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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

(continued from page 1)

But Helms-Burton did not concern Bill either way. His time in Cuba was precious. He concentrated only on affixing his soul to the Cuban countryside. Although he couldn't carry the waves, the mountains or the people back home with him in his suitcase, he could easily bring back cigars. Cuban cigars that smelled like the tobacco huts. And no unreasoned law was going to get in the way of that. So he made a habit of stocking up on his favorites every trip.

He took home only as many cigars as he could give away or smoke. Customs doesn't suggest that his imports were for anything other than personal use. He knew he'd have to forfeit his prized smokes if he was nailed at the border, but personal-use smugglers are merely entered into the Treasury Department's TECS database (Treasury Enforcement Communications System). Bill had already brought back two or three boxes of Habanos three times now, always coming and going through a third country. Customs never checked.

He was lucky, but not exceptional. In general, it's hard to get caught if you stay cool.

"We develop somewhat of a sixth sense," says George Burns, a Customs inspector at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. "You see something a person exhibits in conversation that isn't natural or normal. They can get nervous, like when they're stopped for a traffic ticket or dealing with an authority figure. Or when they're trying to hide something. Their perspiration and pulse rate increase with excitement. If they're lying, the rate goes up even higher. They avoid eye contact." In addition, the government sometimes uses dogs to sniff for contraband, and Customs inspectors randomly search people's luggage.

But even "if you happen to be the 'lucky' person who gets searched, you don't have to worry about that," says a Customs staff member at JFK. Unless, of course, the amount of cigars brought in exceeds what's considered by the Treasury Department to constitute importation for personal use (officials won't specify how many that is), in which case "the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control gets notified." On the books, the civil penalty for violating the embargo is a fine of no more than $55,000 per count; criminal prosecution calls for penalties of up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, or both. Reggie Manning, a passenger service representative for Customs at JFK, explains that there's not too much inspectors can do when passengers are caught with unlabeled cigars in unmarked boxes. However, passengers showing up with, say, 10 unmarked boxes of cigars with no labels on them "may be detained for questioning, to determine possible Cuban origin," says Manning.

The majority of seizures are of labeled cigars in labeled cigar boxes, and loose ones stuffed under clothing, he says. Body cavity concealment, which is often used to smuggle narcotics, is "still too extreme for cigars," he adds. "When cigars are detected during a search, inspectors look for brand names. The country of origin of the cigar is written right on the box." If you do get caught, your name may be entered into the TECS database and you'll be subject to a physical inspection every time you cross a border into the United States.

"I can't understand why people still keep bringing these cigars into the country," says Manning. "Like they don't know. They even come back a second time, and do it again. They know what the law is, yet they don't comply."

Bill was one of those people. Long before he ever tasted a Cubano, he was already the prototypical cigar aficionado. His father had taught him the virtues of a good cigar, showing Bill how to clip the cap, how to light it, how to savor it and how to blow smoke rings. By the time he was in college, Bill was smoking on a regular basis, though mostly Garcia y Vega or Antonio y Cleopatra. "Hated the green wrappers," he recalls, "loved the dark ones."

He smoked his first premium cigar at a fraternity party freshman year, a Macanudo Portofino in the protective tube. Partly because the tube ensured a good clean smoke when he pulled one out of his golf bag, the Portofino became a favorite. On occasion he'd light up at study sessions, meetings or formal functions.

Years later he stopped in a California tobacco store and bought a box of Honduran Hoyo de Monterey Double Coronas and his first copy of Cigar Aficionado. Using the magazine as a reference, he began sampling various sizes of Dunhill, Ashton, Arturo Fuente, La Gloria Cubana and Cuba Aliados. Before long he was smoking four or five premium cigars a week.


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