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Trading With The Enemy

It May Sound Like a Heinous Crime, but Thousands of Americans Violate the Cuban Embargo Every Year
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

William White* had had his head over a toilet bowl for about an hour when a U. S. Customs agent knocked on the bathroom door. White was sick with a stomach virus--he'd been that way ever since he left Havana 24 hours earlier--but a nightlong "interview" with Customs and Treasury Department officials was now in its fifth hour, and there were more questions for White and his friend Jack. The Treasury official wanted to know about the 1,500 Cuban cigars that were sitting in the back of Jack's car when the two men drove across the U.S.-Mexican border.

A few days earlier, White had been in Havana visiting his fiancée. Jack, who is also engaged to a Cuban woman, came down at the last minute to join the party. Jack had always financed his trips to Cuba by reselling a few boxes of Havanas upon his return to the States, but this time he got carried away.

On the Mexican side of the border, where White and Jack deplaned and went in search of Jack's car, White weighed the risks involved with trucking across the border with cigars. "It was the middle of the night. I was sick and cold, and I told Jack, 'they're cigars for chrissake; what can they do to us anyway?'"

After an all-night interrogation session, which ended when both men signed federal court appearance affidavits, White and Jack knew that the Cuban embargo is serious business. "When we were being interrogated by Customs, one guy told us, 'You guys would have been better off bringing drugs across.' We were like, 'man, that's drugs; that stuff is illegal. These are just lousy cigars!'"

Two days later, White got a phone call from a Treasury agent telling him that the charges had been dropped against him. (Ironically, White doesn't even smoke cigars.) Jack, who admitted to purchasing the cigars, was fined $750 and given a one-year probation.

Still, considering their blatant attempt to defy the embargo, White and his friend got off relatively unscathed. (They could have been fined $10,000, according to federal law.) As do most offenders who are caught trying to walk through Customs at airports like Kennedy, Newark, LAX or Miami, or crossing the border by car at San Ysidro, California, or Detroit. They part company with their booty and walk away free--if bitter.

The laws that make up the embargo are quite explicit. Under the authority of the Trading With the Enemies Act, the Cuban Democracy Act, additional amendments to TWEA and the Cuban Assets Control regulations, it is unlawful for an American to purchase any product of Cuban origin in a third country or to bring any product of Cuban origin back to the United States. If an individual (mostly journalists and academics) is granted a visa for travel to Cuba, he is allowed to bring back $100 in merchandise, which may be up to 100 cigars, provided he can find any that cheap.

A 1984 U. S. Supreme Court ruling determined that it is within the right of the government and president to restrict travel. One wealthy jet-setter regularly defies the law, claiming that he travels to Cuba because "as an American I intend to exercise my constitutional right to travel wherever the fuck I want, when I want." If he (or any American) is caught violating travel restrictions, he may get only a slap on the wrist, but he'll be annoyed by Customs every time he travels or receives a gift from abroad.

An official at the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the arm of Treasury in charge of enforcing the embargo, confirms that Customs likes to keep records on violators. "If we convict you, your [name] will be in the record book a long time."

Even those who are not convicted, however, suffer because Customs keeps a record of all seizures, and the names of the carriers or recipients of seized parcels are kept on file.

Bill Thompson*, a Midwestern entrepreneur and cigar lover, has been smuggling cigars for 20 years, but over the past five years he's lost more cigars than he's received. "Every time I come back from Europe, I've brought cigars with me. When they're in bundles, the guys at Customs will grill me: 'Are you sure these aren't Cubans?' As far as they were concerned, the cigars could have been from any country and then they didn't bother me."

That was before 1989. Since then, Thompson estimates that he has lost about $5,000 worth of cigars. When one of Thompson's boxes was identified as "Honduran cigars," a Customs official told him, "we believe these to be Cuban cigars." That, according to the law, is all the evidence Customs needs to seize the parcel.

"It's not the money that bothers me," says Thompson, rather hurt. "To me, this is a precious commodity."

