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Industry Legend Dr Martinez Cuenca. Every industry has legends. Some unsung heroes, some famous names. A few names that will remain in everybody’s memories forever, most will fade away over time. Some that have left us, some still alive. These legends all played their part to make the cigar industry what it is today. And they deserve to be remembered, to be recognized for their achievements. That’s why Ministry of Cigars is creating a series of articles about those legendary figures in the cigar industry.

Today’s industry legend isn’t part of the series because he is a master blender. It’s not because he grows the best tobacco in the world. He is also not the founder of a cigar factory or brand that shook the world. But without this man, the oldest cigar factory in Nicaragua would have been lost forever. Without a doubt, Joya de Nicaragua would not be around if it wasn’t for Dr. Martinez Cuenca.

Ministry of Cigars - Industry Legend Dr Martinez Cuenca
Dr Martinez Cuenca

Founding fathers and dictators

Juan Francisco Bermejo and Simon Camacho, two Cuban refugees, are the founding fathers of the factory. Their first brand was Joya de Nicaragua, a cigar that made it to the green room of the White House within a few years. The American diplomats and President Nixon were looking for a replacement cigar as diplomatic gifts instead of Cubans. When someone brought a box of Joya de Nicaragua to the White House, it was a hit. When the Nicaraguan dictator of that time, Somoza, came to meet Nixon in 1971, he was surprised to see a box of Joya de Nicaragua.

Ministry of Cigars - Industry Legend Dr Martinez Cuenca
The first ever picture taken inside the Joya factory

But Somoza wanted a piece of the pie. An investigation into the company was started. Unpaid loans were found, and Somoza gave Camacho and Romero 48 days to solve it or he would acquire 75% of the stock. And of course, the young brand could not resolve the loan so quickly. Just a few years later Somoza had all stock. First Camacho, and later Romero, sold their stake to him.

Nationalization

And then the revolution came. The Sandinista revolutionaries won the civil war and all of Somoza’s assets were nationalized. Dr. Martinez Cuenca was minister of foreign trade for the Sandinista government. President Reagan installed an embargo against Nicaragua and the Joya de Nicaragua brand was briefly made in Honduras. Before selling his shares to Somoza, Simon Camacho sold the trademark to Hollco-Rohr, now a part of Altadis USA. But in the 1990s, Dr. Martinez Cuenca bought the rights back from Altadis. Yet, let’s not jump to there yet.

When the Sandinista government lost the free elections in 1990, the factory was handed to the workers. But imagine 80 owners and no boss. So that project was a failure. In 1992 Leonel Raudez begged Dr. Martinez Cuenca for help as the factory was about to close. Dr. Martinez Cuenca bought the company and went to work. He brought back the oldest and best rollers. This was right before the cigar boom of 1995 where tobacco was worth more than gold. Yet, during his time as a minister in the Sandinista regime, Martinez Cuenca helped tobacco growers to get a visa to travel in and out of Nicaragua. Especially the brothers’ Alfredo & Silvio Perez. With their ASP, they are one of the main tobacco growers in Nicaragua. They remembered how Martinez Cuenca helped them and they repaid the favor. And it was that Ecuador Connecticut and that boom that secured the future of Joya de Nicaragua. But also other contacts that Martinez Cuenca made during his time as minister proved to be very useful. Contacts such as the Plasencia family.

The name

Now back to the trademark. We now all know the brand as Joya de Nicaragua, the factory is Fabrica de Tabacos Joya de Nicaragua. But that wasn’t the original name. At first, it was Nicaragua Cigars. But in 1994, when Martinez Cuenca bought the brand, he changed it to Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua. After buying back the Joya de Nicaragua trademark it took a few more years to change the name of the whole company to Joya de Nicaragua. That only happened in 2005. And buying back the trademark took three years, but Martinez Cuenca knew how important it was to get that name back. For both historical reasons and for the future.

Dr. Martinez Cuenca is still very much involved in the company although his son, Juan Martinez is now the president of the company. Under his leadership, Joya de Nicaragua is adding new and hip blends without losing sight of history. A history that would have been forgotten history if it wasn’t for Industry Legend Dr. Martinez Cuenca. Without him, Nicaragua’s oldest brand would be a thing of the past, yet now it has a bright future.

previous articles from the Industry Legend’s series:
Don Pepin Garcia
Richard Meerapfel
Benji Menendez
Alejandro Robaina
Henke Kelner
Kiki Berger 
Julio Eiroa
Arsenio Ramos
Ernesto Perez Carrillo
Carlos Fuente Sr.

Photo credit header photo  Ilse Orsel on Unsplash. All other photos in this article are courtesy of Joya de Nicaragua.

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