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Cigar Diary: Fighting Counterfeits

Habanos S.A., Cuba's global cigar distribution company, struggles to keep fake cigars off the market, both in Cuba and around the world
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

Fake Cuban cigars were not an official topic of discussion during this February's cigar festival in Havana. Consumers and cigar merchants around the world descended again on the Cuban capital to smoke cigars and attend cocktail parties, dinners and seminars. But while counterfeits weren't part of the official agenda, nearly everyone at the conference knew that false cigars remain a problem.

"Hey, friend. You want to buy some cigars?" said an Afro-Cuban dude with mirrored sunglasses and a big smile that almost shouted that he was selling fakes. I was walking down Calle Obispo from the El Floridita bar to Plaza de Armas, one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares in the oldest part of Havana. "Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta…just what you like."

"No thank you," I said, slightly annoyed that his pestering was ruining a good stroll, especially after a couple of Daiquiris and a good Partagas Serie D No. 4 robusto. "I have all the cigars that I need."

A few minutes later, another guy launched into his cigar hustle. He was much more aggressive, bordering on belligerent. He could have been the other guy's brother, same glasses, same smile. "You want to buy cigars, man?" he said in English. "I have everything you need: Cohiba, Vegas Robaina, whatever."

"How much?" I said, thinking it was my journalistic duty to find out what the going rate was. It is usually about $20 for a box of 25, but this guy looked like a real shark.

"Man, you are not going to buy anyway. So don't waste my time," he answered. "You show me the money and I will tell you the price."

What a jerk, I thought. What's a guy like that doing on the street in Havana? I thought security was serious in Cuba? He was obviously dealing in something, wearing his fancy suit, slick T-shirt and modern sunglasses while just about every other Cuban walking down the street looked as if he had visited a discount clothing store 10 years ago.

However, the cops on the street did nothing. They stood there, just watching the day go by. That's been the crux of the problem with fakes in Cuba. Nobody has done enough over the years to stop the problem.

Sources at Habanos S.A., the global distribution arm for Cuban cigars, said that Cuban customs officials confiscated about 700,000 cigars last year. But that is a drop in the bucket. Just think about it for a second. If only half the visitors to Cuba each year took a box of fakes out of the country in their luggage, the total would surpass 18 million cigars. Obviously, most of the fakes out of Havana are leaving the island in a much more organized way.

I find it hard to believe that more can't be done to curb the problem with fake cigars. Cuba is known to have one of the world's most impressive domestic intelligence networks, so how come the government can't clamp down on cigar counterfeiters and bootleggers? Maybe Cuban officials just haven't made that a priority, or worse, maybe the trafficking of fake cigars is condoned on certain levels of the bureaucracy.


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