Enrique Mons: Tobacco farmer who fought alongside Castro at the Bay of Pigs and went on to lead Cuba’s state-run cigar industry

 

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The Independent Online

Originally a tobacco farmer, Enrique Mons became perhaps Cuba’s greatest connoisseur and retailer of the island’s famous Habanos, or Havana cigars, and was for many years in charge of quality control for the state-run cigar company Cubatabaco.

Given the global reputation of Havana cigars, and their importance to the economy, it was a key job under the communist Fidel Castro regime.

Castro personally approved Mons opening Cuba’s first La Casa del Habano [House of the Havana Cigar] in 1989. There are now at least nine such stores in Havana alone and some 150 around the world with franchises from Cuba to sell pure habanos – from Cohibas and Montecristos to Romeo and Juliet and Partagas. (One of the latest is in Teddington, west London, run by owner Ajay Patel, the only official Casa del Habano in the UK and now itself with an international reputation among cigar experts and tourists.)

In recent years, Mons was best-known by cigar aficionados worldwide for his Casa del Habano walk-in humidor, bar and “sampling lounge” in the upmarket Club Habana on the capital’s seafront, formerly the swish Biltmore Yacht and Country Club in the pre-Castro days. In the shop you can watch cigars rolled to measure, including the Monsdale brand named after him, though not rolled on the bare thighs of beaming young Cuban women as per popular myth: they were usually put together, thighlessly, by Mons’s long-time roller Jorge Lopez, himself a cigar legend in Havana.

As a teenager Mons fought alongside Fidel Castro’s forces during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed-and-trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles in April 1961. Led by Castro, the Cuban revolutionaries routed the 1,500-man would-be invasion force within three days. It was an attack which pushed Castro towards anti-Americanism and communism, leading within months to the Cuban missile crisis which kept the world on edge.

Mons later joined several of Castro’s “internationalist missions” to Ethiopia and Angola, in the latter with Che Guevara, an attempt to spread the Cuban revolution and Marxism-Leninism to Africa. Back in Cuba, Mons, Castro and Guevara often shared Habanos together in the expropriated Biltmore Yacht and Country Club where Hollywood stars had ruled the roost before the revolution.

For the past 18 years cigar lovers, who call themselves Habanophiles, flocked to Mons’s shop and lounge, one of what is now a chain of La Casa del Habano (LCDH), a major income-earner for Cuba, where Mons held court and shared his expertise with cigar-loving tourists until shortly before his death. 

Havana cigars are illegal in the US under the trade embargo first imposed by John F Kennedy in 1962 but can readily be found, albeit at inflated prices of up to hundreds of dollars each, on the black market or in upmarket US hotels, restaurants or casinos. President Kennedy himself was a fan. The night before he signed the 1962 Cuban trade embargo he reportedly ordered his press chief and fellow cigar-smoker Pierre Salinger to find him 1,000 Havana cigars from Washington DC outlets. Salinger showed up in the morning with 1,200.

Aware of Fidel Castro’s love for cigars (before he was forced to give them up for health reasons), the CIA famously tried to kill him with an exploding one. One rumour was that Castro recognised it was not as tightly-rolled as a pure Havana.

Enrique Mons was born in 1942 to a tobacco-farming family in Pinar del Rio, towards the western tip of Cuba. He spent most of his childhood as a roller or tobacco selector on the farm before seeking a better life in Havana. There, he started as a roller at factories Castro had taken over from the big American companies and given them new, revolutionary names. One such was the Heroes del Moncada factory, named after Castro’s failed 26 July 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks of the Batista dictatorship, the spark of the revolution. 

In 1971 Castro appointed him quality control director of Cubatabaco, which controlled all brands of Cuban-produced cigars, usually considered the best in the world. Mons remained in the key post for 18 years until Castro asked him to set up the first tourist-oriented La Casa del Habano, on Havana’s Quinta Avenida [Fifth Street]. The shop was an immediate success, and in 1999 Mons opened the second, now-famous branch in the Club Habana, in the Miramar district, where he remained until recently hit by ill-health.

The shop became a cigar smoker’s Wonderland, with two cigar-rolling stations, a walk-in humidor, thick black Cuban coffee in miniature cups and a bar serving the finest scotch or brandy (cuba libres or mojitos are considered rather gross when smoking a “stick”). Walking into the shop to be welcomed by a stunning Cuban woman in a polka dot dress puffing on a massive Montecristo was the passport to wood-panelling, stained glass windows, bright Cuban art and leather chairs that would put London men’s clubs to shame. 

Mons created a cigar to suit his own smoking time. It was based on the size (length and ring gauge) known as Lonsdale, named after Hugh Cecil Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale, who also gave his name to the Lonsdale belt in boxing. Mons’ new creation became known as a Monsdale, with a “pigtail cap”, and remains coveted worldwide. When doctors told him to smoke fewer cigars, he did – by rolling bigger ones. He is survived by his wife Josefina and four children. µGiven the global reputation of Havana cigars, and their importance to the economy, it was a key job under the communist Fidel Castro regime.

