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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 2)

At other major ports of entry, such as Logan International Airport in Boston (which receives daily international flights from Geneva), a Customs official claims that Cuban cigars have never been a headache because, to his knowledge, none have ever been seized. The story is similar at Dulles airport in suburban Washington, D.C. Referring to the seizure of Cuban cigars, Tony De Felippo, chief inspector of passenger operations at Dulles, says, "it happens, and when it does we reluctantly enforce the rules." At Kennedy International Airport in New York, Customs officials were uncooperative. It is unclear whether this was due to policy or some ongoing investigation (Kennedy has been the focal point of interdicting Cuban cigars in recent years), but questions about Customs operations at the airport were dodged and attempts to visit Customs at Kennedy were refused.

Publicly, officials at OFAC take a dim view of lax embargo enforcement. However, one official, who does not wish to be identified, says, "no one has ever told me not to enforce the law, but if you have a docket full of murderers and then a guy spitting on the sidewalk, what's going to take precedent?" The official adds that in south Florida not many juries would be likely to convict someone for trafficking cigars.

But according to federal law, the mere possession of Cuban cigars is equivalent to guilt. In other words, if authorities can prove that you have the goods, you are in direct violation of TWEA. Luckily, most travelers and smugglers know that Uncle Sam doesn't have the time, personnel or money to bother with small-time embargo breakers.

In Miami, where the Cuban-American community is especially powerful, Customs officials are noticeably rattled by the embargo's anomalies. A 12-year veteran at Customs and part of a special-embargo-enforcement task force isn't afraid to lay it on the line: "You are talking about the paradox of the Cuban embargo here. [Cuban-Americans] say Castro must be overthrown and the embargo must be enforced. But the biggest violators of the embargo are Cuban-Americans. So you think I'm going to knock myself out trying to enforce this when they don't even know what they want? Do you want cops in the street to stop jaywalkers or homicides? Hey, I'll stop cigars, but don't come crying to me when your old lady gets whacked."

Customs readily acknowledges that small parcels of cigars for personal use get through (by mail and by hand) but OFAC has operations in place to stop bigger violators: the few retailers who sell Cuban cigars. There have been wild estimates on the number of Cuban cigars that were smuggled into the United States until 1991; the estimates range between 5 and 10 million cigars per year. Yet most people who monitor the industry--and even people involved with interdiction--agree that illegal sales of Havana cigars at the retail level have declined in this country. Although demand is still quite high, Cuban production has fallen off sharply. There just isn't enough merchandise to go around.

And because retailers can lose their licenses for dealing in contraband, most agree that it would be economic suicide even to try--especially with sales of legal cigars up as much as 30 percent (see "Rolling Along," page 231).

With so few Cuban cigars available and demand riding an upward trend, some Americans violate both travel and trade restrictions to buy Havanas. And occasionally, things get a little scary even before the cigars leave Havana.

Dave Fauci* had just spent 10 days in the Cuban capital, socializing, drinking rum and smoking fantastic cigars. A Hollywood star, he had been courted like a prince. Every woman wanted to meet him and wherever he went, people gave him boxes of cigars.

Leaving the country was disconcerting to Fauci, if only because he would eventually have to arrange to get 42 boxes of cigars (20 of which had been gifts) back to his California home. However, Fauci, like most illegal travelers to Cuba, was flying via a third country--one that doesn't have any trade or travel restrictions with the island nation.

As he checked his baggage at Varadero airport, a small international hub west of Havana, trouble began. Fauci (unaware that Cuba allows only seven boxes of cigars per tourist) was asked to produce receipts for his Cuban purchases, but he didn't have receipts for the 20 gift boxes of cigars. "I was directed towards a small room. It was stiflingly hot and dark in there, and there were five guys with machine guns. It was like a scene out of Midnight Express.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Mike Chingon November 10, 2010 7:04pm ET


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