TAMPA — You might call it cigar diplomacy.
When relations between the United States and Spain were at a low point in the 1920s after the U.S. had backed Cuba’s successful fight for independence and won the Spanish-American War, a wealthy civic leader who founded Tampa’s famed Cuesta-Rey cigar label was called upon to help mend the rift.
So successful was Angel Cuesta that last week, representatives from Spain visited Tampa to walk in his footsteps and lay flowers at his grave to mark the 90th anniversary of the Cuesta delegation.
“Angel Cuesta was a symbol of Spain and the U.S.A. when he led that group,” said Román Antonio Álvarez González, the commissioner of culture in the Spanish city of Aviles. “That visit improved relations between our countries. It was because of Angel Cuesta.”
Cuesta also is revered in Spain for helping charitable causes there and establishing the country’s first Rotary Clubs.
As they discussed what the trip to Tampa meant to them, some of the visiting Spaniards broke down in tears during a lunch at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. When they met Cuesta’s great-granddaughter, Ann Von Thron, they embraced her as though she were family.
The Tampa tour Wednesday included the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory, which has owned the Cuesta-Rey brand since 1959, Cuesta’s grave in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, the house where he lived at 901 S. Willow Ave., and the former location of his West Tampa cigar factory at Beach Street and Howard Avenue.
The next day, the group visited St. Augustine — the city that sent the Cuesta delegation to Spain.
“Things were not always good between Spain and the U.S.A.,” Álvarez González said. “It was not easy to talk or walk for relations between Spain and the U.S.A. I get emotional when I talk of Angel Cuesta because he had the courage to do something good.”
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Born in Asturias, Spain, in 1858, Cuesta moved to Havana in 1873 and apprenticed as a cigar maker.
His work as a cigar roller took him to Key West and New York, and in 1884 he opened his first small factory in Atlanta.
Cuesta moved to Tampa in 1893 and set up a small factory in Port Tampa. His operation expanded two years later when he partnered with Peregrino Rey to form Cuesta-Rey & Co. The company gained international fame and helped turn Tampa into the cigar capital of the world.
At the industry’s peak in Tampa, more than 10,000 people worked in more than 200 factories producing up to half a billion cigars a year.
Cuesta-Rey was one of the largest, employing more 500 in the West Tampa factory and another 500 between two smaller factories — one in Jacksonville and one in Havana.
Across the street from the West Tampa factory, Cuesta and Rey later erected the Atlanta Restaurant, named for the city where Cuesta launched his first cigar business. It often was used to host lavish parties for his cigar makers.
“Angel Cuesta was the most prominent of all the cigar manufacturers in West Tampa,” said retired Judge E.J. Salcines, a student of relations between Tampa and Spain who helped guide the Spanish delegation during its visit. “When he would walk into a room hosting a gathering of the other factory owners, they all stood up in respect. He made a lot of money. But he also did a lot of good with that money.”
In Tampa, Cuesta funded the Centro Español social club’s hospital and donated to a number of schools.
He also built schools and wells in villages in the mountains of Asturias, Salcines said, and when the king of Spain learned of this Spaniard who remembered his native land even as he made his fortune in the U.S., he honored him by naming Cuesta-Rey the official cigar of the royal family in 1915.
Other historians, however, claim Cuesta-Rey earned that distinction solely through the quality of his product. He sent cigars to King Alfonso XI and cigarettes to Spanish troops fighting in Morocco at the time.
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Afterward, Cuesta and the king became friends. It was with the royal blessing that Cuesta went on to establish the first Rotary Clubs in Spain.
Rotary, founded in Chicago in 1905, is a business-networking and public service organization with 1.2 million members in 32,000 clubs worldwide.
Tampa’s club was founded in 1914, and Cuesta joined a few months afterward. Impressed with the concept, Cuesta traveled to Cuba to set up Rotary Clubs on behalf of Tampa’s chapter.
“These were the first Rotary Clubs in non-English speaking nations,” Salcines said.
Havana’s was the initial club, founded in 1916. The Rotary Club of Cienfuegos came a few years later.
Next came Spain — Madrid’s Rotary Club in 1920, Barcelona’s in 1922 and Santander’s in 1926.
He led the delegation to heal the rift between the U.S. and Spain in 1924.
“He was the natural choice to lead that group to Spain to improve relations,” said Eric Newman, president of the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. “He was as loved in the U.S. as he was in Spain.”
St. Augustine was invited to send a delegation to Aviles to take part in a ceremony honoring Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the Spanish explorer who founded the northeastern Florida city in 1565. Seeing an opportunity to improve relations with Spain, Florida Gov. Cary A. Hardee appointed nine commissioners to represent the state — led by Cuestas.
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According to the archives of the St. Augustine Historical Society, the delegation included Alexander Moore, a Pittsburgh newspaper publisher who was serving at the time as U.S. ambassador to Spain.
The delegation arrived in early August. The members took part in a procession of the explorer’s remains to a new burial site, attended the annual royal summer ball, and attended a royal luncheon as guests of honor.
Politics were not formally discussed. But the celebrations by representatives of the two nations reminded them that past differences should not become permanent.
“That was the beginning of very friendly relations between our countries,” said Álvarez González, the cultural consul from Aviles. “Today, because of Angel Cuesta, we are good friends.”
When Cuesta died at 77 in 1936, Tampa’s cigar factories closed for the day.
“That was unheard of in that era,” Newman said. “That alone tells you how special he was.
Cuesta’s sons, Karl and Anch, took over the business but sold it to the Newman family when their children chose to pursue interests other than cigars. The Newmans moved all Cuesta-Rey rolling operations into their Ybor City factory, now Tampa’s only cigar factory.
“Angel Cuesta was an amazing man with an amazing story,” Newman said. “The Rotary’s purpose is to bring people together across the world. Well, it would be hard to find many Rotarians who did it on as grand a scale as Angel Cuesta.”