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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 3)

"Nicaragua's principal problem, after the war and the Marxist system of government in the '80s, is unemployment caused by an enormous drop in production during that decade," Lacayo says. "So, in the cigar industry, the Nicaraguan has a type of oasis of opportunity, as much in the countryside as in the cities, where there are processing houses and the factories making cigars. It's been a blessing, really, from every point of view, because this is the agro-industrial activity which generates the most employment at this moment in Nicaragua. It competes with the employment generated by the coffee industry, except that the cigar industry jobs are more permanent in that they go on all year. Coffee is seasonal."

Lacayo, who earned a degree in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech and an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gives the economics lesson while driving around his company's fields with his associate, Jose Joaquin Bendaña. An industrial engineer as well, Bendaña is a Nicaraguan-born ex-U.S. Marine, who is now an entrepreneur living in Teaneck, New Jersey. Their shade-grown wrapper fields are located near León, a town in western Nicaragua whose proximity to sea level makes it considerably hotter than the Estelí valley in the mountains to the northeast. Little of that cooling northern breeze reaches here. Many Cuban veterans in Nicaragua see this "new" location as risky, but admit that Lacayo's first crop was of high quality. Lacayo ages the leaves in possibly the most unusual curing barn in Nicaragua--an old abandoned foundry, a relic of the Sandinista days that was built in cooperation with the Soviet Union but never used for its original purpose.

Between taking calls on his portable phone, Lacayo explains that his company, Tabacos Nicarao, is named after Nicarao, the Nicaraguan Indian leader who negotiated a peace settlement in the year 1523 with the invading Spanish conquistador Gil Gonzalez de Avila. The meeting, commemorated in the company logo showing Nicarao offering a cigar to Gonzalez, took place in the southwestern part of the country and indicates that cigar tobacco was already known as a symbol of friendship and dialogue. That belief, along with an 1856 U.S. newspaper article, gave Lacayo and Bendaña enough faith to plant in the plain of León. The article is titled "The War in Nicaragua" and appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, the Time magazine of its day.

"This great plain produces," the author wrote, "in the most amazing luxuriance, any or every thing [sic] that ever was grown in a tropical country. Tobacco, superior to that of Cuba..."

Lacayo and Bendaña are using advanced technologies to make up for their lack of experience in the industry. Drip irrigation is used to grow Connecticut shade and Habana 2000 wrapper leaf, a reddish-brown, shade-grown tobacco. Some of the fields are planted with corn and sorghum "to clean the soil of nematodes [worms] left by the tobacco plant," Bendaña explains.

Lacayo wants to make it clear that tobacco is a force of social stability. "Many women work in the tobacco industry, both in the countryside and in the factory," he says. "The salary that a woman earns in my country is doubly important because it's a salary that goes to the house. The salary of the male passes through the tavern and other diversions, and what makes it home is substantially less. The salary of the woman goes directly to the betterment of the standard of living of her family."

Francisca Gonzalez, a 30-year veteran at the factory in Estelí that makes Joya de Nicaragua, says succinctly, "We are living better because there are more jobs. There's more work and that benefits everybody."

A colleague agrees but notes that the tobacco, particularly wrapper, still has a way to go. "The production is not the same as it was 20 years ago, because the tobacco today is different," Rafaela Guevara says of the wrapper that she is expertly manipulating to envelop a cigar. "From one side it has been very favorable to the working class because jobs have been created. Now, however, because of falling sales, there have been fewer exports and personnel has been reduced. So, the person who becomes unemployed really has no economic resources to survive. Those of us who are here, sure we're working, but the salary doesn't really go far enough. Everything, the staple items, have gone up in price tremendously: electricity, water."

Alejandro Martinez Cuenca agrees. Martinez, an economist, is a former Nicaraguan minister and the current head of Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua, the new owner of the factory where Joya de Nicaragua is made.

"The tobacco industry has been the life and the heart of this region," Martinez says. "This whole area was battered, especially after 1986. It was basically subsistence agriculture here. Until the tobacco industry arrived, until the boom came in 1995, this had not changed a lot, but now it is radically different from what was going on in 1983. This was a dead town then."

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