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Buyer Beware: Counterfeit Cigars

Not the real thing—counterfeits of the top Cuban cigar brands are flooding the world market.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 3)

"I sell 20 to 25 boxes a week here," said a young, clandestine street dealer who was selling cigars in the old part of Havana. He held boxes of Cohiba Lanceros and Montecristo No. 4's. "I get about $20 to $25 a box. There are two ways that we get these cigars. We either get them from someone who makes them in the streets or from someone who gets them from the factories. The ones that are made in the streets are no good. I sell only the best quality, and that means they come directly from the factory.

"I can get you anything--the very best brands," he continued. "You name it: Montecristo, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta Churchill--even Davidoff Dom Perignon. I know Dom Perignon is not made anymore, but I have a friend who works in the factory where they were made [La Corona], and he makes the same cigar with the same blend at home."

The dealer, who asked for anonymity due to the danger in trading contraband cigars, said that he normally splits his money with his cigar suppliers. Together, their income may reach $750 a week. Not bad when the average cigar roller makes only about $140 a month using the official Cuban government exchange rate (one peso to the U.S. dollar). The peso, however, is now trading at about one cent on the black market in Cuba, and most locals admit that without dollars they could not survive.

"I have been arrested before for selling cigars," the dealer said. "If I am caught again, I will go to jail for two years. It is very dangerous selling cigars now, but you can make money doing it, and you have to have dollars to live now."

Segundo Delgado, production director of the Briones Montoto Factory (Romeo y Julieta), admits that it's nearly impossible to control the flow of cigars leaving the factory. "We have a problem with people stealing cigars in all of our factories," he says. "Everyone is allowed to take one or two cigars a day, anyway. So it shouldn't be surprising that some are sold. They also steal tobacco leaf from here and roll cigars at home."

In addition, Delgado says that some leaf apparently is obtained directly from farmers in the Vuelta Abajo and other tobacco-growing regions, and rollers then manufacture the cigars at home. "Now that we are allowed to have dollars, it is much more difficult to control cigars leaving the factory," Delgado adds. "Considering the difficulty of living in Havana at this time, it is a very small problem."

Fake boxes of Cohiba have even been turning up in the United States, where Cuban cigars for the most part are illegal. They are not, however, the contraband of returning tourists. Cuban refugees frequently carry boxes of cigars with them on flights to the States from Cuba in hopes of exchanging them for dollars on their arrival. "I get offered counterfeit Cohibas all the time," admits Manuel Hernandez, the owner of King's Treasure Tobacco in Miami. "Cubans come in and ask me how much a box of Cohiba Lanceros are worth, and I tell them that they are not officially available in the United States and that I can't buy them, but elsewhere they sell for so much. Sometimes you can tell that they are not real Cohibas."

"We are often offered them," says Oscar Boruchin, owner of Mike's Cigars, also in Miami. "As a matter fact, it's getting difficult to tell which cigars are real and which are counterfeit. The forgers are so good that it's hard to tell. It is unbelievable."

Boruchin never buys Cuban cigars, because it's illegal, but some of his customers purchase Cuban cigars from private sources. "Lots of my customers bring them to me and ask me to look and see if they are real," he says. "I think that 90 percent of the Cuban cigars (illegally) sold in the Miami area are counterfeit."

The flow of counterfeit Cuban cigars into the United States has increased with more Cubans visiting the States, after a slight change in the visa laws in Cuba. Cigars are viewed as being as good as cash by Cubans on U.S. stopovers. "Anything can happen when you change the rules," adds Padron. "Anything can happen."

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