After a trip to Nicaragua last year, one of the most able tobacco men I know told me that some of the best Cuban cigars are made outside of Cuba. Of course, his statement was ironic, but a number of Cubans are growing superb tobacco from Cuban seed and making great cigars in the small Central American nation. I, too, was convinced of that fact after a trip there this year.
Names such as Padrón and Plasencia are not new to most of you. They, and their families, have been in Nicaragua for decades and have a reputation for making superb cigars. Their clans left Cuba in the early 1960s after the revolution and landed in the northwest corner of Nicaragua, where they've been growing tobacco ever since. A number of ambitious newcomers have also arrived, including a small platoon of tobacco experts from Cuba. Plantations and factories are bustling in such dusty two-horse towns as Estelí, Condega and Jalapa, where some of the best leaf and cigars I have seen in years are being produced.
Furthermore, many of these cigar men have an unbridled passion to make greater cigars every year. Part of their drive seems to come from the fact that they are no longer growing tobacco in Cuba. They want to prove to themselves and others that they can do as well, or even better, than their peers back in their former homeland. It's almost as if they want to show the world that there was more reason to leave Cuba than just politics. They want to believe that destiny may have something to do with their decision.
They don't bad-mouth the red-soil, tobacco fields of Cuba, or the talent of dedicated tobacco workers in Cuba's plantations, sorting houses and factories. They can be critical of the bad Cuban cigars they occassionally smoke, just like the rest of us, and they honestly want better circumstances for everyone in Cuba, particularly those working in tobacco. For them, tobacco, especially tabaco Cubano, is noble. They find truth in each perfect leaf and each well-made cigar from their former homeland. They have carried that obsession for the leaf to their adopted home.
If you spend any time in Nicaragua with the patriarch of the PadrÛn clan, Jose Orlando Padrón, it won't be long before he begins to speak about Cuba -- the great soil, the great climate, the great tobacco, the great people and the great food. As long as the conversation doesn't switch to politics, the 76-year-old tobacco man can talk for hours about the finer points of particular tobacco areas in the Vuelta Abajo. He also loves to talk about the quality of other crops, from citrus to beans to pigs. The latter is one of his favorite topics of conversation. He seems to eat pig for about every meal, prepared in every way imaginable. "This is not as good as what we used to eat in Cuba," he always says after tucking into another plate of pork. It is almost as if he wished to remind himself and everyone else about the richness of the Vuelta Abajo.
Padrón should know about such things. His family owned thousands of acres of prime tobacco land in the Vuelta Abajo before the revolution. They were big, beautiful plantations, the kind of fincas found in dreams, with hundreds of families living there and working the fields. They raised some of the best produce and livestock on earth.
Padrón loves to tell a story about his father, who spent his life growing tobacco in Cuba. As we sped down the Pan-American highway from the Padrón factory in Estelí on our way to some of their tobacco fields, Orlando's son Jorge and I were cramped into the backseat of their four-wheel-drive automobile. Orlando PadrÛn, in the front passenger seat, began his story.
"It was in the early 1950s," Orlando recalled, the interior of the car filling with spicy smoke from his Padrón 1964 Anniversario Piramide. "My father had a handshake with the Toraño family to sell his entire crop at a certain price, but one day just after the harvest, another tobacco dealer called him and offered him $10 a pound more. That was a hell of a lot of money then, but my father refused." In the back, young Jorge beamed with pride, even though he'd probably heard the story a thousand times.
Orlando paused for a moment, looked out through the windshield and took a drag from his cigar. He waited another second or two to add emphasis. "My father simply answered that the Padrón name was worth more than that and that the tobacco was already sold, even if it was for a much lower price."
Orlando looked out the windshield again and added, "And that's what the tobacco industry is about for me. Unfortunately, it's not like that now for many people, with all the lawyers and businessmen in our industry. But the tobacco is all about respect, respect for everyone from growers to consumers."
Néstor Plasencia may not be as philosophical as Orlando Padrón, but he shows much of the same dedication, the same passion for tobacco. His immediate family grew tobacco in Cuba until the revolution, when they moved to Nicaragua to restart the family tradition. During the cigar boom in the 1990s, Plasencia made millions of dollars through an agreement to make cigars for the Spanish tobacco giant, Tabacalera S.A. By now, he could be on some Caribbean island in a hammock counting his money, but he's still in Nicaragua growing and selling tobacco and making cigars.
"What the hell would I do that for?" he said when asked why he hadn't retired after all the money he made. "I love tobacco. It's my life. It's my heritage."
Néstor and his son, Néstor Jr., are very proud of one of their newest projects, the Plasencia Reserva Organica, a range of handmade cigars from their own tobacco grown in fields near Estelí and in Honduras. All the tobacco is cultivated organically, meaning that inorganic chemicals for fertilizers, insecticides and other treatments are not used. Some of his competitors say it's a load of nonsense, but the Plasencias believe in it. It's that belief that makes the new cigars noteworthy.
"This is something special for us," said the older Plasencia, who hopes to increase production to about 200,000 of the cigars in three or four years. They are available in four sizes. "It's not easy. But it's a tribute to our soil, a tribute to our family."
Meanwhile, Eduardo Fernandez, a Cuban-Spanish entrepreneur, who made $20 million in the fast food business in Europe, is hoping to do "something very special" in the tobacco-growing region of Jalapa. He has planted tobacco on some of the plantations formerly owned by dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s. Leasing the land from local farmer cooperatives, he has brought in some of the best tobacco minds in Cuba to grow and sell high-grade wrapper and eventually make a number of his own cigars.
"I really do have high hopes for this," said Fernandez, standing in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Jalapa with dozens of piles of fermenting tobacco. I could barely keep my eyes open from the ammonia generated by the fermenting leaf. A handful of veteran Cuban tobacco technicians were checking the pace of the fermentations. They brought out a selection of the Criollo 98 and Corojo 99 tobacco they had been working. The wrapper tobacco seeds had come directly from Cuba and most of the displayed tobacco appeared to be of extremely good quality.
For a number of years, rumors circulated in the tobacco industry that Fernandez was growing the wrapper for the Cubans, and that the leaf would be shipped to the island to be used on export cigars. But top officials in Cuba have firmly denied it and so has Fernandez. "Rumors were spread about this," he said. "But it is completely untrue. Our tobacco is for Asia and Europe, or maybe the United States."
Fernandez seems to have found the right formula. According to one of the Cubans I spoke with at his farm, the tobacco "has great aromas and excellent elasticity." He said that he was really impressed with the crops -- "the soil is very similar to Cuba, although the humidity and heat is a bit different."
The Spanish entrepreneur seems extremely optimistic. "People are going to go crazy when they see the quality of this tobacco," he said, looking fondly at it. "I would like to see us go as far as we can go. The potential is there."
If Nicaragua today is any indication, then tobacco runs in the blood of Cubans. Even men like Fernandez, who spend time with them, get infected with the same passion for a great leaf or a great cigar.
It's a special relationship that allows Cubans to produce outstanding tobacco and wonderful cigars -- even if it is outside of Cuba.