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Havana Corner: Customs and Counterfeits

Posted: May 16, 2003
U.S. Customs guys get a bad rap. They are not all voraciously against anyone going to Cuba or anticipating with glee the opportunity to destroy all Cuban cigars coming across their paths. I am sure that most think that the embargo and confiscating Cuban cigars is a load of BS But they have to do their jobs.

Of course, it's easy for me to say because I fall under a general license with the U.S. Treasury Department that allows me to travel legally to Cuba, and I can come back with $100 worth of Cuban goods. But in 11 years of traveling to Cuba, I have only been hassled once, and that was in Nassau, the Bahamas, where I think U.S. Customs officers are as bent as a lightning rod hit by a million-volt bolt.

I just arrived last week in Miami, and the Customs agents couldn't have been nicer. Maybe they are more used to encountering legal travelers to Cuba and know the score better, considering the tens of thousands of Cuban Americans who travel between Miami and Cuba each year. Regardless, they know a lot of what is going on with people arriving from the island.

I walked through Customs after flying from Havana to Miami with a customs declaration form that said I had been on the island. The customs agent who met me immediately asked what business I had been doing "down there."

"I am the European editor of Cigar Aficionado," I said.

"Okay," he said. "I don't smoke cigars, but what do you think about the quality right now coming out of Cuba?"

"This guy is very cool indeed," I thought to myself. Where else in the world would someone ask me that? I was just going through customs in Havana a few days before and the customs agent there asked for my life story over 20 minutes. I almost thought that I was going to have a body search sooner or later, but thank God I didn't.

"We have seen a lot of cigars with worms and all sorts of terrible things in them when we cut them open after people try to bring them in illegally," he said.

"Those are fakes," I said. "I promise you."

"I don't think so," said the officer. "We are sure they are real."

Of course, I am the last one to argue with a Customs officer, and, furthermore, I appreciated his enthusiasm for Cuban cigars. But I am sure he is wrong. The cigars he was talking about are surely fakes. In any case, I gave him a current issue of Cigar Aficionado and went on my way.

I can't tell you how tired I am of counterfeit Cuban cigars. It is a cancer that continues to grow and it makes me sick. Apparently there are already Cohiba Siglo VI and Partagas Serie D No. 2 cigars on the market and almost all are fakes, particularly those being sold over the Internet from the United Kingdom. A limited number of the new Cohiba size has been shipped to the U.K. market, but everything else is fake.

The Cubans have already issued a warning on their Internet site, www.habanossa.com. It warns consumers to be wary of all Siglo VIs currently on the market that do not come from official sources. Moreover, Habanos says that the new Cohibas will only be generally available on the market in June. So beware.

The Cubans have also started using a new transparent seal on all boxes of Cuban cigars sold in official stores on the island. It's slightly larger than a postage stamp, with a hologram and a series of small numbers. The seal has even been placed on old boxes of cigars in customers' private lockers. Now, any box leaving the island will need the seal as well as an official receipt. In the past, a person could leave the island with up to 50 cigars without anything, but now that number has been reduced to 23. They chose that number because the minimum number of cigars in an official box is 24, which covers a box of Trinidad Fundadores.

Inevitably, it won't be long before someone starts reproducing the new seal. But apparently its duplication will be extremely difficult due to the way it was printed. In any case, it's all a step in the right direction against the counterfeiters.


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