passed, the business was passed down to the third generation, Sixto’s son Sixto Plasencia Jr. While he inherited the business during a time of great prosperity in Cuba (despite periods of political unrest), many challenges laid ahead that would ultimately pave a hard path for generations to come.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Cuba had a bustling economy stemming not only from its agriculture but also from its tourism and other businesses. In fact, during this time, Cuba was often referred to as the “star of the Caribbean” with a per capita wealth which rivaled that of Spain and many other countries. The only thing working against Cuba at the time was the President, Fulgencio Batista, who corruptly took advantage of industry in Cuba for personal gain. As you might imagine, investors, business owners and entrepreneurs in Cuba were eager for a change in leadership. The Plasencias, like most citizens at the time, supported the revolution led by Fidel Castro which brought him to power in 1959. Almost immediately, the Plasencias, like most other prominent families, realized they made a terrible mistake. The Castro regime quickly started nationalizing all of Cuba’s most profitable industries. In October of 1963, the military arrived at the Plasencia family farm and took everything they had - forcing Sixto Plasencia to officially become an employee of the state. It was at this time Sixto knew he needed to get his family out of Cuba, and began working hard to achieve that goal.
After several years of careful planning, Sixto escaped Cuba on May 21st, 1965 with his family, including his 15-year-old son Nestor. While he was just 15 at the time and after speaking with Nestor, it is clear the events of that day are ingrained in his memory. In fact, I called him at 2pm to confirm the date this article would be released, and he told me he remembered looking at the face of his watch in 1965 as he set foot off the island for the first time since Castro took power - his watch read 2pm.