Greed, Fraud, Fear – José Gener’s La Escepción
Text: Claudia Puszkar / Photos: Claudia Puszkar, SZ-Druck, Germany
He would literally stop at nothing, and no one could come between him and his pursuit of money and success. His magnificent factory is still an impressive sight – José Gener's La Escepción.
Although the best tobacco in Cuba comes from the Vuelta Abajo in the Pinar del Rio region, the best cigars have always been rolled in the capital. As early as the mid-19th century, the Havana cigar had become a status symbol around the globe, with several hundred million cigars being exported each year. This series will present the places where they were made. Perhaps one or other reader might be interested in looking at them on a visit to the Cuban capital, since many of these factories are to be found in the heart of the capital, either in the old town (Habana Vieja) or the adjoining Centro Habana district.
The trail of the cigar brands is both exciting and interesting, with their history coming to life before the visitors’ eyes once you know where to look. The buildings, some of which still today retain their magnificence and where often several hundred torcedores would make cigars for the whole world, bear silent testimony to the eventful times of the past. Let us begin with a factory whose owner went down in history as someone who was only interested in success and would literally stop at no-thing: José Gener y Batet and his La Escepción factory. Incidentally, the brand under this name no longer exists in Cuba, nor does the José Gener brand, although at the time they were both amongst the most important. All that has remained of this company is the Hoyo de Monterrey.
The Capitolio in the background
The former La Escepción factory is today still an impressive building. However, its size and beauty can only be realised from the other side of the street. If, on the other hand, you walk directly under the arcades along the house wall, the facade looks just like one of many others in Havana – seriously affected by progressive decay. Gener had the building constructed in 1882 and with a little imagination you can make out the date on the left-hand door post under the name José Gener. The year before, a large fire had destroyed the previous factory a few buildings further down the same street. Gener immediately began to build this palace on Calle Maximo Gomez, at the corner to Calle Agramonte and only a few minutes' walk from the Capitolio. If you stand in front of the main entrance to the Capitolio, turn left towards the Fuente de la India, the magnificent fountain made of shining white Carrara marble, and cross Calle Maximo Gomez. Calle Agramonte (formerly Zulueta), one street fur-ther down, is where you will find the former factory on the right-hand side, occupying almost an entire block.
A palace in full splendour
The visually impressive building has four storeys, in contrast to the two or three floors of most houses in this district. The large windows on the upper storeys are decorated with finely worked wrought-iron balcony grilles. The building, relatively well preserved for Cuban conditions, today houses the “Unidad de Propaganda Grafica Nacional”, whose reception staff unfortunately do not permit visits of the interior of the building. This is a pity, since the staircase alone promises many more interesting details. From the huge solid wooden entrance door, the two sides of which are fitted with typical door posts, you can snatch a glimpse of a magnificent staircase decorated with flowers with heavy cast-iron banisters. The combination with the revolutionary picture above, which is only a few decades old, appears very daring but is typical of the interior architecture of post-revolutionary Cuba.
La Escepción, the brand after which the factory was named, has fallen almost completely into oblivion (except in the USA). In contrast, the name José Gener is well known worldwide to the fans of the Hoyo de Monterrey brand. José Gener was an unusual man surrounded by many legends and the occasional gruesome tale. Thus for instance the name of the Escepción brand is actually misspelt. In Spanish, the s should be replaced by an x. When one of his employees dared to point this out to him, the poor fellow was thrown out of the office with a roar, a mighty slam of the door that almost hit him and a shock that he never forgot as long as he lived. And Gener no doubt treated all his employees in the same way.
José Gener came to Cuba as a 13-year-old Catalan immigrant in 1831, and was hardly able to read or write. The entire family soon acquired the esteem and respect of the locals, since they worked hard and were honest in their dealings with others. But there has to be a black sheep in every family, someone who combines a whole series of negative and unpleasant characteristics in one person. José Gener made up for his lack of education with a commanding, at times formidable presence. He had no respect for others and pursued his goal regardless of anyone else.
Deceit and fraud
In 1851 he borrowed money from his uncle, a successful cigar maker, claiming that he wanted to cultivate and sell tobacco. But Gener was more than ungrateful for this willingness to help. Even then, he was accused of using deceitful methods and financial scheming to acquire possession of a number of very good plantations in Vuelta Abajo. These also included the Hoyo de Monterrey plantation, home to one of the best tobaccos in the world and the origin of the brand name.
With the sure-fire instinct of a bloodhound, Gener had realised that it was more profitable to make cigars than to sell raw tobacco. Since he obviously had no desire to build a factory himself, he preferred to make use of what was under his nose. His plan was to bring the entire family business into his hands. In 1867 he succeeded in forcing the very uncle who had helped him financially out of the business, literally throwing him out onto the street. But that was not enough. In 1870, forged papers emerged that stated that all Gener’s family members in the enterprise were simple employees without any ownership rights. With the money of his wife, who came from a wealthy family, he was able to advance his business even further. Personally, José Gener was not a pleasant man. His roughness to others affected everyone. The factory workers experienced his manner day and night, and an atmosphere of fear prevailed in the factory as long as he lived. Trainees, for instance, who did not do their work perfectly were locked into a room of the factory overnight. When a fire broke out one night, two of them burned to death, since nobody could hear their screams. José Gener died in 1900. Many claim that he wanted to return to Spain before he died, since he could not bear the idea of the Creole natives acquiring independence. There is a newspaper report about the burial of the Habanero José Gener y Batet, during which his employees gave vent to their anger by throwing dead cats, rats and dogs at the funeral procession from the surrounding roof terraces. Whether this is true or not, Gener certainly does not appear to have been popular.
Winston Churchill in person
However impressive and extravagant a man he might have been, José Gener’s death did not affect the brand’s reputation and success. To begin with, his widow continued the business. The factory was one of the few that managed to retain its autonomy after the War of Independence and was not, like many others, acquired by American or British companies because they were financially ruined. In the 1930s, Fernando Palacio Argüelles acquired, amongst other businesses, the La Escepción factory and its brands. World-famous brands such as La Belinda or Punch, particularly popular on the British market, were rolled here from then on. In 1941, Winston Churchill could not miss the opportunity of coming and inspecting the place where his favourite cigars were made. Following Castro’s revolution, the factory was first of all nationalised, then closed down and subsequently used as a warehouse and office building.