Losing all its property in a revolution is enough to take most companies out of an industry. Nestor Plasencia has suffered this loss in both Cuba and Nicaragua. He is now in control of tobacco growing on perhaps the largest scale in Central America.
Today the Plasencia family controls cigar leaf production on more than 3,000 acres in Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica. They are cigar factory owners who manage the creation of many of the best Rocky Patel, Alec Bradley, Villiger, Casa Magna, and countless boutique brands of cigars. Six-thousand employees in Nicaragua and Honduras alone work for their companies. Their tobacco is used in most of the world’s important cigar factories.
Nestor Plasencia Sr. is the current leader of the company. He confidently travels between facilities in Honduras and Nicaragua keeping a close watch on the tobacco as it grows from seed to plant and moves from processing to becoming a premium cigar. With an operation this large, it takes many people to maintain high quality. Fortunately, Nestor Junior, his second son, loves the business as much as dad and has become his right-hand man. Impressive as the current company is, the story of the current day Plasencia business starts with Nestor Sr.’s father, Sixto Plasencia, in the fields of Cuba. Let’s start there.
For many generations the Plasencia family lived in San Luis, a small but important part of Cuba. San Luis is a small tobacco-farming town in Pinar del Río. It is known as the heart of tobacco wrapper-leaf production. The famous families Eiroa, Robaina and Fuego all grew wrapper in this small area.
It was a landscape dotted by tobaccocuring barns, traversed by oxen pulling carts of leaf, and lush green fields – an idyllic farming community. Sixto Plasencia, Nestor’s father, farmed approximately 130 acres of tobacco and had 600 beef cattle on his other land.
He was a successful tobacco farmer until October 3, 1963. Fidel Castro’s land reforms reached Sixto’s family just a few years into the Revolution. But it dealt a mighty blow. The farm was confiscated and Sixto was left with only his house, car, and a small piece of his farm. Nestor Sr. was 14 years old and helping his father on the farm when it happened.
To Mexico and Beyond
Sixto determined that the best thing for his family was to leave Cuba and find a better life for his wife, Felicita Fernandez de Plasencia, and two sons, Nestor and Gustavo. In 1965 Sixto was able to find employment with a Jamaican company and he began the process of leaving Cuba for Jamaica.
Leaving Cuba was not easy. Sixto could only get a visa to enter Mexico or Spain. On May 21, 1965, the family left their farm behind and flew to Mexico City on a short-term visa. Before they left Cuba, the government took inventory of their farm house and made sure that they didn’t take any Cuban state property with them. This included nearly everything. They even counted plates and coffee cups.
In Mexico, Sixto was befallen by a serious setback. One day before the family was scheduled to leave for Jamaica, he got word that the company had gone bankrupt. His secure job and new life vanished. With little money and time, Sixto needed to leave Mexico and find a way to support his young family.
Julio Eiroa, later known for Camacho cigars, was a friend from San Luis and by this time had set up business in Honduras. Though Julio was out of the country and unable to offer Sixto a job, he was able to arrange visas for the family to enter Honduras. So Don Sixto changed his flight from Jamaica to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Starting Fresh in Honduras
“Tegucigalpa was pretty small then,” Nestor explains. Compared with Havana and Mexico City, Tegucigalpa in the 1960s must have felt like a cow town. By this time, Sixto was nearly out of money. He sent telegraph messages to extended friends and family wherever they were. Everyone was suffering at that time but a little money came to Sixto in the form of five, twenty-five, and one-hundred dollars.
Newly in Honduras, with only one-hundred dollars, Sixto found himself at the airport with his family and nobody to greet them. He asked a taxi driver to take them to an inexpensive hotel, but one that was clean, because his wife and sons were with him. They ended up at the Hotel Boston, a very modest hotel in Tegucigalpa.
Immediately Sixto began searching for familiar names and faces. He needed to find work before running out of money in this strange country. In a moment of pure luck, Sixto found Raul Leon, a tobacco grower and broker from San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba.
He happened to be in Tegucigalpa and owned a farm in southern Honduras. Raul offered him a job within two hours of reaching Honduras. Two hours later, Angel Oliva reached out to Sixto to offer him another job. Fortune shone down on Sixto that day.
Nestor believes that it was because of Sixto’s good reputation in Cuba that he was able to receive those offers so quickly. So, the family moved to Danlí to work on the farm. Though they were starting over, they were once again surrounded by tobacco and some familiar faces.
There was no house for the Plasencias in Danlí. So in one corner of the tobacco processing building, they built walls and set up a makeshift house next to the piles of tobacco. Their temporary housing was next to the Danlí cemetery and every day they would see funerals proceed past their home.
After one month in Danlí, Sixto moved his family to Estelí, Nicaragua. Nestor Sr. describes moving from the small town of Danlí and reaching the Nicaraguan border, “When we got to Nicaragua the roads were paved!”
