Fake Cuban cigars were not an official topic of discussion during this February's cigar festival in Havana. Consumers and cigar merchants around the world descended again on the Cuban capital to smoke cigars and attend cocktail parties, dinners and seminars. But while counterfeits weren't part of the official agenda, nearly everyone at the conference knew that false cigars remain a problem.
"Hey, friend. You want to buy some cigars?" said an Afro-Cuban dude with mirrored sunglasses and a big smile that almost shouted that he was selling fakes. I was walking down Calle Obispo from the El Floridita bar to Plaza de Armas, one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares in the oldest part of Havana. "Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta…just what you like."
"No thank you," I said, slightly annoyed that his pestering was ruining a good stroll, especially after a couple of Daiquiris and a good Partagas Serie D No. 4 robusto. "I have all the cigars that I need."
A few minutes later, another guy launched into his cigar hustle. He was much more aggressive, bordering on belligerent. He could have been the other guy's brother, same glasses, same smile. "You want to buy cigars, man?" he said in English. "I have everything you need: Cohiba, Vegas Robaina, whatever."
"How much?" I said, thinking it was my journalistic duty to find out what the going rate was. It is usually about $20 for a box of 25, but this guy looked like a real shark.
"Man, you are not going to buy anyway. So don't waste my time," he answered. "You show me the money and I will tell you the price."
What a jerk, I thought. What's a guy like that doing on the street in Havana? I thought security was serious in Cuba? He was obviously dealing in something, wearing his fancy suit, slick T-shirt and modern sunglasses while just about every other Cuban walking down the street looked as if he had visited a discount clothing store 10 years ago.
However, the cops on the street did nothing. They stood there, just watching the day go by. That's been the crux of the problem with fakes in Cuba. Nobody has done enough over the years to stop the problem.
Sources at Habanos S.A., the global distribution arm for Cuban cigars, said that Cuban customs officials confiscated about 700,000 cigars last year. But that is a drop in the bucket. Just think about it for a second. If only half the visitors to Cuba each year took a box of fakes out of the country in their luggage, the total would surpass 18 million cigars. Obviously, most of the fakes out of Havana are leaving the island in a much more organized way.
I find it hard to believe that more can't be done to curb the problem with fake cigars. Cuba is known to have one of the world's most impressive domestic intelligence networks, so how come the government can't clamp down on cigar counterfeiters and bootleggers? Maybe Cuban officials just haven't made that a priority, or worse, maybe the trafficking of fake cigars is condoned on certain levels of the bureaucracy.
Whatever the reason, it stinks, just like most of the tobacco used in the fake cigars. How do the clandestine factories get the tobacco? Where do the bands and boxes come from? The unanswered questions are numerous.
Officials at Habanos are trying to do something. But they must feel like children building sand castles in the rising tide. They argue that most counterfeits on the world market come from outside Cuba, especially Panama, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Name any Central American country, the officials say, and it could be a source for bogus smokes. They also believe that much of the packaging used for fake cigars, from bands to boxes, is made outside Cuba. But I believe most of the fakes are made inside Cuba.
Besides working more closely with Cuban customs, Habanos has been initiating changes in the export rules for cigars, which should curtail some of the business in fake smokes. When the new rules come into effect later this year, visitors will not be able to leave the island with a box of cigars unless they have an official receipt. Before the changes, people were able to exit the country with up to two boxes of 25 cigars without a receipt. The new rules should reduce the number of fake cigars leaving the island.
Habanos also plans to introduce a see-through label that will be placed on every official cigar box sold on the island. This should reduce the trade in fakes and curtail the sales of real cigars first bought on the island and later sold in other markets outside the normal, licensed Habanos dealers. But these so-called gray-market cigars are an entirely different subject, one I plan to address in a future column.
Of course, many of these fake cigars are not all that bad to smoke. During a trip in early August, I bought a box of Cohiba Siglo IIs for $20 from the manager of the house that I was renting in Havana. It was obviously bogus. The box itself was about five years old, the color of the bands was off, and the cigars were mushy and inconsistent in length. But the flavor of the tobacco was not too bad. I even pulled a gag on an aficionado friend from Italy by giving him a "five-year-old Siglo II." Maybe he was being polite, but he
didn't complain until I told him that it was a fake cigar after he was half done smoking it.
Some may say that fake cigars don't hurt anyone. But they do. The quality is not the same as official cigars, and even if they are well made, the cigars are not the same blend as the real items. This denigrates the image of Cuban cigars. The same is true with fake Padróns, Fuentes or any other cigars.
I can't help but think of all the Americans who smoke fake Cuban cigars and go away with a bad impression of Cuban cigars, as well as cigars in general. I have always thought that the annual underground market of Cuban cigars in the United States is somewhere around eight million sticks, but the majority sold in America today are probably fake. That doesn't do anything but hurt the image of cigars.
A lot of these bogus smokes in the United States probably come via Mexico. The market is absolutely overflowing with falsificados. Max Gutmann, one of the owners of the official Mexican agency for Cuban cigars, calls his market a "nightmare" for fakes. "They are everywhere and it is almost impossible to stop," Gutmann says.
It's the same situation in the Caribbean. During the Habanos festival, I met Rajkumar Sablani, the owner of Cigar World shops in Jamaica. He is one of the key merchants of Cuban cigars on the island, with a large clientele of Americans, particularly from cruise ships. He said that 95 percent of the cigars in Jamaica are fake. "It's a huge problem and most of the cigars come from Cuba," he said.
Some smokers, of course, don't care. A large number don't know the difference between a real and fake cigar anyway. Or they knowingly buy fake cigars because they don't want to pay the price for the real thing. They are the same people who buy knock-off Rolexes for $50, or Gucci bags from sidewalk vendors for $20. But it's difficult to do anything about them. Even education doesn't seem to work.
Of course, the cigar jockeys on the streets of Havana will insist that their cigars are the real thing. They say that they have a relative working in a factory and that their cigars are 100 percent authentic. "Don't worry, chico," they say.
Some cigar jineteras even provide better service than the official cigar shops in Cuba. Someone who was renting the house before me apparently had bought a bunch of fake boxes and he wasn't happy with the quality, so he returned them to the vendor. Early one morning after the previous tenant had left, a young man in his 20s knocked on the door of the house and asked to see "John from Chicago."
I said that John had left the day before, and he wouldn't be back. "OK," said the Cuban, who claimed to be with his mother who worked at the La Corona factory.
"Please give him his $100 back," he said, handing me a new $100 bill. "He didn't like the quality of my cigars and I don't want any problems."
I shook my head in disbelief and gave the $100 bill to one of John's friends from Chicago. "Now there's service with a smile," I thought to myself. And a sign that the counterfeit business in Cuba is still thriving.