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Growing Nicaragua

Despite Dictators, Revolution, War and, Last Fall, Hurricane Mitch, Tobacco Men in Nicaragua Keep Planting and Rolling
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

"Se tiene que dar mucha nariz," Jose Orlando Padrón is telling his nephew Gabriel. ("You have to give it a lot of nose.") Padrón picks up the bundle of tobacco leaves and parts them as if opening a book. The patriarch of Padrón Cigars is, in effect, getting a read on the quality and progress of this batch of Cuban-seed leaf, part of the 120,000 pounds that are being stored in nine buildings around Estelí, Nicaragua, the country's cigar capital.

Padrón's son Jorge has flown in and is all business. "There's nothing to do but work," he says. This is not a complaint. "I've got a lot to learn yet. It's important that I spend time here." He chuckles as he watches his father repeat a process that he has seen him do hundreds of times. "This is the secret," Jorge Padrón says with a nod in his father's direction. "The secret to success: to have tobacco."

Last fall, that secret became a matter of survival for the Padrón family. One of their two farms, which they had owned for 20 years, was scoured by floods caused by Hurricane Mitch. The topsoil was washed away. The parcel of land that had once given fame to the brand and the country is now little more than a field of rocks. Happily, no tobacco had yet been planted.

"The place is a disaster," Jorge Padrón says. But he adds, "We were fortunate that we didn't have any losses to the factory, or to the warehouses where we keep the tobacco. Production is up and running. Everything's normal." The company did, however, lose two curing barns.

The loss of the Padrón farm--it will likely never be used again--was about the worst loss suffered by any of Nicaragua's cigarmakers.

"Nicaragua has a lot of land," Jorge Padrón says. "The problem in Nicaragua is the lack of infrastructure and barns. We're going to have to build barns. We'll purchase other properties and we'll build the barns on it."

Despite the devastation it brought to Central America last fall, Hurricane Mitch amounted to little more than a brief interruption for cigar production in Nicaragua. Most insiders estimate that industry losses amounted to just 5 percent, mainly because most producers had not yet planted new crops. Excess humidity caused producers to halt rolling for several days during the intense rains. Some stored tobacco was damaged by floods and, most significantly, the homes of an unknown number of workers in the industry were destroyed. Cigarmakers have provided direct help and have mounted fund-raising efforts. The Padróns raised more than $72,000 through mid-December.

If the estimates are correct that Nicaragua was set back 20 years by the damage done by the hurricane--mostly to infrastructure such as roads and bridges--then it is all the more remarkable how unaffected the local cigar industry was.

The boom that propelled the cigar industry in Nicaragua, as elsewhere, has leveled off, and so has the fierce competition for raw materials. U.S. imports of Nicaraguan cigars dropped 16 percent in the first half of 1998. Of the nearly two dozen cigar companies that were doing business in Estelí a little more than a year ago, approximately 10 remain. Although the number of players is shrinking, the quality of tobacco coming out of Nicaragua is at a 20-year peak.

"I think we're getting to the point we were at before the Sandinista [revolution of the 1980s]. Perhaps we're already there," says Juan Francisco Bermejo, a co-founder of the old Nicaragua Cigars company in the mid-1960s, the original maker of Joya de Nicaragua. "Before the war, the best cigar in the world was Joya de Nicaragua."

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