Thompson's name is in a Customs' file, and it is nearly impossible for him to travel abroad without being searched upon his return. "I was with this lady friend in London a few years back, and I had four or five boxes of Cuban cigars. I said, 'Look, you're British; bring these to the States with you.' She said it wouldn't be a problem.

"Unannounced, she put them in my luggage while I was in the shower. I guess she thought if I wasn't nervous about it, then there wouldn't be a problem." When he got to Customs, Thompson's name came up on the computer. "And here I am, such a conforming fellow: 'Do you have any cigars, Mr. Thompson?' So I said 'no,' with a smile. And the next thing you know they're pulling Cuban cigars out of my bags. I'm thinking, 'holy shit, what did she do?' God, I just put my hands above my head and told them to haul me to jail. It was a sickening feeling."

Thompson didn't go to jail, but he doesn't bring cigars back anymore, either. His name, passport number and address are stored in a computer chip somewhere waiting for him to trip an electronic wire and lose another $400 box of cigars.

Thompson has lost thousands of dollars in cigars, but has never been fined. Under TWEA both civil and criminal fines may be imposed, although there are no strict guidelines or definite dollar amounts and most people end up just losing their cigars. Customs officials around the country concede that the amount of paperwork involved in processing one box of Cuban cigars is just too daunting. In addition, it's bad press if Customs starts to crack down on minor cigar smugglers while dope slips through the cracks.

"We're not looking for [cigars] as hard as we're looking for narcotics," says Bobbi Cassidy, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs in San Diego. "I doubt very much that an entire box would simply be destroyed without accounting, but when you realize that between 35,000 and 45,000 cars pass here every day, you can see what a heavy burden we're under."

Jeff Casey, deputy special agent for U.S. Customs in San Diego, says that almost no case involving smuggled Cuban cigars would be likely to draw the attention of the U.S. Attorney's office. "With the narcotics situation, we're in crisis down here."

A Customs official in Miami defines the problem: "It's not that people aren't concerned about Cuban cigars. But when you have minimums of 10 pounds of coke, 2,000 pounds of marijuana or five pounds of heroin [below which] the U.S. Attorney's office won't even accept the case for federal prosecution--a box of cigars just pales by comparison."

At other major ports of entry, such as Logan International Airport in Boston (which receives daily international flights from Geneva), a Customs official claims that Cuban cigars have never been a headache because, to his knowledge, none have ever been seized. The story is similar at Dulles airport in suburban Washington, D.C. Referring to the seizure of Cuban cigars, Tony De Felippo, chief inspector of passenger operations at Dulles, says, "it happens, and when it does we reluctantly enforce the rules." At Kennedy International Airport in New York, Customs officials were uncooperative. It is unclear whether this was due to policy or some ongoing investigation (Kennedy has been the focal point of interdicting Cuban cigars in recent years), but questions about Customs operations at the airport were dodged and attempts to visit Customs at Kennedy were refused.

Publicly, officials at OFAC take a dim view of lax embargo enforcement. However, one official, who does not wish to be identified, says, "no one has ever told me not to enforce the law, but if you have a docket full of murderers and then a guy spitting on the sidewalk, what's going to take precedent?" The official adds that in south Florida not many juries would be likely to convict someone for trafficking cigars.

But according to federal law, the mere possession of Cuban cigars is equivalent to guilt. In other words, if authorities can prove that you have the goods, you are in direct violation of TWEA. Luckily, most travelers and smugglers know that Uncle Sam doesn't have the time, personnel or money to bother with small-time embargo breakers.

In Miami, where the Cuban-American community is especially powerful, Customs officials are noticeably rattled by the embargo's anomalies. A 12-year veteran at Customs and part of a special-embargo-enforcement task force isn't afraid to lay it on the line: "You are talking about the paradox of the Cuban embargo here. [Cuban-Americans] say Castro must be overthrown and the embargo must be enforced. But the biggest violators of the embargo are Cuban-Americans. So you think I'm going to knock myself out trying to enforce this when they don't even know what they want? Do you want cops in the street to stop jaywalkers or homicides? Hey, I'll stop cigars, but don't come crying to me when your old lady gets whacked."

