Milestones: 100 Years of La Aurora
The Dominican Republic's first cigarmaker celebrates its century mark
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03
As years go, 1903 was a big one. Henry Ford founded his car company; a baseball team named the Highlanders played their first game in New York City, a decade before they would be renamed the Yankees; cousins Binney and Smith invented Crayola crayons; and brothers by the name of Wright showed the world a man could fly.
The same year, in relative obscurity, a man by the name of Eduardo León Jimenes opened a cigar factory in the Dominican Republic, making La Auroras. The country was an undeveloped, unheralded Caribbean nation, only 59 years independent. There was no Macanudo, no Davidoff, and it would be more than a lifetime before the Dominican Republic would claim to be a cigar country. Fine cigars, in the eyes of the world, came from Cuba and nowhere else.
On October 3, La Aurora officially celebrates its centennial year. Empresa León Jimenes CxA, the parent company, is still controlled by the León family. Empresa León Jimenes enjoys virtual monopolies in two local markets—beer and cigarettes—as well as having banking and printing subsidiaries. It is one of the country's largest companies, with annual revenues of approximately $600 million.
"We tried hard, and we finally made it," says Fernando León Asensio, one of Eduardo's sons. The 81-year-old speaks in a clear, resonant voice with the faintest accent. The former blending master of the company, he smokes the finest cigars made at the factory, corona-sized León Jimenes cigars rolled exclusively for him. Each box is inscribed with the words "Hechos especialmente para Don Fernando León A." Today, Don Fernando serves as a member of the company board. Educated in the United States and Canada, the patriarch of León Jimenes has a crystal-clear memory of his years in the family business, which span much of its history.
For any business, lasting 100 years is a notable achievement. A company that does that in a developing nation during a turbulent century has beaten all odds. While today the Dominican Republic has stabilized as the most advanced of the major cigar-producing countries, the past century saw border disputes with neighboring Haiti, forays by American troops, dictatorship and civil revolt. In the early 1900s, the country was mired in debt, and no one thought of it as a vacationland. (It would be nearly 50 years before the nation's first major hotel was built.) But for young Eduardo, his first problem was the mud.
Because his father, Antonio León, was a tobacco grower, the 20-something-year-old figured on abundant raw material to make cigars for the local market. The factory was located in Guazumal, near Tamboril, which is now famous for its cigar rollers. Some tobacco came from that area, and other fields were in Gurabo, Jacagua and El Ingenio, five or six miles away. In 1903, the Dominican Republic had dirt roads. Making cigars meant La Aurora had to pack tobacco in wood and ship it by donkey. The rainy season created a quagmire.
"It was so muddy, the mules went up to their bellies," says Fernando León. The beasts of burden trudged through the muck to deliver tobacco to the tiny fabrica. The first La Auroras were perfectos, pointed at each end with a bulbous middle. The cigars were called preferidos. Sales, like the cigars, were entirely Dominican.
Civil strife shut down production at times before La Aurora's 30th anniversary. American troops marched into the Dominican Republic, various local generals vied for power and civilians took to the streets. "In my father's time, he had hard times," says León. "With the revolutions and the uproar, [the company sometimes] just stopped production. It was a very convulsive country up to 1930."
In 1930, Gen. Rafael Trujillo seized power, creating a dictatorship that would last for more than three decades. Trujillo brought order to the country, but business opportunities became limited. La Aurora wanted to expand from cigars into the lucrative cigarette trade, but that was a business controlled by the dictator. He didn't welcome competition.
"Trujillo owned the only company that was producing cigarettes," says León. "My brother [Herminio] had an opportunity to ask him if we could complete our industry by producing a few cigarettes. He said, 'Go ahead.' But a few months later a law came into effect that made it impossible [to compete] due to the duties."
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