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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."

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