Normalcy in the Dominican Republic
The gold rush days of the cigar boom are gone, and so are most of the quick-buck artists who flocked to the Dominican Republic
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"I'm positive that the quality of cigars is being improved a lot," says Guillermo León, the executive vice president of La Aurora S.A., the maker of Aurora and León Jimenes cigars. Many people call the 39-year-old the Prince of the Dominican Republic, a nod to L. León Jimenes CXA, the parent company of La Aurora and the largest company in the Dominican Republic: it brews Presidente and Heineken beers, and makes Marlboro cigarettes, Tang and, of course, cigars. The company's Santiago factory is immaculate and sprawling. Security guards wear crisp uniforms, the grass is as closely cropped as a marine's hair and every surface seems spit-shined. "It's Disneyland," says a friendly competitor. He's not joking. Like several cigarmakers, León had to cut back on the number of cigar rollers he employed in early 1999 because he simply had too many cigars. By the summer, he began rehiring workers. "We have back orders again on a few shapes," he says. Sitting atop two to three years' inventory of tobacco, León is confident that the calmer market is allowing his company to make better cigars. He recently turned heads with the release of his Aurora 1903 Preferido, a classic perfecto cigar that looks like the cigars made popular 100 years ago.
Of the current atmosphere León says, "It's better for everybody." Back at Matasa, Quesada offers a prototype cigar to a visitor, who swears to keep mum on the project. The boom has turned Matasa into one of the more attractive cigar factories in the country. Marble floors, rich wooden walls and smartly decorated offices have replaced the beat-up furniture, stained floors and cheap wood paneling that once defined Matasa. Still, Quesada can't but help referring to his place as a dump...with a smile.
"The emphasis has gone from supply to demand," says Quesada. His family has been in the tobacco business for more than 100 years, and 25 years ago he and his father became one of the first cigarmakers to set up shop in Santiago's first free trade zone. Today, Matasa is squeezed between a Fuente cigar factory and a plant that makes Levi's jeans. The Santiago free trade zone has never been busier, but Quesada is enjoying the relative calm. "We used to sit here and field all types of people clamoring for cigars. And we didn't have time for anything else," he says. "Now it's back to what it used to be, where you dedicate yourself to preparing the tobacco, making the cigars and selling the cigars. So the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed."
He can feel the change. He sits back in his chair and draws on a Fonseca Vintage, reflecting on the new atmosphere as a refreshing breeze blows through the open window. "For the first time in seven years, I was able to leave at five o'clock to play tennis," says Quesada. The ash on his cigar glows red for a moment, then slowly fades. "Things are much more relaxed now."