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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

(continued from page 1)

In 1972, Bermejo sold his shares in the factory to co-owner Gen. Anastasio Somoza, who, as it happened, also ruled the country. After that, Bermejo was involved in another couple of factories, both of which were burned down in the early days of the Sandinista revolution. He left the country after that, returning in 1995 to open his new factory, Nicaragua American Tobacco S.A., or NATSA.

"I can tell you that for a while now we've had the same quality that we had in 1979," Bermejo says, seated in front of a shelf full of trophies won by the company's baseball team. "The Nicaraguan cigar is recovering its prestige. The agricultural sector has also recovered, and so has the shade-grown wrapper." All of NATSA's production, approximately 60,000 cigars a day (as of last September), goes to Cigars by Santa Clara, which is the importing and wholesaling arm of 800-JR Cigar Inc., the largest U.S. cigar retailer.

Like other longtime cigar manufacturers, Bermejo believes that the end of the boom, which some refer to as "stabilization," will help bring recognition to the Nicaraguan cigar. "The stabilization will not adversely affect the quality of the Nicaraguan cigar, it will improve it," Bermejo predicts. "This year the Nicaraguan cigar is better than last year, and next year it will be better than this year. Why? Because it's an industry which has been reborn."

Over the past 20 years, Nicaragua has seen more war than peace, more state control of the economy than private enterprise, more bad than good. Before 1979--and this is what led to the Sandinista revolution's triumph--Nicaragua had more than 40 years of less-than-benevolent rule by the Somoza family.

Conventional wisdom, disputed by some in the industry, holds that it was Anastasio Somoza who gave birth in the mid-'60s to Nicaragua's modern cigar industry. Recognizing that a large number of Cuban tobacco growers and cigarmakers had fled the Castro revolution, he invited some of them to take a look at Nicaragua.

"I'm proud to say that my father [Sixto] was one of the pioneers," says Nestor Plasencia. "We got to Nicaragua in 1965. I was still young at the time. And that's where the planting of wrapper leaf began in Nicaragua. Basically, three zones were opened: the Estelí valley; the Condega valley, a valley which is 35 kilometers from Estelí; and the Jalapa valley, on the border with the Republic of Honduras."

The Cubans went to Nicaragua in search of land similar to that which they knew in Cuba's Pinar del Río. "In Cuba, we grew tobacco in November, December, etcetera, and we had winds from the north," Plasencia explains as he looks out at the new irrigation tubes poking out of his fields. "The temperature would fall and would be quite cool. Here we are much farther south than Cuba, but we have the same [climatic] effect with the altitude."

Somoza gave priority in the mid-1960s to the cultivation of tobacco. Cigarette tobacco had been grown in the area for more than 100 years, but now the focus began to shift toward cigars. With the support of a new government agency called INFONAC--which was created by the nation's central bank president, who lived in Estelí--Estelí grew rapidly into the cigar capital of the country.

"INFONAC [Instituto de Fomento Nacional, or Institute of National Development] strongly developed and collaborated in promoting the planting of tobacco, cigar factories and all that," Plasencia recalls. "INFONAC would buy all the imports--insecticides, fungicides, the cloth for the shade-grown wrappers--and machinery necessary and would make them available to the industry. There was an enormously large amount of cooperation on the part of the government in developing and promoting the tobacco industry."

Like the Plasencias, the Perez and Toraño families have been involved with Nicaraguan cigar tobacco since the 1960s. Jaime Toraño, in association with Alfredo and Silvio Perez, began growing tobacco in the Estelí area in the late '60s, according to Jaime's nephew, Carlos Toraño. The younger Toraño now heads Central American Tobacco and Toraño Cigars and is associated with Habanicsa, a factory in Estelí that makes the Carlos Toraño label, among others. "At that time, and for a long time, the main client was General Cigar," he says. "Most of the tobacco that was grown was candela." (Candela is a once-popular green-leaf wrapper that is seldom found on premium cigars these days.)

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