Checkpoint Churchill

| By Alejandro Benes | From Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

On every trip to Central America, the producer would stop on Miami's Flagler Street on his way to the airport and buy a couple of boxes of cigars. Padrón "Presidentes" then sold for about a dollar each and a box carried a discount. They were not for the producer to smoke. They were currency -- especially in a war zone -- to be used to make friends, to establish dialogue, to ease tensions. Taking Nicaraguan cigars to Nicaragua, however, seemed absurd, especially in the 1970s. But no one knew what would be available during the Sandinista revolution.

Along Nicaragua's Pan American Highway leading up to Estelí, but not close to the city, were checkpoints, and the National Guard soldiers manning them — many of them too young — were clearly nervous. Something was going to happen that day. Something was happening almost everyday toward the end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979. The crew made it past the last checkpoint, showing an authorization letter from the Estado Mayor, Nicaraguan Gen. Anastasio Somoza's military headquarters. It wasn't clear that any of the soldiers could read the letter.

The television news crews had information that on this day, or maybe the next, a major National Guard action would be launched to retake Estelí. The cameraman, soundman, correspondent and producer had loaded the van very early that morning, ready to spend the night if necessary. During the year-and-a-half-long Nicaraguan civil war, Estelí was often fully in Sandinista control and sometimes partially in the control of the guardia, Somoza's National Guard. The problem for the government troops was that finding the rebels meant going house-to-house at a given point. Not a particularly attractive part of a military operation, especially for young conscripts. On this day, the presence of the guardia was not evident beyond the last checkpoint. If anyone was in control of Estelí, it was the Sandinistas.

Estelí was quiet for most of the morning. The Sandinistas were there. Stopping near a small hotel where some rebels were gathered, the producer pulled a couple of cigars out of his shoulder bag and offered one to the oldest of the bunch. The young man took the cigar and smiled, noting that the logo on the brown band carried an outline of the island of Cuba.

"¿Que esperan?" the producer asked the Sandinista what he expected that day. He wasn't much older than most of the guardia they had seen that day, but he had a wearier, more experienced manner. He was in command of four others, all younger than he was.

"Pues," he responded, and paused for a moment. "Well, we don't know. There was some mortaring a couple of nights ago on the outskirts, but it was quiet last night." The look he gave as he finished his assessment indicated he was more worried than he was saying. He knew something, too.

The correspondent was bored. He was also worried that the trip had been a waste of time and that nothing was going to happen. The cameraman said they should take a walk and look around the town. For about 40 minutes they walked through the dusty streets of Estelí. They talked to several of the townspeople. All expected something to happen that day. Finally, the drone of an airplane engine told them they were right.

The producer didn't so much hear the explosion as feel it. The ground shook and the air filled with dust and other particles that felt bigger due to the speed at which they hit him. The cameraman, a veteran of war coverage, grabbed the producer's arm and began to run to the side of the road. The soundman, tied to the camera by an audio cable, had no choice but to follow. The correspondent was already in the ditch.

The Nicaraguan Air Force DC-3 was dropping bombs on Estelí. This broke the boredom of the correspondent, who was now yelling at the cameraman to roll on the action. A wall of dust and smoke prevented the correspondent from observing that the cameraman had been rolling all along. The producer and the soundman had their backs against the side of the ditch that they assumed would provide the most protection from the aerial assault, but there was no science involved in their choice. The cameraman had the camera pointing almost straight up, trying to calculate where the plane would be by the sound it was making.

What could only have been minutes later, the bombing stopped. The plane, it seemed, was gone. The cameraman poked his head up over the ditch. The producer and soundman did the same. The dust was settling. The scream of the correspondent caught everyone's attention.

"Goddammit!" He was covered with dust and pointing across the street. A building was on fire. He wanted to do a standup. From the building, young boys were running, carrying packages, and this provided a great backdrop. The camera crew walked over to the correspondent and he began to record. The producer, wiping his eyes with a towel he had thought to bring from the hotel, noticed that the young looters were carrying bundles and boxes of cigars and shouting out, "¡Un dólar!" One dollar, they offered, for a bundle of Joya de Nicaraguas, arguably the best non-Cuban cigars available in those years. All shapes and sizes. Walking across the street, the producer examined the building more closely and saw that it was the back of the place that was on fire. The smoke was heavy. He yelled to the crew to come over and get some footage.

What was not on videotape was the rescuing by the crew itself of many Joya de Nicaragua cigars. The producer personally went deeper into the building and provided safe passage to 200 Churchills.

Four years later, sitting in his office in the United States, the correspondent received a phone call form a claims agent of a Connecticut-based insurance company, the same one that held the policy on the cigar factory in Estelí.

"Sir," the insurance man asked of the correspondent, "were you in Estelí around the end of 1978 or beginning of 1979?"

"Yes," came the answer, along with a look of worry on the correspondent's face.

"Did you, by chance, witness the burning of a cigar factory?"

"Yes," the correspondent answered, fearing that he had been tracked down and discovered to have "rescued" the cigars.

"And sir," the insurance man continued, "would you describe the situation in Estelí at the time as one of 'civil strife'?"

"Well, yeah, you could certainly call it that," the correspondent assured him.

More than a decade passed after that conversation and the producer found himself again in Miami, again in a cigar store, this time with the son of one of the former owners of the Estelí factory. The producer recounted the story to the young man. The son had the last chapter of the tale.

"You know the amazing thing?" the son asked. "The insurance company only settled the claim last year."

Now older, the producer relishes telling the story of how he rescued 200 Joya de Nicaragua cigars from certain and immediate immolation. Of course, the cigars, as they will, ultimately did burn.

Alejandro Benes covered the Sandinista revolution for a major U.S. television network news organization.