Customs readily acknowledges that small parcels of cigars for personal use get through (by mail and by hand) but OFAC has operations in place to stop bigger violators: the few retailers who sell Cuban cigars. There have been wild estimates on the number of Cuban cigars that were smuggled into the United States until 1991; the estimates range between 5 and 10 million cigars per year. Yet most people who monitor the industry--and even people involved with interdiction--agree that illegal sales of Havana cigars at the retail level have declined in this country. Although demand is still quite high, Cuban production has fallen off sharply. There just isn't enough merchandise to go around.

And because retailers can lose their licenses for dealing in contraband, most agree that it would be economic suicide even to try--especially with sales of legal cigars up as much as 30 percent (see "Rolling Along," page 231).

With so few Cuban cigars available and demand riding an upward trend, some Americans violate both travel and trade restrictions to buy Havanas. And occasionally, things get a little scary even before the cigars leave Havana.

Dave Fauci* had just spent 10 days in the Cuban capital, socializing, drinking rum and smoking fantastic cigars. A Hollywood star, he had been courted like a prince. Every woman wanted to meet him and wherever he went, people gave him boxes of cigars.

Leaving the country was disconcerting to Fauci, if only because he would eventually have to arrange to get 42 boxes of cigars (20 of which had been gifts) back to his California home. However, Fauci, like most illegal travelers to Cuba, was flying via a third country--one that doesn't have any trade or travel restrictions with the island nation.

As he checked his baggage at Varadero airport, a small international hub west of Havana, trouble began. Fauci (unaware that Cuba allows only seven boxes of cigars per tourist) was asked to produce receipts for his Cuban purchases, but he didn't have receipts for the 20 gift boxes of cigars. "I was directed towards a small room. It was stiflingly hot and dark in there, and there were five guys with machine guns. It was like a scene out of Midnight Express.

"I'm trying to explain the circumstances to them in Italian, and I tell them, 'wait, I'll get my friend who speaks Spanish.'"

Fauci's friend started to make a scene. "Don't you recognize this guy? He was in this movie..." Fauci pulled out glossy photos of himself (shot on some Hollywood set) and began to sign autographs for the soldiers' wives and girlfriends. Eventually, Fauci explained, one officer walked out from the group and said that although Fauci was obviously a very gracious man, there was a problem. All the men just stood there for a few seconds. Then Fauci's friend calmly asked the officer, "what will it take to make this problem go away?" Fauci offered $100, but the officer inexplicably refused, saying, "no, cincuenta dólar." "We paid the guy 50 bucks, and that was that," says Fauci, who was obviously rattled by the incident. Fauci and his cigars made it to Hollywood in one piece.

Smuggling stories vary in drama. A student at a large Eastern university smuggled cigars back from Norway in his socks. A New York banker has his buddy, an internationally renowned cellist, bring ci-gars back from abroad in his instrument case. One man, who distributes toys worldwide, travels to Europe on a regular basis. "I just put the cigar boxes in the toy sample cases. I declare the toys as samples, so there isn't a duty since they originated here anyway. And one time I'm bringing back H. Upmanns for my father-in-law and I get this young buck who's going to do everything by the book. He wanted to open the case, so I asked to speak to his supervisor."

Once the toy dealer was alone with the young Customs official's supervisor, an older gentleman, he asked the man for the name of his favorite Scotch. "I told him that I'd have a case of it on his doorstep by dinnertime." The toy dealer waltzed out of the official's office and his toys came with him--unopened. The Scotch was delivered by noon that same day. Still, even successful smugglers would like to see the embargo eliminated.

But questions remain about how, and if, the ban will end. Lifting the prohibition on travel would be rather simple. According to Congressional revisions to TWEA passed in 1977 and "grandfathered" each year since on September 14, the president must find that the embargo is "in the national interest of the United States."


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Mike Chingon November 10, 2010 7:04pm ET

nice


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