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Buy Cuban Cigars, End up in Jail?

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

The last time we looked, the U.S. government was involved in a war in Iraq. President Bush has asserted that it is part of a wider war on terror that we have been engaged in since before 9/11. Wouldn't you think that every available resource would be dedicated to helping the government find terrorists, especially in those branches of the government that have expertise in tracking the movement of financial funds around the world? But would it surprise you to know that the U.S. Treasury Department is continuing to spend money and manpower to find people who are buying Cuban cigars, even outside the United States?

There was a time when these interdiction efforts focused on people who would be stopped at points of entry by U.S. customs agents and have their Cuban cigars confiscated. That effort got more sophisticated when, in several Caribbean airports, U.S. customs agents monitored both incoming flights to Havana and outgoing ones. People were often stopped as they returned to Nassau, questioned about their activities in Cuba and had their cigars confiscated.

Recently, we have been alerted by some of our readers, and some visitors to cigaraficionado.com, that they've been receiving letters from the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department, requesting information about selected purchases from cigar shops in foreign countries. OFAC refused to tell us how they are targeting the individuals who received those letters; Molly Millerwise, who is a public affairs officer for OFAC, said, "We do not discuss law enforcement techniques."

On the one hand, OFAC agents are simply doing their job, and enforcing the law that explicitly prohibits Americans from buying any Cuban product anywhere in the world. Technically, that means if you are in Paris, and pay cash for a Cohiba Esplendido made in Cuba, you have broken the law. According to the OFAC letters sent out about these purchases of cigars in far-flung cities, the penalties include up to 10 years in prison, $1 million in corporate fines or $250,000 in individual fines. Civil penalties of $65,000 per violation can also be imposed.

On the other hand, the United States, thanks to congressional legislation passed in 2004, now sells a number of agricultural products to Cuba, which total millions of dollars a year in trade. And momentum is building to allow U.S. oil companies to participate in exploration of one of the most significant Caribbean basin oil discoveries in recent years.

Yet if you buy a Cuban cigar, you may end up in jail. Something is wrong with our government's priorities here. It is punishing individuals for making small purchases of cigars, but allowing U.S. companies to export goods to Cuba.

For nearly 45 years, U.S. policy has failed to produce the changes the government would like to see in Cuba. Isn't it about time we tried something new? And isn't it about time that the government stop spending our tax dollars to catch a few people who smoke cigars?

In this issue, we examine some of the changes that are happening in Cuba in the wake of President Fidel Castro's recent illness and advancing age. Many of them are forward-looking policies that could herald a new era of openness between the two countries. With the Castro era ending soon, the United States is in a position to influence the course of events in Cuba. Our economic might, and the basic message of our free society, can best be exposed by opening the door to Cuba, for everyone. Now is the time. Stop wasting our time and money chasing cigar smokers.

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