Nicaragua, Part I

I was in Nicaragua last week for the first time in years. For me, it was a nostalgic trip, as it is every time I visit, because of my time there as a young foreign correspondent for The Associated Press during the country’s 1979 revolution and then the Contra wars in the 1980s. The sights, sounds and smells bring back lots of memories. I’m always searching for old landmarks—General Anastasio Somoza’s bunker complex on the side of a hill, a battered Texaco station where a wild firefight between National Guard and Sandinista forces took place, a fork in the road where friends of mine came under direct machine-gun fire in Estelí.

For every vaguely familiar place, there were hundreds of new sights that frankly boggle the mind. Arrival in Nicaragua used to be the quintessential Third World experience—the stairs rolled up to the plane, a trudge through the steaming tropical heat to a slightly bedraggled building with mostly open-air corridors that all caused a sweat-stained shirt before you even got through customs. Today, the Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport is a gleaming, modern building with huge shiny steel arches, marble floors, air conditioning and a sense that you could be anywhere, if it weren’t for the Flor de Cana rum billboards and a smattering of folkloric artifact stands in the wide corridors. Or when you ask to be taken to the Hotel Intercontinental (the hotel of choice for the army of foreign reporters in country back in the day), you end up at a gleaming high-rise in the middle of a business district, not the old pyramid shaped edifice that it used to occupy and where Howard Hughes spent some of his last years—that’s a Crowne Plaza now.

Each change is a not so gentle reminder that the Nicaragua of the 1970s and 1980s, at the epicenter of the Cold War struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union, and locked in its own internal battles between Marxism and capitalism, is no more. While the scars of nearly 15 years of what amounted to a civil war are barely covered over, there is a sense of vibrancy and forward movement that can’t be ignored. The current economic crisis has caused some disruptions, but not nearly as much as some countries. The agricultural economy is thriving, and current account balances, dependent in part on Nicaraguans overseas, is quite strong.

And, most importantly, the cigar industry is playing a vital role in the health of the economy. In the tobacco areas of the north, Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, the owner of Joya de Nicaragua but also a top economist, estimates 30 percent of the population there, or nearly 500,000 people, depend directly or indirectly on the cigar industry. Nowhere is that more evident than in Estelí, the center of the cigar-producing and tobacco-growing region; once a sleepy small farming community town, it has the trappings of a growing, quite prosperous city by rural, Third World standards. And it seemed at practically every corner there was another cigar factory or warehouse.

My stay began with a reception in Managua for the first annual Nicaraguan Cigar Festival with members of the government’s cabinet, including former Sandinista commandante Bayardo Arce, foreign ambassadors, and America’s own emissary, Robert J. Callahan. Some politics were discussed, but we also spoke about cigars and baseball, a national passion in Nicaragua. He understands the importance of the country’s cigar industry and was happy to be present at the festival, which was supported and attended by every cigar manufacturer with a commitment in the country. It was a strong show of unity.

The launch party was fantastic, with typical Nicaraguan food, several rum cocktails made with Flor de Cana, the outstanding locally-produced rum, and a couple of great cigars, all enjoyed on a red tile terrace covered by a palm frond or palapa roof up on one of the soaring hills above Managua, the city’s lights glistening below as we talked into the night under a full moon. I’ll have more in the next couple of days about the meeting in Estelí, a cigar factory visit, and a long ride back to Managua with Dr. Martinez, which included his detailed history of the Nicaraguan cigar industry.

Click here to check out Nicaragua, Part II.