Despite Dictators, Revolution, War and, Last Fall, Hurricane Mitch, Tobacco Men in Nicaragua Keep Planting and Rolling
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99
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Jalapa, on the Honduras border, saw some of the heaviest fighting during the contra war. Tobacco barns, generally not the sturdiest structures to begin with, were burned down. Contra combatants used to take cover behind the barns, but Sandinista AK-47s would essentially make short filler out of the buildings.
"I'd like to take the optimistic view," says minister de Franco. "Before , you couldn't get from Managua [the capital] to Estelí. [In 1997], we accomplished creating access from Managua to Estelí." (An accomplishment that has to be repeated after Mitch.) "We can communicate between Managua and Ocotal. We are constructing the infrastructure for Jalapa. During the entire Sandinista period and the government of Mrs. Chamorro, there was not an additional kilometer of highway built. The highways that we have are the highways that were built before 1979. We've already built more highway than had been built before." Others contend that about 500 miles of highway were built by the Chamorro government, though all agreed that the hurricane last fall has made it difficult for the current administration to connect additional parts of the country, including Jalapa. The entire cigar region, from Estelí to Ocotal to Jalapa to Honduras, was affected when many roads were washed away. Immediately after the storm, only one of three border crossings between Honduras and Nicaragua was open. The Nicaraguan government promised that reconstructing the nation's infrastructure was its highest priority.
It is also vital to the growth of the cigar industry. No one knows that better than Jose Padrón and his 200 full-time workers. He is focused as he walks into the leaf deveining area of one of his factories. He points out that the walls of all Padrón buildings are yellow. "It keeps the mosquitoes away," he says.
Padrón notes there are problems for the industry--problems yellow paint won't fix. Infrastructure is one. The tax situation is another. Without some sort of duty-free status, the industry will find it increasingly difficult to compete with prices of cigars from other nations. This is something the government has begun to explore, but taking advantage of any resulting special status may be difficult for many cigarmakers.
"The problem with the duty-free zone requirements is the physical reality of the factories," Padrón explains. The factories in Estelí are small and in the middle of town. Generally, they are not set apart in large industrial parks the way some are in the Dominican Republic, for example.
Nonetheless, for Padrón and for others who have invested not only in the tobacco, but also in the people who work it; who have had factories burned; who have lived through wars and embargos, Nicaragua is worth the effort. "Eighty percent of those people have been with me since the 1970s," Padrón says. "Because they have followed me--they've defended me--I also have been with them."
Padrón has seen it all and he has never left Nicaragua behind. Even when he had to move production to Honduras during the Reagan embargo, Padrón's factory in Nicaragua held hundreds of thousands of his cigars. He has always made only one brand of cigar.
"I returned in 1990," Padron recalls. "I never stopped going to Nicaragua, but to make cigars I went back when Violeta Chamorro became president and the embargo was lifted. You know how many cigars I had in Nicaragua when the embargo was lifted? Six hundred thousand cigars. And they were so good. What tobacco, brother!"
Alejandro Benes covered the Nicaraguan revolution for ABC News from 1979 to 1985.
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