To cigar smokers, Nicaragua is already legendary. Through regime change, social upheaval, and revolution, this Latin American nation has produced some of the world's finest tobacco. And since the post-1959 "cigar diaspora" - when many of Cuba's great cigar makers fled the country to seek more propitious conditions than those they expected to find under Castro - it's produced many of the world's finest cigars, too.
Since 1959, Nicaragua has been a cigar powerhouse, producing some of the highest-ranked and best-selling premium cigars in the world: CAO, Perdomo, Padron, Don Pepin Garcia and Drew Estate among many others. It competes even with the wares of the Dominican Republic and Cuba, currently the cigar world's reigning superpowers. But there's a lot more to this country than just great smokes: from the marvelous ancient footprints of Acahualinca to the fact that it was the first Latin American nation to elect a woman President, Nicaragua has a history worth knowing about - and one that may impact its future as a cigar lover's capital.
Roughly the size of New York, the country is rich in natural resources - so much so that nearly twenty percent of its territory is taken up by one or another officially-designated nature preserve. Predictably, this fertile and beautiful country has been the subject of frequent political power struggles: first between the various Spanish Conquistadores and the indigenous population, which has had a presence in the area for at least six thousand years and was nearly wiped out by 1529. Nicaragua was later annexed by the Mexican Empire, finally achieving independence in 1838; since then, rival conservative and liberal factions have fought each other for control of the country's destiny. There was civil war during the 1840s and '50s, during which an American pretender, William Walker, briefly declared himself the country's leader after double-crossing the Liberals who had recruited him to fight in the war. (Several Latin American countries' armies united to chase him out of the country the following year, in 1856.)
This pattern - conservative-vs.-liberal infighting, with occasional interference from the nearest world power - continued through the twentieth century. A US-backed Conservative regime ruled for decades early in the century, with Marines occupying the country from 1912 to 1933. Left-wing guerilla Augusto Sandino led an effort to expel them, which was partially successful; but Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a conservative, later secretly ordered his assassination, putting an end to a brief left-and-right coalition government. The Somozas ruled until 1979, when a party named after that dead guerilla - the FSLN, or Sandinista party - ousted them from power. The wheel turns again. And again: during the '80s, the country was torn apart by war between the right-wing, US-backed Contras and the left-wing, ruling Sandinistas (who, on the good side, reduced the country's widespread illiteracy by a stunning forty percent within five months, but on the bad side, committed human rights violations during the civil war).
The Sandinistas, incidentally, almost destroyed the country's preeminence among cigar-tobacco growers. In trying to put the desperately-poor, and politically encircled, nation on a more secure economic footing, the Sandinistas ordered tobacco farmers to switch to cultivating cigarette tobacco. (This was before the "cigar boom" of the 1990s; many observers expected the market for cigars to continue to dwindle.) Wherever a person may come down politically, cigar smokers can agree that this was a mistake!
Both sides in the nation's long culture war were heavily hit in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch, one of many natural disasters to wreak havoc on this beleaguered country. After decades of civil war had handicapped its economy and wrecked much of its infrastructure, this cataclysmic hurricane did away with nearly seventy percent of the infrastructure still standing at the time.
Under the circumstances, it's amazing that Nicaragua continues to enjoy the regional importance that it does - but sometimes amazing things happen. Nicaragua makes three hundred million in exports every year (mostly agricultural), boasts one of the best-regarded rums in Latin America (Flor de Cana), enjoys a flourishing tourism industry and, of course, makes some truly heavenly tobacco. Though it's considered a developing nation, it did recently earn a ranking from the World Bank as the sixty-second best place to start a new business - the highest-performing Central American country in this particular ranking, except for Panama.
Some US cigar fans went on high alert recently when the Sandinistas, in the person of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, retook the country's highest office in the 2006 election. (Yet another turn of the wheel.) So, will history repeat itself, with the currently-ruling left faction pulling the country out of the cigar market again, as it did in the early 1980s? No - or at least not yet. After two years, the country's cigar industry seems to be holding steady. At least one news source reported in 2007 that members of one of the island's top cigar-producing families claim to be Sandinistas, which should give them an "in" with the government that wasn't available twenty years ago. Other cigar experts are also recommending cautious optimism. Maybe history isn't an entirely closed circle.
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