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Update: Nicaragua

David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

 Estelí, Nicaragua, is no place for late sleepers. At 5:30 a.m. every workday, an alarm rings out across the town. The faint but persistent clanging will rouse most sleepers from their beds, but those who haven't stirred are treated to roosters screaming at the rising sun. Anyone still slumbering is assaulted by a piercing air-raid siren that goes off at six. The uninitiated scramble for cover, but it's only the local version of the whistle to work, signaling the start of another long day of labor. More often than not, that job is making cigars.

This is the epicenter of the cigar industry in Nicaragua, the No. 3 exporter of premium cigars to the United States. The cigarmakers in this small city are familiar with one another, and they often drive by one another's factories. When they happen to pass Segovia Cigars, where Nestor Plasencia works, they make the sign of the cross.

It's not that the competition has a soul-numbing fear of Plasencia, and they aren't trying to ward off a hex. Segovia is a dead ringer for a church, right down to the stained glass windows and the rounded cross over the arched door.   Plasencia makes several brands here, including Mayorga and his eponymous brand, Plasencia. "Too many brands," Nestor says with an ever-present smile. "I produce for too many customers."

Completed in May 1997, the large building has two rolling galleries. Rollers on one side of the factory make cigars that go into boxes; those on the other side make bundle brands. In the middle is an open courtyard with a fountain. It's undoubtedly the most attractive cigar factory in all of Central America.

Inside his office (which bears no resemblance to a confessional), Plasencia is pointing out his operations on a map of Nicaragua. There's the factory in Estelí, where he's standing, plus a farm outside the city, a tobacco warehouse in Ocotal, close to the Honduran border, and two farms in the Japapa valley, where he grows tobacco. He also buys quite a bit from local farmers. "Two thousand people in Nicaragua work for me," says Plasencia.

Plasencia is a huge man with a harsh glare, but he's as gentle as a teddy bear. Most people thought the 50 year old had retired from the cigar business after selling two factories to Spanish tobacco giant Tabacalera S.A. in September 1997. Plasencia made more than $20 million on the sale, prompting his friends to tease him relentlessly about not picking up the check at restaurants. But it also gave people the wrong impression about his employment status.

"I went to RTDA this summer," says Plasencia, describing a visit to the annual tobacco trade show . "People said, 'You're here? Why?' " he recalls with a laugh. "I didn't close. I'm still in business." This year, he says that between his factory in Nicaragua and three in Honduras, he'll produce about 25 million handmade cigars.

Plasencia's Segovia plant is quite busy, and some of the workers there are creating a unique cigar that takes the term handmade to a new level. In the cigar industry, most handmade cigars are created with the aid of a few tools. In the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, bunchers make the insides of a cigar (known as the bunch) with a Temsco machine, which is a hand-operated device with a leather pad that helps form the bunch and roll a binder leaf around the filler leaves. Most cigar factories in Central America don't use Temscos, and a buncher makes the inside of a cigar strictly by hand. The bunch is then put into a cigar-shaped mold made of wood or plastic, which helps the cigar keep its shape.

After it rests in a mold, a roller takes the bunch and rolls a wrapper leaf around the cigar, creating the finished product.   The Segovia rollers make the Danneman Artist Line of cigars with neither Temscos nor molds, making them some of the only cigars in the world that can truly claim to be entirely handmade.

Eliminating the mold slows production considerably. "A roller can only make 100 cigars a day, compared to 350 to 400 for other brands," says Plasencia.

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