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Midnight Express in Havana

Cubans tighten customs regulations for cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

(continued from page 1)

The agent examined the box of Limitada Hoyos, then the Diplomaticos No. 2s, and so on. He carefully gazed at each one like an antique expert might review the quality of some furniture ready to be sold in a Christie's or Sotheby's auction.

In addition to the boxes, I had a Ziploc bag full of 23 robustos without bands that had been rolled for me in one of the cigar shops in Havana. I had 23 cigars because that is the new export limit for loose cigars for individuals, according to the new regulations that went into effect in early October. The customs man looked at them but didn't make any comments.

"That's it," he said. "Buenos tobacos" -- good cigars.

He wasn't smiling. In fact, he was probably annoyed that he didn't get the chance to confiscate my smokes.

My friend, Cesare, was next, and he got the royal treatment by comparison. The customs inspector couldn't have been nicer -- I thought he might even ask him out for a drink after their little get-together. He was done in about two minutes. "Have a nice trip back to Italy," he said with a smile.

The entire experience was impressive. I have been going to Cuba for more than a decade, and I have seldom been scrutinized so closely by customs. I had seen people carrying 200-pound duffel bags stretched to the seams with boxes of cigars and customs officials not batting an eye. Of course, $20 or $30 in the right hands certainly helped. But that doesn't appear to be part of the deal anymore.

The government is obviously serious about cracking down on the traffic in fake cigars. As most aficionados know, it's a huge problem. Although Cuban officials do not like to admit it, I believe a large percentage of the bogus Habanos come directly from the island and not from the Dominican Republic, Panama or some other Latin American country. Just walk down a street in Old Havana and see how many times you are offered cigars. I did that on my last trip and I was offered cigars 15 times in a little less than an hour. Most of the cigar jockeys said that they had a relative or friend who worked in one of the Havana factories and that the cigars were real, not fakes. "Just come with me and take a look at them," they said.

I even told one of them that I worked in the cigar business. "Then you will know that they are real when you see them," he replied.

"Cheeky bastard," I thought to myself. "No gracias," I replied.

I couldn't seem to get away from fake cigars in Havana on my last trip. I was staying in a private house in the area of Miramar with a couple of friends, and a few minutes after we arrived, the guy who ran the property immediately offered us some Cohiba Siglo VIs for $35 a box . "These are really good quality," he said. "I can get you whatever you need."

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