This piece was a monster to get through. Or rather a monster of a piece to write. It took more than a month to finally get it online…a lot of research, a lot of drama, a lot of opposition, a lot of words. Really gave me perspective on how lucky we all are.
“This is so amazing!” I quip as I am being driven into the heart of the rum factory. It’s a gorgeous campus of manicured grass and palm trees. Distillery tanks are painted a pearly sheen of white, and hundreds of oak barrels imported from the United States are neatly stacked on top of each other. Each distillery tank contains one million liters of alcohol; there are 18 of them on the campus. From the corner of my eye, I see a group of thin, gaunt workers dressed in dirty protective gear pass by, standing on the back of a large truck—their eyes icy and unemotional.
I’m inside the Flor de Caña rum factory in Chichigalpa, a small town in western Nicaragua, playing the part of an enthusiastic tourist with an extreme knack for questions. With me is a genuinely thrilled family of four visiting from Mexico.
Flor de Caña is Nicaragua’s best-known export, and it has an impressive stash of slow-aged barreled rum—one of the largest in the world. You can find the liquor at virtually every bar in Nicaragua and it’s exported to over 40 countries. My tour guide tells me that the number-one market is Chile, followed by Canada, the United States, and then Nicaragua. The rum is good, and the company has a diverse portfolio. The liquor is smooth, slightly dry, and the aged varieties have hints of vanilla and oak.
Flor de Caña is operated by Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), a subsidiary of Grupo Pellas. Grupo Pellas controls more than 20 companies in the country and boasts $1.5 billion in annual sales, equal to 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Carlos Pellas, the major shareholder in the company and a close friend of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, is Nicaraguan’s first billionaire. His nickname is “the sugar king.”
Chichigalpa’s citizens, many of whom work in the sugarcane fields, are dying at an alarming rate.
Many citizens of Chichigalpa are employed by Flor de Caña and its sugarcane mill, Ingenio San Antonio (ISA). Sugar is Central America’s largest agriculture industry and makes up about 4 percent of the nation’s GDP. ISA produces more than 63 percent of the country’s sugar, equaling almost 17,000 metric tons per day. It also provides Flor de Caña with all the molasses for its rum.
At the rum factory, the Pellas family is naturally regarded with high esteem. There’s an entire exhibit dedicated to their legacy.
I’m shuttled to an old theatre where I watch video presentation chock-full of facts and statistics that praise the Pellas family and its efforts the benefit the community and sustainability. Chichigalpa is a monoculture town, built entirely on the sugarcane industry and intertwined with ISA and Flor de Caña.
I learn that the company has planted 50,000 trees. In the spirit of social responsibility, it has set up schools and a food aid program in Chichigalpa. Its hospitals have facilitated 2,929 births and 9,036 surgeries. It even provided the city with shiny new parks.
The family I’m with on the tour nods with enthusiasm after the video ends, and the five of us pile back on the tram to a private tasting room.
Three miles past the glistening rum factory, down the main street and into the core of the city, the landscape couldn’t be anymore different from the trimmed, green factory grounds. I spend a morning at a community center. Volunteers are preparing lunch when they realize there is no water. A local tells me that water and electricity is unreliable, and by 9 PM, water is shut down.
But it’s more than just shoddy utilities that set this town apart: Chichigalpa’s citizens are dying at an alarming rate.