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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
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

(continued from page 2)

Most of the factories that export cigars for the U.S. market clustered in Santiago, and they bussed in many workers from Tamboril. Everything changed with the cigar boom. Newcomers realized that they needed incentives to hire away experienced rollers from the old-time cigarmakers, and many set up shop in Tamboril. In addition to higher wages, they offered their workers the chance to work commute-free. Many obliged, and factories sprouted in Tamboril like mushrooms in the shade. The poaching began in earnest.  

"We woke up one January," says Quesada, "and between Fuente, Davidoff, ourselves and León Jimenes, we were missing 300 to 400 cigar-makers. That's a lot."  

The Eastern corner of the Dominican Republic, where Consolidated Cigar Corp. rolls such cigars as H. Upmanns and Montecristos, was sheltered from the roller wars that dominated Santiago. "I didn't have the same situation, because most people concentrated on Santiago," says José Seijas, general manager of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., Consolidated's La Romana, Dominican factory. "I think we fared better than most people."  

Consolidated was rocked by Hurricane Georges, a savage storm that hit La Romana head on in September 1998. The company itself was relatively unscathed--some tobacco and cigars were lost to water damage--but Georges wreaked havoc on the homes of Consolidated's workers, which were flimsy compared to the strong cigar factory. Seijas says Consolidated offered interest-free loans, payable at the low rate of five Dominican pesos a month (about 30 cents) to help workers rebuild their ruined homes. The company also donated building materials.  

Hurricane Georges spared Santiago, but the storm over rollers was nearly as fierce. The established cigarmakers called a meeting to combat the newcomers who were taking their rollers. They decided to fight them by setting up schools within their factories and work to train new rollers. Each went about it a little differently.  

Fuente Jr. embarked on one of the most radical methods. He decided if the other factories were going to poach his cigar rollers, he would train new workers in a way that would make them undesirable to anyone else. He trained workers in the entubar method of cigar production, a slow, painstaking process of making a cigar that cuts down the number of cigars a buncher can create in a day, but, in Fuente's opinion, improves quality.  

Inside one of his many tobacco warehouses, Fuente Jr. stops at a bale of maduro Dominican wrapper leaf. He has yet to use this on his cigars; the tobacco is grown in open sunlight, unlike his traditional Fuente Fuente OpusX wrappers, which are grown under shade. He spreads out a fat leaf between his fingers. Even in the dim light of the warehouse, the dark color of the leaf is evident. He takes the lit cigar from his mouth and wraps it with the maduro wrapper, which is still young. He takes a few puffs.  

"Try this," he says, clipping the end to give a visitor a fresh taste. "Get it into your nose, and taste it." The tobacco is powerful, stronger than his regular cigars, and bursting with rich flavors.  

More so than the other manufacturers, Fuente is isolating itself to become more self-sufficient. "We're still training rollers," says Fuente Sr. "I want to train about 150 more this year. And we're getting to the point where we're going to grow everything ourselves." He and his son made headlines in the mid-'90s when they grew the first successful Dominican-shade wrappers, which became the hallmark of the famous Fuente Fuente OpusX cigar. Now they are implementing more control over the farmers who grow their Dominican filler and binder tobacco, carefully monitoring the seed types that they grow and eliminating farmers who produce substandard tobacco. They're sitting atop massive stores of cigar tobacco, and they estimate that they have enough tobacco in their warehouses to last them five years at current production levels.   Prior to the cigar boom, "the Dominican Republic didn't have a consciousness of what a cigar was. They made cheroots," says Fuente Jr. He's driving his jet-black Lincoln Navigator SUV to his house, which has been under construction for years. He's not a native of the Dominican Republic, but the grandiose building and his family's wrapper tobacco farm show his commitment to the country.   The fallout from the cigar boom is allowing Fuente and other companies to demand much more from their cigar rollers. A few years ago, rollers frequently demanded higher wages from their employers. Today, many are being fired for substandard work.  

"We're demanding a lot more," says Fuente Jr., 44. "There're so many cigarmakers in the street, we're pushing our goals." Inside one of his factories, he's building rooms specifically for his most premier cigarmakers.  

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