Those who love cigars know that Honduras is one of the world's best places to make them. After all, this Latin American country has been a prime tobacco-growing location for centuries, and its cigar industry boomed again after 1959, when many longtime Cuban cigar makers fled the Castro regime for neighboring countries - including this one.
No wonder that Honduran cigars - including those from La Fontana, Camacho, Carlos Torano and La Libertad - sell better than any others in the United States, with the exception of the Dominican Republic.
But how many of us know much about this rich, fascinating country? Like the other Latin American countries which might be said to form the world's "cigar belt" - Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Mexico - Honduras's past affects its position as a producer of fine tobaccos - and just possibly its future.
Honduras is, first of all, a proud and epic country: the Mayan Empire, during its classic period (150-900 CE), built cities near the present-day site of Copan, bequeathing a set of ruins that beguile archaeologists and inspire visitors.
Christopher Columbus "discovered" this country - already rich in lived history - on his fourth voyage of 1502, and even the story behind the country's name is romantic. Columbus, it is held, on reaching the Bay Islands near present-day Honduras's coast, whispered the words "Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de esas Honduras": "Thank God we have emerged from those depths." "Honduras" means "depths," literally and metaphorically.
Honduras was run by the Spaniards until 1821, when it, along with the other Spanish American provinces of the Spanish Empire, gained independence. Border disputes with other Latin American countries, especially El Salvador, have led to intermittent fighting through the years, and the country has suffered under bouts of political oppression, particularly during the 1980s (when extrajudicial executions, torture and "disappearances" became frequent, albeit not as common as in neighboring Nicaragua).
Honduras remains a developing country, especially after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (which also destroyed much of Nicaragua): according to then-President Carlos Roberto Flores, the superstorm destroyed half a century's worth of economic gain and developmental progress in less than a week. Seventy percent of that year's crop died - a small loss for smokers, who depend on the country for its sublime tobacco, but a barely-survivable one for the nation's small farmers.
But the country did survive. In recent years it's even boasted an annual growth rate of seven percent - one of the best in Latin America. (Still, half the population remains in poverty.)
Along with the cultural and personal strength that allowed Hondurans to survive such a disaster, the country is also strong in another kind of resource: ecological ones. In less than fifty thousand square miles, it contains over six thousand species of plants, two hundred kinds of reptiles, and seven hundred bird species. In the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve - added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites in 1982 - it boasts one of the world's great rainforests.
These areas may hold the key to greater understanding of evolutionary and biological history, or to new drugs. Like several other Latin American countries which depend largely on farming, yet are blessed with ample ecological resources which must be maintained, the country has faced and will continue to face a difficult balancing act in deciding how to use, without exploiting, its environmental riches (which include the soil in which its excellent tobacco is grown).
Given tobacco's importance as a cash crop - it gives Hondurans something to sell to the United States, and it also gives them a certain leverage with other Latin American countries, as tobaccos of all types flourish in its soil - it's not surprising that Honduras is not following in the anti-smoking footsteps of, say, Brazil.
Percentages of smokers are still relatively high (in the low thirties for men, a rate comparable to that of the US) and public smoking regulations are fairly light (you can't smoke on the bus or in the hospital, basically). Perhaps this is one tobacco-producer that smokers should consider seeing firsthand. After all, with its considerable natural beauty and light regulation of smoking, this could be a cigar lover's paradise!
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