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Trading With The Enemy

It May Sound Like a Heinous Crime, but Thousands of Americans Violate the Cuban Embargo Every Year
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

(continued from page 1)

Bill Thompson*, a Midwestern entrepreneur and cigar lover, has been smuggling cigars for 20 years, but over the past five years he's lost more cigars than he's received. "Every time I come back from Europe, I've brought cigars with me. When they're in bundles, the guys at Customs will grill me: 'Are you sure these aren't Cubans?' As far as they were concerned, the cigars could have been from any country and then they didn't bother me."

That was before 1989. Since then, Thompson estimates that he has lost about $5,000 worth of cigars. When one of Thompson's boxes was identified as "Honduran cigars," a Customs official told him, "we believe these to be Cuban cigars." That, according to the law, is all the evidence Customs needs to seize the parcel.

"It's not the money that bothers me," says Thompson, rather hurt. "To me, this is a precious commodity."

Thompson's name is in a Customs' file, and it is nearly impossible for him to travel abroad without being searched upon his return. "I was with this lady friend in London a few years back, and I had four or five boxes of Cuban cigars. I said, 'Look, you're British; bring these to the States with you.' She said it wouldn't be a problem.

"Unannounced, she put them in my luggage while I was in the shower. I guess she thought if I wasn't nervous about it, then there wouldn't be a problem." When he got to Customs, Thompson's name came up on the computer. "And here I am, such a conforming fellow: 'Do you have any cigars, Mr. Thompson?' So I said 'no,' with a smile. And the next thing you know they're pulling Cuban cigars out of my bags. I'm thinking, 'holy shit, what did she do?' God, I just put my hands above my head and told them to haul me to jail. It was a sickening feeling."

Thompson didn't go to jail, but he doesn't bring cigars back anymore, either. His name, passport number and address are stored in a computer chip somewhere waiting for him to trip an electronic wire and lose another $400 box of cigars.

Thompson has lost thousands of dollars in cigars, but has never been fined. Under TWEA both civil and criminal fines may be imposed, although there are no strict guidelines or definite dollar amounts and most people end up just losing their cigars. Customs officials around the country concede that the amount of paperwork involved in processing one box of Cuban cigars is just too daunting. In addition, it's bad press if Customs starts to crack down on minor cigar smugglers while dope slips through the cracks.

"We're not looking for [cigars] as hard as we're looking for narcotics," says Bobbi Cassidy, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs in San Diego. "I doubt very much that an entire box would simply be destroyed without accounting, but when you realize that between 35,000 and 45,000 cars pass here every day, you can see what a heavy burden we're under."

Jeff Casey, deputy special agent for U.S. Customs in San Diego, says that almost no case involving smuggled Cuban cigars would be likely to draw the attention of the U.S. Attorney's office. "With the narcotics situation, we're in crisis down here."

A Customs official in Miami defines the problem: "It's not that people aren't concerned about Cuban cigars. But when you have minimums of 10 pounds of coke, 2,000 pounds of marijuana or five pounds of heroin [below which] the U.S. Attorney's office won't even accept the case for federal prosecution--a box of cigars just pales by comparison."

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Mike Chingon November 10, 2010 7:04pm ET


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