Most of Nicaragua has gone on a 24-hour labor strike today, and that includes the workforce of the premium cigar industry. Cigar factories are closed, tobacco fields are empty and the cigar industry continues to wait out this time of political turmoil and instability.
“It's a very tough situation,” said A.J. Fernandez, owner of A.J. Fernandez Cigars. “But we just want the best for the country, our people and everything to return to normal.” Fernandez owns two cigar factories in Nicaragua as well as many tobacco plantations.
“Following the direction of the Nicaraguan Cigar Association (ANT), our J.C. Newman PENSA factory in Estelí, Nicaragua, is closed today,” said Drew Newman, general counsel for the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. “This is the first time that we have ever had to close our J.C. Newman PENSA factory on a work day since it opened in 2011.”
Today’s labor stoppage is just one more obstacle the cigar industry—and the entire country of Nicaragua—has been facing since April when the country erupted in anti-government protests. Initially, the cigar industry was hardly affected, but the situation escalated, as did the death toll, which some reports have as high as 140.
Protesters have since taken the Pan-American Highway hostage, erecting many roadblocks along the country’s main causeway for commerce. This has put truck deliveries to a near-stop, creating backups along the highway that have lasted for days. The blockades have stopped an estimated 6,000 transport trucks and cargo vehicles headed to ports in Nicaragua and Honduras. Consequently, cigar shipments to the U.S. are largely delayed.
“We, as all the factories in Estelí, are not working today,” said cigarmaker and tobacco grower Nestor Andrés Plasencia, who owns a cigar factory in Nicaragua. “Our main concern is the security of all our collaborators so we don’t work today. We will start tomorrow, Friday, as normal.”
The strike is only supposed to last 24 hours and should be over by midnight, but the Pan-American Highway will most likely remain under siege. There is no indication as to when the political protesters across the country will release the highway—which is one of Nicaragua’s major commercial causeways—or when the cigar industry will become stable again.
Rocky Patel, owner of Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, believes that the protest could possibly go longer than 24 hours.
“They could extend it tomorrow, too,” he warned. “Nicaragua is in turmoil. We had eight people shot and killed on the road in front of our factory 10 days ago. They were protesters on the road."
Patel is referring to his TaviCusa factory, located in Estelí.
“We got orders all week with major distributors loading up on Nicaraguan product,” Patel added. “It’s been very difficult to staff the factory when half the employees are showing up.”
The U.S. Department of State maintains its Level 3 travel advisory for Nicaragua (Level 4 is the highest), which it issued in April, discouraging travel to Nicaragua and urging U.S. citizens to vacate the country.
General Cigar Co. operates its STG, Estelí factory in Nicaragua and is also shut down.
“The strike is today, so we have closed our factory,” confirms Regís Broersma, president of General Cigar. “We don’t know yet what we will do about opening tomorrow. It all depends on what happens today. The safety of our people comes first and above all.”
Peace talks are scheduled to resume tomorrow at The Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima, and will be mediated by The Bishops' Conference of Nicaragua, a Roman Catholic organization that’s stepped in to help communication between the government and the people. The dialogue will convey President Daniel Ortega’s new proposal in hopes of reaching a peace and stability.
While the Oliva Cigar factory is closed today as well, José Oliva of Oliva Cigar Co. is hopeful that an agreement can be reached.
“We are encouraged by the return of dialogue from all sides and hopeful for a peaceful solution.”