Nicaragua, Part III
Posted: Dec 10, 2009 10:54am ET
The sun was dropping below the mountaintops, and darkness was coming quickly to the small farming valley in north central Nicaragua. But Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, the owner of the Joya de Nicaragua brand, showed no signs of nervousness as we climbed into his SUV and his driver steered us out on the Pan-American Highway headed toward Managua. The last rays of light disappeared from the sky. I silently thought that 30 years before, or even the last time I was in Nicaragua in the 1990s, I would no sooner travel the highway between Estelí and Managua after dark than jump into a rattlesnake pit. Not today. The road was filled with traffic, small cars, buses and semi-trucks vying for space at every turn.
Don’t take my amazement the wrong way. This was not a smooth, easy ride on a superhighway between two big cities. It was a dangerous dance on a narrow, winding two-lane road, first through the mountains and then rolling agricultural land, some of it scarred with potholes and twice blocked by looming hulks of stalled trucks, their presence in the dark notable only by a small little red triangle sitting in the southbound lane less than 20 yards from the back of the blacked out vehicle—a foot on the brake pedal is a necessary driving skill here. There was no livestock lounging on the asphalt this trip, but that too can be a nighttime driving hazard since the herd usually forgets to put out the red triangle. And one can’t forget the two-wheeled, donkey-powered carts, or the ancient four-wheeled cars held together with bailing wire crawling along at less than 10 miles an hour in the same lane as cars traveling 60 miles an hour or more. More than once, our driver had to nearly come to a halt as an oncoming car failed to gauge the amount of space he needed to get back on his side of the road as he passed a slower-moving vehicle, and the same thing happened as drivers passed us and darted back into their proper lane before getting crushed by an oncoming car or worse, a passenger bus, its sides decorated like a holiday season, department store facade, each corner set off by another neon light of red, yellow, green or blue. Never a dull moment; our driver was extremely cautious, thank god, despite the fact it took more than two hours and 30 minutes to traverse the approximate 90 miles.
The highway dramas faded quickly into the background as Dr. Martinez filled me in on some of the extraordinary history behind the rise, and fall, and rise again of the Nicaraguan cigar industry from the 1960s to the current day. He recounted stories about men like Juan Francisco Bermejo, a Cuban exile that launched one the first significant cigar tobacco operations for premium hand-rolled products outside of Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution sent cigarmakers from the island scattering across Latin America. Bermejo is credited with secretly transporting, along with partner Jorge Bueso, a large amount of Cuban tobacco seed out of the country and making the first plantings in Honduras in the early 1960s. Bermejo, with another partner, Simon Camacho, then founded Nicaragua Cigar in the mid-1960s, one of the first cigar-tobacco growing and rolling operations in the country. It was the birthplace of Joya de Nicaragua.
Did you know that in the 1970s a Joya de Nicaragua was the official cigar of the White House in Washington D.C? Martinez’s tale included a story about a surprised General Anastasio Somoza, the country’s ruling dictator, discovering his country’s cigar status during a visit to the United States and returning to Nicaragua, where he “acquired” the brand from Camacho and Bermejo with a purchase deal apparently along the lines of a classic “I have an offer you can’t refuse.” For those of us that remember, those Joyas were some of the most outstanding cigars ever made, their reddish-brown wrappers and full-flavored smoothness an easy comparison of the best from Cuba.
Interestingly enough, if my recollections serve me correctly, the less moderate of the Sandinista commanders who quickly consolidated power and pushed out more moderate anti-Somoza members of the business and political communities following the 1979 revolution, didn’t bother with their home-grown smokes. They preferred, in public at least, to puff on and pass out their personal stashes of Cohibas, perhaps a not so subtle message of their ties to Castro’s Cuba. Of course, the National Guard also had bombed Estelí during the war, and left the main Somoza-owned Joya de Nicaragua factory in smoldering ruins (see Checkpoint Churchill, by Alejandro Benes, Cigar Aficionado, Jan/Feb 2001), even though some of the cigars were whisked out of danger by looters and enterprising visitors. It would be years before the cigar operations in Estelí began the long road back to recovery.
By the end of the road trip to Managua, with most of the conversation in Spanish, my English-based synapses were fried and we started chatting again in English. The subjects ranged from the local political scene to the cigar market in the United States and around the world. Dr. Martinez is working hard at getting Joya de Nicaragua back to its 1970s reputation, and has already produced some excellent cigars. By his own admission, he’s not finished yet. He’s excited about his love of working on cigar blends, and for now, it’s keeping him relatively quiet in the political arena, where he campaigned unsuccessfully for the Sandinista presidential nomination in 2006.
Dr. Martinez is part of the resurgence of the Nicaraguan cigar industry. Jorge and José Orlando Padrón, Jose Oliva, Jonathan Drew, Rocky Patel and Nestor Plasencia Sr. and Jr. are just a few of the families working hard to keep the momentum going. Estelí is teeming with factories, and in the growing regions in the mountains north of Estelí toward the Honduran border, tobacco men are searching for the best old locations where tobacco has now been produced for more than 40 years and finding new areas, too. The developments bode well for Nicaraguan cigars. It is an evolving situation that all cigar smokers will be benefiting from in the years ahead.
Click here to check out Nicaragua, Part I.
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