Castro personally approved Mons opening Cuba’s first La Casa del Habano [House of the Havana Cigar] in 1989. There are now at least nine such stores in Havana alone and some 150 around the world with franchises from Cuba to sell pure habanos – from Cohibas and Montecristos to Romeo and Juliet and Partagas. (One of the latest is in Teddington, west London, run by owner Ajay Patel, the only official Casa del Habano in the UK and now itself with an international reputation among cigar experts and tourists.)

In recent years, Mons was best-known by cigar aficionados worldwide for his Casa del Habano walk-in humidor, bar and “sampling lounge” in the upmarket Club Habana on the capital’s seafront, formerly the swish Biltmore Yacht and Country Club in the pre-Castro days. In the shop you can watch cigars rolled to measure, including the Monsdale brand named after him, though not rolled on the bare thighs of beaming young Cuban women as per popular myth: they were usually put together, thighlessly, by Mons’s long-time roller Jorge Lopez, himself a cigar legend in Havana.

As a teenager Mons fought alongside Fidel Castro’s forces during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed-and-trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles in April 1961. Led by Castro, the Cuban revolutionaries routed the 1,500-man would-be invasion force within three days. It was an attack which pushed Castro towards anti-Americanism and communism, leading within months to the Cuban missile crisis which kept the world on edge.

Mons later joined several of Castro’s “internationalist missions” to Ethiopia and Angola, in the latter with Che Guevara, an attempt to spread the Cuban revolution and Marxism-Leninism to Africa. Back in Cuba, Mons, Castro and Guevara often shared Habanos together in the expropriated Biltmore Yacht and Country Club where Hollywood stars had ruled the roost before the revolution.

For the past 18 years cigar lovers, who call themselves Habanophiles, flocked to Mons’s shop and lounge, one of what is now a chain of La Casa del Habano (LCDH), a major income-earner for Cuba, where Mons held court and shared his expertise with cigar-loving tourists until shortly before his death. 

Havana cigars are illegal in the US under the trade embargo first imposed by John F Kennedy in 1962 but can readily be found, albeit at inflated prices of up to hundreds of dollars each, on the black market or in upmarket US hotels, restaurants or casinos. President Kennedy himself was a fan. The night before he signed the 1962 Cuban trade embargo he reportedly ordered his press chief and fellow cigar-smoker Pierre Salinger to find him 1,000 Havana cigars from Washington DC outlets. Salinger showed up in the morning with 1,200.

Aware of Fidel Castro’s love for cigars (before he was forced to give them up for health reasons), the CIA famously tried to kill him with an exploding one. One rumour was that Castro recognised it was not as tightly-rolled as a pure Havana.

Enrique Mons was born in 1942 to a tobacco-farming family in Pinar del Rio, towards the western tip of Cuba. He spent most of his childhood as a roller or tobacco selector on the farm before seeking a better life in Havana. There, he started as a roller at factories Castro had taken over from the big American companies and given them new, revolutionary names. One such was the Heroes del Moncada factory, named after Castro’s failed 26 July 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks of the Batista dictatorship, the spark of the revolution. 

In 1971 Castro appointed him quality control director of Cubatabaco, which controlled all brands of Cuban-produced cigars, usually considered the best in the world. Mons remained in the key post for 18 years until Castro asked him to set up the first tourist-oriented La Casa del Habano, on Havana’s Quinta Avenida [Fifth Street]. The shop was an immediate success, and in 1999 Mons opened the second, now-famous branch in the Club Habana, in the Miramar district, where he remained until recently hit by ill-health.

The shop became a cigar smoker’s Wonderland, with two cigar-rolling stations, a walk-in humidor, thick black Cuban coffee in miniature cups and a bar serving the finest scotch or brandy (cuba libres or mojitos are considered rather gross when smoking a “stick”). Walking into the shop to be welcomed by a stunning Cuban woman in a polka dot dress puffing on a massive Montecristo was the passport to wood-panelling, stained glass windows, bright Cuban art and leather chairs that would put London men’s clubs to shame. 

Mons created a cigar to suit his own smoking time. It was based on the size (length and ring gauge) known as Lonsdale, named after Hugh Cecil Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale, who also gave his name to the Lonsdale belt in boxing. Mons’ new creation became known as a Monsdale, with a “pigtail cap”, and remains coveted worldwide. When doctors told him to smoke fewer cigars, he did – by rolling bigger ones. He is survived by his wife Josefina and four children.

Enrique Mons, tobacco farmer, cigar expert and retailer: born Pinar del Rio, Cuba 1 August 1942; married Josefina (four children); died Havana 17 March 2014.

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