We were the first Cuban family to move to Estelí.
Nineteen-sixties Nicaragua was a much more developed place than Honduras and more resembled home than Danlí. Nestor Sr. proudly explains, “We were the first Cuban family to move to Estelí, there were individuals but we were the first family.”
Nestor Sr. went to high school in Estelí, then university and the highly regarded Escuela Internacional de Agricultura in Rivas, Nicaragua. His brother Gustavo moved to Spain to study medicine. In December 1969, Nestor Sr. was married to Melalina Torres de Plasencia, and in 1970 he went to work with his father in the tobacco fields of Jalapa.
The father-and-son team impressed the tobacco buyers with their dedication and the quality of their leaf, particularly Candela. In 1971, they acquired a new farm in Jalapa called El Coyol. It was about 140 acres, a big farm for that period. For the first time, Nestor Sr. had a stake in a farm and received 50% of the profits.
Because tobacco was a profitable crop, Sixto and Nestor did well. But tobacco also attracted investment from the ruling family, the Somozas. They had partial ownership of a different, and larger, farm in Jalapa. As the guerrilla war began to take form, the family became concerned about the security of their business. So in the season 1978–79 they hedged their risk and rented a farm in Jamastran, across the border in Honduras.
This turned out to be a wise decision. Nestor explained, “It became dangerous to be Cuban in Jalapa, so we left.” Their farm was confiscated, divided into pieces and given to many small farmers. Not again until 1991 would the Plasencia family have any farming operations in Nicaragua.
Debt and Bad Crops
Because they moved to Honduras, the Plasencias were still able to supply their customers with wrapper leaf. In 1980 they planted 120 acres, three times what they had planted in 1979. The business grew rapidly to catch up with demand. In 1980–81 they planted 300 acres in both Jamastran and Trojes, Honduras.
In 1981–82 they increased farming to 500 acres. As they expanded rapidly, and borrowed heavily, disaster struck. Blue mold ruined most of the crop. Only 10% of the crop was sellable as wrapper.
Because the fields were rented and not owned, this left them with unpaid debt. Terrible harvests, shrinking production, and high interest rates saw Nestor Sr. accumulate a debt of ten million dollars by the end of the 1980s.
But while this debt grew, Nestor developed a new line of business. The family started rolling cigars. They began with ten rollers in 1985. This new business and external factors would help him to dig out of the hole of debt within just a few years.
“These were the hard years,” Nestor says. Honduras’ external debt grew dramatically in the 1980s and creditors became worried that they would never see their money again. They briefly allowed debtors to pay back their loans at 20% of the face value. Nestor saw that he could reduce his debts from ten million to two million if he could only get his hands on two million dollars. He hit the road and found banks willing to lend him two million and was able to reduce his debt dramatically. Then in 1990, Swisher International closed its factory in Tampa. Nestor won the contract to roll 60% of their cigars at his new facility in Honduras. That year he massively increased his production to ten million cigars. That year he paid off the first of the two million that he owed.
In 1991 he succeeded in paying off the second million and reached the enviable status of “broke.” But his business was growing and reputation was stronger than ever.
The Growth Years
With revolutions and debt behind him, Nestor Sr. kept his business strong in Honduras. In 1990, a new government came to power in Nicaragua. Nestor returned and though he could not have his farm back in Jalapa, the new government offered him about 370 acres in Estelí for tobacco farming.
This nearly doubled the amount of tobacco he was growing in Honduras. With peace and stability in Central America, Nestor grew his business slowly. In the popular boom of cigars during the mid- 1990s the company benefitted. He gradually added farms, tobacco sorting and aging facilities and factories in both Nicaragua and Honduras.
In cooperation with his sons, he runs farms in Estelí, Condega, Jalapa, Ometepe, Olancho, Jamastran, Talanga, Panama, and Costa Rica. They process leaf in Estelí, Ocotal, El Paraíso, Danlí, and Morocelí. They make cigar boxes and even operate daycare, schools, and health centers for their employees.
As Nestor Jr. takes more responsibility at the company, many dramatic innovations are taking place in the fields. The years 2012/13 saw the first planting of a plant that produces mostly ligero leaves. They also started to grow the Connecticut seed variety in Estelí.
For years, they have been the only large-scale grower of certified organic tobacco. Nestor Jr. explains that the organic tobacco goes into their Reserva Organica cigar. It is an experiment. He wanted to see if it was possible to grow organic tobacco and to taste what the Indians and Columbus would have tasted.
The Plasencia family has been tested. But they have persisted through the generations to continue to push the tobacco and cigar industry forward. Sixto passed away in 1983. With his memory fresh in the minds of Nestor Sr. and Jr., they carry on. Their family legacy has become a lasting example of a familyrun tobacco business.
Nestor Plasencia Sr. was awarded the Cigar Trophy for Lifetime Achievement in 2012.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Autumn Edition 2013. Read more