U.S. Customs and Cuban Cigars
After a week in Havana at the annual cigar festival, our European editor discovers that America's borders are safe and secure against Cuban tobacco products
I had a feeling it wasn't a good idea that I had those loose cigars in my bag the moment I left the Meliá Cohiba hotel in Havana in the dark at 5:30 a.m. to catch the 7:25 flight to Cancún. But there wasn't anything I could do about it. They were in my courier bag, and I wasn't going to give them to my taxi driver, or just leave them in the room.
Cancún was not my final destination that early March morning after a gala dinner that capped a five-day cigar festival on the island. I was going to catch a flight to Dallas and then to Santa Ana, California, for the 50th birthday party of a high school buddy. My port of entry into the United States was Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
I had good reason to be a little nervous. I have an affluent Mexican friend who was strip-searched in DFW just because he made a joke to a Customs official. Another friend at the gala dinner told me to "have fun in Customs in Dallas tomorrow. They are real bastards."
Technically, even licensed travelers to Cuba, like myself, are not allowed to carry any goods from the island into the United States, except for art, literature or other information material. But I figured a dozen or two cigars weren't going to set off an international incident. And I didn't have to leave them in the States because I would be returning to my home in Italy about a week later. The Cuban cigars, let us say, were in transit. Moreover, U.S. Customs had never stopped me before. In fact, a number of times Customs officials had just said to go right through even though I told them that I had a few cigars.
However, I knew I was in trouble the moment I arrived at immigration and the officer wanted to know what sort of business I was in. I said I was the European editor of Cigar Aficionado. My customs and immigration form noted that I had been to Cuba as well as Mexico.
"When was the last time you were in Cuba?" he asked.
"This morning," I replied.
With that, he drew a big red "C" in the corner with his felt pen. I was directed to the customs hall for inspection. I wasn't that worried about it, though. The worse thing that they could do was confiscate the cigars.
I walked into the vast inspection area, which included six or seven booths with long, stainless steel tables behind them. The place was empty and almost echoed. One of the three Customs officers on duty was already checking out a couple who looked as if they had been on my flight.
My Customs officer didn't really know what to think when he read that I had been to Cuba. He asked me for press credentials and a license from the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. I politely told him I did not need to carry a license to travel to Cuba. "It falls under the general license," I said to him in as friendly a way as possible.
He said that he had to speak to his supervisor, and left me standing in the empty search area. I felt as if I were back in third grade in Los Angeles when I was often told to stand in the corner for punishment. But this was more serious.
"How many cigars do you have?" he said, when he returned after three or four minutes in the adjacent office.
I told him that I had 15 or so. "Let me see them, please," he said. "Don't you know that we have an embargo with Cuba?"
I tried to explain that I knew all about the embargo and that I had been going to Cuba for 17 years. I knew that I wasn't supposed to bring the cigars in, but I wasn't planning on leaving them in the States.
"When are you going back to Europe?" he asked.
"In about a week," I said.
"How am I supposed to believe that you wouldn't smoke them while you are in the United States?" he said.
I guess he had a point. It would be very tempting to smoke them in Los Angeles with a few friends. He went back to speak to his supervisor.
His supervisor finally came out and said he was really sorry that they had to confiscate and destroy the cigars. "If you were in transit today, I would let you go," he said. "But you are staying in the States for a while. We are going to have to follow the law."
Another officer then came out with a menacing-looking, five-inch hunting knife. At first, I had flashbacks to the movie Deliverance but, in fact, the knife was only to cut up the cigars. I stood and watched every one cut in two—lengthwise—and thrown into a wastebasket. They included a selection of torpedos, the new Partagas Serie P in tubos and some yet-to-be-released Partagas Serie D No. 5 Limited Edition 2008.
"This is the part of my job I really hate," said the officer, as he cut the cigars in two with great precision.
I don't begrudge any of them. They were just doing their jobs. And they were nice guys too. I told them that I wish they could just take the cigars and smoke them themselves. "What a waste to cut them up," I said.
They said that as much as they would like to smoke them, they had to destroy the cigars. They were very straight shooters. We spoke about Cuba for a while. They were really interested in the current political situation. Then we spoke about cigars too. They said that just about every day the same thing happens, although most of the cigars people brought from Mexico looked fake. The officers are busiest during the summer.
The whole experience was sort of surreal considering less than 24 hours before I had been smoking cigars in Havana with more than 1,000 cigar lovers and merchants at a gala dinner that resembled a cross between this magazine's annual Big Smoke in Las Vegas and a Broadway production with lots of food, wine and rum thrown in. Check out my blogs and videos on the event at www.cigaraficionado.com.
I heard some people say that this year's festival—the 10th annual—was not as good as previous years', but I thought it was one of the best. Cuba's cigar festival is a great chance for cigar lovers from around the world to compare notes and share a cigar. A lot of the interaction happens in cigar shops, factories and restaurants in Havana—well outside the official events.
Thank God Havana hasn't really gone nonsmoking, even though a few years ago attempts were made to impose a ban. It's not easy to hang and smoke anywhere nowadays considering all the antismoking laws. Even Mexico recently went nonsmoking in public places.
The wave of health fascism is not stopping the Cubans from coming out with some great cigars. I had the chance to smoke this year's edicion limitadas and they are some of the best ever. They include Cuaba Piramide, Partagas Serie D No. 5 and Montecristo Sublimes.
Here are my scores (all were tasted non-blind) and partial notes:
Cuaba Piramide (52 ring x 6 1/8 inches): It is super refined and long with light coffee and nutty character. 93.
Montecristo Sublimes (54 ring x 6 1/2 inches): Espresso bean, roasted meat and earth under the tobacco. 92.
Partagas Serie D No. 5 (50 ring x 4 1/3 inches): This is essentially a Serie D No. 4 but short. However, it has a different flavor profile—more spicy. It's full and balanced. 91.
I also smoked the new H. Upmann Magnum 50 and Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especiale. These are both line extensions to the premium cigars in both brands. I gave the Upmann 92 points. The new Epi was very mild. 88 points.
A number of cigar merchants at the festival were also showing off prototypes of their regional editions for this year. These are cigars made for specific markets; they are usually produced for two years with a minimum of 600 boxes.
One of the best smokes of my trip was a Ramon Allones Phoenicios for Lebanon. It was loaded with coffee, spice and espresso bean character. 95 points, non-blind. Here is an official list of regional cigars for this year, according to Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars:
Spain: Ramon Allones Grandes (49 ring x 7 inches)
Asia Pacific: Por Larranaga Belicosos Extra (52 x 5 1/2) and Bolivar Short Bolivar (50 x 4 3/8)
France: Ramon Allones Especial de Allones (52 x 5 1/2) and Bolivar Petite Libertador (50 x 4)
Lebanon: Ramon Allones Phoenicios (54 x 6 1/2)
United Arab Emirates: Punch Robusto (50 x 4 7/8)
Hong Kong: Bolivar Amonia (57 x 7 1/4 )
Portugal: Vegas Robaina Petit Robusto (50 x 4)
Switzerland: Bolivar Legendarios (50 x 6 1/8) and Juan Lopez Maximo (48 x 6 3/16)
Caribbean: Juan Lopez Short Torpedo (50 x 5)
Adriatic: La Gloria Cubana Marshall (50 x 4 7/8)