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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

The customs official sitting behind the battered, avocado-colored metal desk in a tiny basement office at Havana's José Martí Airport was obviously not happy that he had to deal with a cigar-smoking American journalist.

It was just after 3 a.m. last October and I was getting ready to take a flight on Lauda Air Italia to Milan. The customs agent rudely asked me for my passport, as well as for all the sales receipts for the five boxes of cigars in my carry-on bag. The instant I put down my blue passport with an eagle embossed on it and the words "United States of America" printed across the bottom, he turned particularly bad tempered, if not downright aggressive. I felt my palms turning slightly sweaty, a bad reaction my body has when I get nervous.

The uniformed customs man grabbed the receipts from my hand and started comparing them to numbers and signatures on documents from the respective Havana cigar shops that he had on file in his office. He loudly flipped through the memos that were attached to a beaten clipboard. Each flip of a page echoed like the sharp crack of a bullwhip. The silence between the ruffling of the papers was deafening in the dank yellowed office with its dim fluorescent lighting.

I didn't want to say anything, but it was obvious that he couldn't find a memo from the Palacio de Tobaco cigar shop in the La Corona cigar factory in Old Havana. I had bought two boxes of Limitada cigars there the day before. Flipping back and forth with his papers, he was getting really pissed off.

"I bought those Hoyo Limitada Pyramides from the cigar shop in La Corona," I said in Spanish with a thick American accent in hopes of calming the situation.

That didn't help. He glared at me and continued to get agitated at the papers on his desk. Finally, he took out a handheld black light and flashed the hand-written receipts, looking for some sort of watermark.  To his chagrin, they checked out.

"Show me your cigars," he demanded with the face of a dogged boxer.

I nervously opened my black nylon bag and clumsily pulled out the cigars. Each of the five boxes had the new, small hologram sticker on their lower right-hand corner. According to new Cuban customs regulations, no cigar boxes can leave the island without the hologram sticker. It looks like a clear postage stamp with a line of black numbers and letters on the bottom. In addition, if you look under a light in the right way, it reads "Aqui, Su Garantia" with "Habanos" and "Cuba" underneath. In other words, "Here, Your Guarantee…Habanos, Cuba."

After checking that each box had the sticker, the official began to open each one and visually inspect the cigars. My Italian buddy standing next to me was starting to look really worried. I hadn't noticed, but sweat was running off his forehead and he had a very frightened look on his face. It was just the sort of behavior that I didn't need, because I could only hope it didn't add to my problems with the customs guy. I started to have visions of the customs official taking me into a room with a glass toilet bowl or an X-ray machine. Was this going to be like the movie Midnight Express?

"I only have six boxes of cigars," I quietly said to myself in hopes of mellowing out a bit. "And they are real. They aren't fakes, man. There won't be a problem."

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."

I didn't want to be rude, but I was wondering what garbage can he had pulled the cigars from. They were spongy with light wrappers and uneven ends. The box was roughly finished and the paper lining inside looked like used rolling papers. And though the bands looked good, they were the old bands and not the gold-embossed ones now on Cohiba cigars.

"Thank you very much, but I have all the cigars I need," I said to him. If the new regulations help cut the traffic in smokes like these, God bless the government.

The new rules for personal export will also have an effect on the sales of custom-made cigars in Havana cigar shops. This was a booming business in recent years. All of the best cigar shops in the capital have rollers, who are more than happy to roll whatever your heart desires -- from robustos to Salomons. And they are usually a fraction of the cost of the actual brands.

Of course, the blend of tobacco will not be like the original item. According to Fernando Lopez, the head of all of Cuba's cigar factories, the shops get the "leftovers" for custom rolling. Moreover, the rollers do not know the true blend for a Partagas, Cohiba or anything else. Plus, you don't receive the cigars in a box or with a band.

This all said, these custom smokes can be very good cigars and are generally perfectly constructed, a rare attribute in official Habanos cigars until recently. In the past, I knew cigar aficionados who bought only "bespoken" cigars when they were in Havana. A few even said that they did their own tobacco blends -- whatever that means.

However, I doubt the buyers are blending many cigars these days, or even buying custom-rolled smokes. Like fake Cuban-cigar smugglers, they are probably finding it very difficult to get their smokes off the island -- especially if they receive the same treatment from customs that I did on my last trip to Cuba.

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