Juan Carlos Jiménez: Callawassie Island resident made most of opportunities after fleeing Cuba

Juan Carlos

On April 19, 1960, Juan Carlos Jiménez’s father told the 7-year-old and his 6-year-old sister that they were going on a vacation. 

“It turned out to be a very long vacation,” said the Lowcountry resident, now 64. The trip was really A one-way ticket out of Fidel Castro’s Cuba under the Pedro Pan program. Jiménez and his sister spent the next eight years living in Miami with an aunt as Cuban refugees, eating Spam for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Today, Jiménez is far from that life. He has had a successful career as a marine biologist and professor, and is a cigar manufacturer, University of South Carolina-Beaufort Osher Lifelong Learning Institute lecturer, and the owner of a small business. 

 “One tyrant gone,” Jiménez said with a sigh of the death of Fidel Castro on Nov. 25. “And one more to go. I don’t think people have realized what Castro has done in Cuba, with families broken apart.”

Families like his.

Jiménez was born into a privileged family in Camagüey, Cuba. 

“When I say ‘privileged,’ it is because of hard work,” he said. His father was a businessman and his mother was a writer and hosted her own radio program. Fearing their safety as Castro’s hold over Cuba strengthened, Jiménez’s parents put him and his sister on a plane bound for Miami. It would be eight years before his parents fled Cuba by way of Mexico. After the family was reunited, they moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Jiménez earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology and mathematics, as well as a doctorate in marine sciences at the University of Massachusetts. His career as a scientist and a professor took him all over the world before he and his wife, Isabella, moved to Callawassie Island by way of Arizona in 2012. 

Juan Carlos2

“We said we’d pack our bags and move to the first place we fell in love with,” he said. “We fell in love with the Beaufort area.”

But he had another passion that ignited a different journey: cigars, a product synonymous with Cuba.

“I snuck my first cigar when I was 5,” Jiménez said. “And I haven’t stopped.”

In 1996, he teamed up with his Cuban business partner and founded the boutique cigar factory Juanito’s Cigarros in the Dominican Republic. In September, Jiménez and his wife traveled to Washington, D.C., to be honored as guests and to unveil the Herbert Hoover cigar for the White House Historical Foundation and the George Washington cigar at Mount Vernon.

Like many who move to the Lowcountry after a successful career, Jiménez was ready for the next chapter in his life, which in his case involved combining his passions for teaching, cigars and Spanish and South American wines. Four years ago, Jiménez and his wife opened Tacarón, a specialty boutique selling Juanito’s Cigarros, wines and Juanito’s Conchita Cuban roasted coffee. They also founded el Campesino, a nonprofit group that provides medical and educational equipment, water resources and other supplies to impoverished villages in the Dominican Republic. The shop is closed this month so they can oversee a well project in Oviedo in the Dominican Republic that will provide clean water for more than 3,000 residents.

Through all of Jiménez’s entrepreneurial endeavors, he’s held on to his love for teaching. He’s one of the most popular lecturers in OLLI, speaking on topics such as surviving Castro’s Cuba, whales and manatees, cigar making and Pablo Escobar. 

As for retirement … well, he’s tried twice. 

“I’m working more now than i ever had before. But its been fun,” Jiménez said. “It’s been fun meeting a lot of people and making new friends.”