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Havana Nights, Havana Days

The new U.S. travel restrictions are adversely affecting the Cuban economy. But the cigars are getting better.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005

It was 9 p.m. Seven Americans sat in the eighth-floor penthouse overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco in Havana, smoking Dunhill Cabinetta Robustos and waiting for the third and final U.S. presidential debate to start. Seven-year-old Havana Club rum was flowing freely and so was the commentary on the prospects of the presidential debate and the election.

How surreal is all that?

Only two of the Americans were there legally, and I didn't want to be judgmental, but they looked like the furthest things ever from priests on a humanitarian mission to Cuba. My buddies, Captain Jack Fantastic and Don Juan Coyote (I can't use their real names because someone with the U.S. Treasury Department probably will read this), certainly weren't in Havana to go to church. They had already smoked more Cuban cigars in three days than some people may have in a lifetime. They were having the time of their lives.

Travel to Cuba for most Americans has been illegal since the early 1960s when the embargo was imposed, but it has been cut back even more following the introduction of new travel restrictions last July. Even before the new rules were imposed, I had friends who had been fined thousands of dollars by the Treasury Department for making illicit trips to Cuba. But the prospects of paying Uncle Sam for going to the island didn't seem to inhibit Captain Jack and Don Juan. They obviously were on a Cuban cigar smokers' mission.

I hear from Cubans as well as sources in Miami that the new travel restrictions have dramatically reduced American visitors to the island. According to estimates, more than 100,000 Americans (mostly Cuban Americans) used to annually travel to Havana and other parts of Cuba. It's now expected to be half that number or less. The main reason is that Cuban Americans are no longer allowed to travel once a year to the island to visit relatives. Now they can go only once every three years. In addition, the U.S. government is issuing fewer travel licenses for Americans traveling to Cuba for humanitarian, religious and cultural purposes. Trips for cigar smoking are definitely off!

I visited a handful of cigar shops during a five-day visit to the island in October and they were all moaning about the loss of business due to the change in U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba. The stricter regulations also no longer even allow legal American travelers to the island to return with $100 worth of Cuban products, which for many usually included a box of cigars. Combine this with a 30 percent increase in cigar retail prices in June, and some cigar merchants say that their business is down as much as 60 percent.

"It's an absolute disaster," said one veteran cigar merchant who is arguably one of the island's most knowledgeable tobacco men. It's better not to mention his name for obvious reasons. "It's just too expensive. People have sticker shock. Cigars that cost $180 [a box] earlier this year are now more than $230. My customers are shocked."

A shop attendant in another store, who also wished to remain anonymous, said, "What am I supposed to say to my customers when they ask me why the prices have increased 30 percent? I have to tell them the truth. There is no reason at all and the decision was wrong. Whoever made the decision is an idiot."

Here are a few examples of the prices now for cigars in Havana shops: Montecristo No. 2, $172.50; Cohiba Esplendido, $458.75, Partagas Serie D No. 4, $151.25; Punch Punch, $151.25; Romeo & Julieta Churchill, $202.50; Partagas Lusitania, $220; Montecristo No. 4, $100; Ramon Allones Gigantes, $210; and Partagas 898, $192.50. These prices are all for boxes of 25 cigars.

"It may not look like much still to some Americans, but the prices are actually 35 percent more expensive, because we had a 5 percent price increase at the beginning of 2004 besides the 30 percent one in June," said another cigar merchant in Havana. "It hurts."

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