A thriving tobacco industry transformed the former Nicaraguan farming town of Estelí into a Mecca for cigar smokers.
Walking around Estelí, you might not notice the ubiquitous cigar factories at first. They often don’t advertise their existence, but once you start smelling tobacco it seems you can’t throw a stone in either direction without hitting one. It’s an industry that has made this northern mountain town richer than most cities in the country. A vast majority of the country’s factories is situated here and it is estimated that 25 percent of the city’s population lives off the tobacco, in one way or another. According to the Nicaraguan Cigar Association (Asociación Nicaragüense del Puro – ANP), the industry generates more than 20,000 job opportunities directly and 100,000 indirectly nationwide.
“When the factories started opening up in the city centre instead of on the outskirts there were initially some complaints about the odor and increased traffic, but after a while, people welcomed them,” says Harvey Benavides, owner of an export/import company in Estelí called Aeromar. “They knew it meant more jobs and opportunities to change people’s lives. Estelíanos have since benefited continuously, both socially and economically, from a production that annually generates more than $100 million.”
At the Plasencia factory, brand ambassador Sergio Torres Rodriguez guides me around, explaining what turned this former agricultural centre into the Central American Mecca of cigars. “The black soil around the city is perfect for tobacco growing, as well as the climate,” he says. “Recently a client of ours told us that, according to a worldwide study, Estelí has the best sunlight for tobacco in the world. The altitude is also good and there’s not a lot of wind.”
The founder of the factory, Sixto Plasencia, came over from Cuba like so many other tobacco farmers in the Sixties, during the United States’ trading embargo. Cigars have been produced in the area for over 60 years and the first cigar factory in Central America, Joya de Nicaragua, was established even before the Cuban revolution, so it’s not really fair to say it all started with the trade embargo, but it was the start of something bigger. “President Anastasio Somoza wanted to evolve the industry, so he welcomed Cuban technicians to Nicaragua to start working with tobacco,” explains Rodriguez.
When the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza and came into power in 1979, Sixto Plasencia and many of his fellow countrymen and tradesmen chose to remain in the country. At least to begin with. Another American embargo, imposed on Nicaragua this time, made some of the Cubans temporarily move to neighbouring countries, but the majority came back. In the Nineties the industry boomed.
“For the most part, the Cuban expat community stayed out of politics during the Sandinista revolution and President Daniel Ortega rewarded them by allowing them to keep their land. Out of this community has sprung the thriving tobacco industry the town is now famous for,” says Erik McDonald, an American cigar passionado who has lived in the city for nearly two years. “It’s great. If you’re here even for just a week you can easily get to know the right people and then you just end up being handed cigars.” They are indeed easy to befriend. It’s a small town and if you see someone smoking a cigar from Estelí in Estelí they’re most likely foreigners. Basically all Puros are exported.
To avoid paying taxes to the state, most factories and producers are part of a Free Zone Act, which forbids them to sell cigars to Nicaraguan companies as well as Nicaraguans. It doesn’t seem to bother the general population too much, however.
“It’s neither cheap nor easy for Estelíanos to buy cigars, but there’s never been a social uproar about this,” says Roberto Blandón, Assistant Manager at Aeromar. “It’s simply because there’s never been a strong cigar culture in Estelí.” Even so, it’s not so unusual to see a football player smoking a five-inch Puro minutes before a game, or an old lady carrying groceries in one hand and a lit cigar in the other.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2012. Read more