Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca pointed up at the pock-marked brick facade of the Joya de Nicaragua factory, outlined with mustard-yellow pillars up to the peak of the roof. When they removed layers of paint, the bricks revealed the damage done by mortar fire, and probably .50 caliber machine gun fire, during the Sandinista uprising in Estelí in 1978. Dr. Martinez Cuenca, himself a former Sandinista presidential candidate and the owner of Joya de Nicaragua today, said they had decided to leave the evidence of war as a reminder to everyone how far the country had come.
Dr. Martinez Cuenca had invited some guests to the factory, in advance of a tour given to attendees of the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival, to show off the renovation that had just been completed during the last weeks of 2013, and to talk about his plans for the future. The renovation coincides with the company's 45th anniversary.
The renovation is an accomplishment of reframing an old building with many inefficiencies into a small but modern cigar factory. There are now large rooms on the floor plan, and more room to expand in the future. The rolling room today has about 50 pairs of workers—one man and one woman in each team doing the bunching and the rolling of the wrapper onto the cigar. The factory is currently producing just over four million cigars a year.
But as fascinating as the refurbished factory is today, there is a deeper allure because of its connection to the history of cigars and tobacco in Nicaragua. Black tobacco, the type used in premium handrolled cigars, wasn't even planted in Nicaragua until 1965. The Nicaragua Cigar Co., the forerunner to the Joya de Nicaragua brand, was founded in 1968. The original owners were Juan Francisco Bermejo and Simon Camacho, two Cubans who had spearheaded the cultivation of cigar tobacco in Nicaragua. They had quite a bit of early success, and by 1971, Joya de Nicaragua had become the official cigar at the White House.
It was there, the story goes, that Nicaragua's dictator, Gen. Anastasio Somoza, discovered the cigar, and upon his return to Nicaragua, he exerted pressure on Bermejo and Camacho, taking a majority stake in the company. Over the next few years, he acquired total control of the company. In the years preceding the Sandinista Revolution, the factory had begun to produce more than nine million cigars a year. But its connection to the Somoza regime made it a target in the uprising and it was destroyed. Within four months of the Sandinista victory in 1979, the factory had been rebuilt and was up and running.
Dr. Martinez Cuenca, who acquired the Nicaragua Cigar Co. in 1994, remains very proud of what the factory has accomplished, and is working hard to build on the brand's history. "We are focused on quality, not numbers," he said. "But cigars are one of Nicaragua's best known products, and we have one of the best known trademarks in the world."