It was a standing-room-only and-then-some crowd at the historic Tampa cigar factory that’s been reinvented as a Scientology Church. A former congressman worked the room, beaming that “freedom is in the air.” National and local reporters and camera crews jostled for position.
As events go, the December 10, 2014, gathering in Tampa’s cigar district, Ybor City, was a smash, with plenty of thundering oratory, tearful reading of poetry and aromatic Cuban food. But the full significance of the gathering would not be apparent until a week later, when President Barack Obama stunned the nation, announcing: “In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between” the United States and Cuba.
While the Ybor City event didn’t cause the president to change decades of rancorous relations with the Communist nation, both actions crested on a wave of historic change regarding Cuba.
In Washington, D.C., and in Havana, the buzz following Obama’s announcement was on ending an embargo that, while ineffective in toppling the Communist regime, has savaged the Cuban economy and made life close to unbearable for many of the island nation’s 12 million citizens.
The talk in Tampa was human rights—continuing a conversation that began in earnest at the event in Ybor City, where the guest of honor was the Rev. Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Baptist pastor in Taguayabon, Cuba. Lleonart Barroso and 16 colleagues—among them other ministers, academics and poets—traveled to Tampa from the island nation to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose words are the clarion call of Lleonart Barroso’s crusade: “… the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief” … and where “freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
Another of Lleonart Barroso’s inspirations is the activism of Cuban patriot José Marti, who delivered a famous speech calling for Cuba’s independence from Spain on the steps of the late-19th century V.M. Ybor Cigar Factory in Tampa—what is now a Scientology Ideal Org (for organization), one of about 40 of the religion’s top-tier churches.
“This is beyond dreams to be here where José Marti was. He is still an inspiration for a free Cuba,” Lleonart Barroso told Paul Guzzo, a reporter for The Tampa Tribune who has written about human rights for Freedom.
Two days later, the pastor was hosted at Flag, Scientology’s spiritual capital in Clearwater, Florida, and was humbled that the religion had made his pilgrimage possible. “[Scientologists] didn’t ask anything of us,” he said. “They offered us the chance to tell the story of human rights in a land where human rights could not be talked about.”
“It was hard to believe that we would meet people as dedicated to human rights as we are,” Lleonart Barroso continued. “But they [the Church of Scientology] are here, in Tampa. It’s something the world should know.”
It is rare to see a photograph of Winston Churchill from the dark days of World War II without a cigar clenched between his teeth. A little-known piece of Americana: where the savior of Britain got his stogies.
“Churchill procured them from Tampa … more particularly the hand-rolled variety from the district of Ybor City,” explains E.J. Salcines, a Tampa native and retired 2nd District Court of Appeal judge.
“The Allied leader liked his cigars large and robust,” Salcines continues, “and each week a supply was shipped from Ybor to the British embassy in Washington, D.C., where the boxes of cigars made their way across the harrowing Atlantic via diplomatic pouch.“
A two-square-mile patch of northwest Tampa links past and present: Ybor City, founded and incorporated into the city of Tampa in the 19th century, largely through the efforts of its namesake, Vicente Martinez-Ybor. Here, Martinez-Ybor established a cigar industry that would become the envy of the world. He paid workers a fair wage, conducted business with integrity, and supported human rights as Cubans battled for freedom against their Spanish masters.
Ybor City is also where the Church of Scientology, responding to the religion’s rapid growth in the region, established its Tampa Ideal Org in March 2011, with a dual purpose: furthering the religious studies of local Church members, and being a catalyst for positive change in the community.
“Since the Tampa Church of Scientology moved into the Ybor Square, and completely renovated it as a tribute to Ybor City and Tampa’s Cuban culture, we’ve grown tremendously,” says Gracia Bennish, the president of United for Human Rights Florida and a Scientologist. With that growth, there has also been our continued activism in the community. Nothing illustrates that better than bringing 17 human rights advocates from Cuba to Ybor City, a place revered by Cubans.”
Widely known as the “Cigar Capital of the World,” Ybor City is much more, and its National Historic Landmark designation only hints at the story of Ybor City and its founder.
Vicente Martinez-Ybor was born in Spain and immigrated to the Spanish colony of Cuba at age 14. In 1856, he started his own cigar company in Havana, building it to produce 20,000 stogies a day.
When Martinez-Ybor’s success and wealth prompted Spanish authorities to make his life more and more troublesome, Ybor relocated to Key West, 90 miles from Cuba. After a fire gutted his cigar operation there, he relocated again—to Tampa, drawn by its inexpensive land and attractive port.
At its busiest and most productive time, circa 1910, Ybor City was a worldwide phenomenon. From an original 100 or so, the number of cigar makers working there grew to around 2,000, with individual factories manufacturing between 1.5 million and 2 million cigars a year.
Non-Cuban immigrants also flocked to Ybor City. Soon, the once-sparse stretch of Florida scrubland was dotted with restaurants, barbershops, taverns and all manner of businesses serving the cigar industry and its workers.
It is a testament to Martinez-Ybor’s commitment to human rights that, even as his cigar business was expanding into an industrial behemoth, he took the time to sponsor an important visitor to the city-within-a-city bearing his name: José Marti.
A Cuban of many passions and pursuits—professor, philosopher, journalist, poet—above all, Marti was a fervent patriot. When he arrived in Tampa, Cuban revolutionaries had accepted a truce in the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), the first of three Cuban wars for independence.
In 1893 Marti gave his famous speech on the steps of Martinez-Ybor’s cigar factory, issuing a rallying cry for freedom that energized the Cuban cause and assured his place in history as Cuba’s ‘Apostle of Liberty.’ Two years later, at age 42, Marti fell, mortally wounded in battle on the soil of his homeland.
By 1898, the United States had joined the fight against Spain, and Tampa was a staging area for the military operations that ultimately gained Cuba’s independence. In 1903, the original Don Ybor cigar factory steps were donated to the Museum of Havana and replaced by a replica and a plaque commemorating Marti and his famous oration—which passed to the care of the Church of Scientology, which now occupies the factory building.
“That plaque on the steps of the old cigar factory had such significance that on the centennial of Marti’s birth in 1953, an image of it became the most popular and valuable postage stamp in all of Cuba,” Salcines says.
Vince Pardo, executive director of the Ybor City Development Corporation, is realistic about the ups and downs the historic Tampa district has experienced over time, but says his heart and soul will forever be in Ybor City. “It’s my old neighborhood,” Pardo says. “My parents moved out, but I kept coming back.“
Pardo is on a mission to make Ybor City—what he calls the “soul of Tampa”—economically viable while preserving its cultural identity. It’s a delicate balancing act, Pardo explains, encouraging economy-stimulating gentrification in such a way that it doesn’t destroy the area’s historical character and culture.
On the Church of Scientology presence in Ybor City, Pardo says, “They have done a beautiful job restoring the Ybor cigar factory. They are good neighbors.”