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Smoking with the Enemy

As One Cigar Aficionado Discovered, U.S.customs is playing hardball with smugglers of Cuban cigars
Matthew Reiss
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Bill had Cuba in his blood. He loved salsa music, the Caribbean Sea, Cuban people, Cuban rum and, especially, Cuban cigars. But he never thought his visits there, or his habit of bringing back cigars, would put him on the block for hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil and criminal penalties and a protracted stay at Club Fed. After last year's Helms-Burton legislation called for stepped-up enforcement of the Trading with the Enemy Act, that's exactly what he'd be facing now if he hadn't turned government witness in an investigation of a nationwide cigar smuggling conspiracy.

Yet his cooperation could turn out to be more dangerous than taking the rap. The U.S. Customs Service says the domestic value of seized Cuban cigars increased from $142,014 in 1994 to $1,142,290 in '96. And rumors persist that Bill pissed off some of the "wrong people" who make a living selling what gets across the border. But in February 1996, he was a world away from such travails. Driving down the road from Havana to Pinar del Río, he passed through the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's most famous tobacco fields. Bill pulled his rental car onto the rough and got out, clutching a bottle of Havana Club Anejo rum.

He was surrounded by the world's most aromatic cash crop at the peak of the harvest. Workers in the field were picking tobacco leaves and Bill walked over to share some rum. "They took me into one of these huts," he recalls. "It had the most unbelievable, pungent, tobacco kind of cedary smell to it. I was totally enveloped in it."

It was Bill's second trip to Cuba. The first was just a quick stopover the previous year, but that was enough to launch an obsession. Bill went home and read voraciously--literature, history, everything. This time he was back for 10 magical days of diving, fishing and boating in unspoiled blue waters, among other adventures. (As a condition of the U. S. Customs Service granting Cigar Aficionado an interview with Bill, certain details have been altered and his name has been changed.)

What Bill liked most about Cuba was that it was stuck in the 1960s. Clothes, cars and calendars are frozen at the height of the Cold War, when Fidel Castro and Jack Kennedy faced off over the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro's actions in the early '60s had prompted Kennedy to slap an embargo on Cuba. Together with the criminal penalties of the Trading with the Enemy Act, the embargo prohibits even the most minute business transactions with Cubans and makes an unsanctioned visit to the island or importing a Cuban cigar tantamount to sedition.

But prohibition is often counterproductive. Illegal moonshine poisoned casual drinkers and helped enrich bootleggers, while the war on drugs helped arm the inner city and made marijuana America's fastest growing cash crop. Likewise, the Cuba embargo has provided an opportunity for smugglers to become the exclusive U.S. importers of the world's most popular cigars. Moreover, Cuban cigar factories can't grow or roll tobacco fast enough to fill chronic back orders, while demand in Europe, Canada and Asia should account for future crops into perpetuity. So whether or not an American ever smokes another Cuban cigar will have minimal impact on the fiscal condition of the Cuban government.

"Can the Cuban economy survive without the United States?," asks William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University. "I think the answer is yes. If you look at use of economic sanctions around the world, they are only effective when almost everybody applies them. In the Cuban case we're the only ones applying them."

"We're not striking at the heart and muscle of the Cuban economy by going after cigars," he adds. "The cigar industry is much less important than sugar or tourism. They're just picking on a product that's sort of emblematic of Cuba."

In early 1996, however, the extreme fringe of the Cuban immigrant community was concerned that the White House was on the verge of overturning the 35-year embargo and that Castro was becoming a little too closely associated with the sweet smell of success. So the exiles made their move. In private planes, the exile organization "Brothers to the Rescue" conducted repeated overflights into Cuban airspace. When Cuban diplomatic overtures failed to stop the incursions, Castro's military advisers prevailed and shot the planes off the Havana skyline. After the kamikaze mission, President Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act.

The State Department says Helms-Burton was intended to expand the "government's ability to impose civil penalties against U.S. citizens who violate the U.S. embargo," and related laws. Asked what human rights or democratization aims would be met by enforcing these penalties, however, the National Security Counsel could not come up with any. A spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms had nothing to add. Those opposed to the act claim that seeking favor with Cuban-American fund-raisers and swing voters in Miami can be the only reason for such strong, bipartisan support.

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