Last month, the Obama Administration loosened its restrictions on bringing Cuban cigars and rum into the U.S. Now travelers to the communist island nation may purchase and carry home unlimited boxes of cigars and bottles of rum, as long as they pinky swear the goods are for personal consumption. So what does this mean for you, a Cuban cigar novice?
First of all, you still cannot buy Cuban cigars in the U.S. or online. You have to physically travel to buy these goods, although you may purchase them in any country where they are sold, including airport duty free shops. American stores could one day sell Cuban cigars, but first Congress must repeal the 50-year-old economic embargo it has against Cuba. Or the president must issue an executive order. This probably won’t happen anytime soon as everyone in Washington is preoccupied with the election.
But the embargo will eventually be repealed. The U.S. and Cuba are actively trying to increase trade and travel between each other. In 2014 President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro first announced their efforts to normalize relations. And last year Obama partially lifted the Cuban cigar and rum ban: Americans traveling to Cuba could bring back $100 worth of product in their bags. (That equated to only one or two bottles of rum and two to five cigars, depending on the brand.)
Now there are no more monetary restrictions on how much you can bring back. Still, the government can tax you and customs agents can interrogate you if they think you are bringing back a suspiciously large amount. Re-selling Cuban cigars and rum in the U.S. is still illegal. Most people, however, find this hard to comprehend.
“There’s been quite a lot of buzz,” says Michael Frey, retail partner at Montecristo Cigar Bar at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, among others. “People don’t really read past the first two lines of the story. And then they get upset when you tell them it’s still not legal.”
Cigar shops have seen a steady increase in customers asking to buy Cuban cigars since the first announcement in 2014. But demand has spiked since October’s loosening of regulations. “We’ve had people coming in every day, tenfold what we had before, wanting to buy Cuban cigars,” says Marco Cavazos, owner of Cigar Art, a cigar factory and retail store in Dallas, Texas.
Instead of showing customers the door, they offer alternatives. Cuban cigars are medium- to full-bodied, so if you want to smoke a cigar that resembles a Cuban, look for something within that taste profile. “If someone likes the richer, full-bodied Cubans, I’d suggest they smoke a Dominican Opus X that the Fuente family makes,” Frey says. “Or if they want a little earthier one, I’d suggest a Nicaraguan cigar made by the Padrón family or one made by My Father Cigars.”
Cavazos makes the comparison to wine. “You have California wine, Spanish wine and French wine, which are dramatically different if you ask a wine connoisseur,” he says. “But a novice may not be able to tell the difference. If someone comes in and says they want something close to a Cuban, my first question is, Well which Cuban?” He usually recommends a medium-bodied Nicaraguan cigar as a good stand-in.
Cavazos estimates that 99 percent of “Cuban” cigars in the U.S. are fake. Cubans are just too expensive to buy and then resell for a profit. Sellers can make much better margins selling non-Cubans. And if you thought this new loosening of restrictions would make it easier to find Cubans in the U.S., you would be wrong. “The counterfeit market is going to multiply dramatically,” Cavazos says. “Someone could pay to fly roundtrip to Cuba, bring back five to 10 boxes without raising suspicion and then sell those for a couple hundred bucks. Or he could buy Dominican cigars for $1 each, band them with labeling from China and then sell them for the same price.”
If you are traveling to Cuba to buy cigars, also beware: You can still be sold fake Cubans on Cuban soil. Frey suggests going into a factory and buying directly from them or buying from a tobacco shop in one of the high-end hotels. “In Cuba a box of cigars will cost you anywhere from $200 to $450,” Frey says. “So if you’re on the street and a guy wants to sell you a box for $100, most likely they’re not the real thing.”
Truth be told, many cigar experts would not even recommend Cuban cigars if the real things were available. Their primary draw is their illicit nature. “It’s frustrating to meet a cigar snob who’ll only smoke Cubans,” Frey says. “Other cigars are just as good if not better and they’re way less expensive. It’d be like a wine snob saying they only drink French wine.”
Decades ago, it’s true, Cuban cigars were some of the best in the world. Cubans mastered the farming, the fermentation and the process of making cigars. “They have incredible soil there, just like the soil in the French wine-growing region,” Frey says. But today, the quality of non-Cuban cigars is just better, according to many. “When a Cuban cigar is great, it’s great. But they aren’t consistent,” Frey says.
So what happened? And does the American cigar industry want the embargo to be lifted? The answer is complicated.
During Cuba’s revolution, the country’s cigar industry suffered a brain drain. “At the time, everyone in the cigar industry was a capitalist,” Cavazos says. “They were wealthy landowners with big plantations and part of the crowd that the Castros had a problem with.” Anyone with expertise in the business—including leading cigar makers such as the Padrón and Fuente families—fled the country. They set up business in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico and the United States, basically anywhere there was good soil.
Meanwhile back in Cuba, no one with any know-how was left to run the factories, which hurt quality. And because the only cash crop Cuba had left to export was cigars, they started pumping them out as fast as they could roll them. They didn’t let the tobacco fields rest, which drained the soil’s nutrients. “The quality just went, to me, in the toilet,” Frey says. “They became very mediocre. Then the quality of cigars in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua just kept getting better and better.”
Today the cigar industry outside of Cuba is dominated by people of Cuban descent. “These people still have a lot of personal resentment toward the Castro regime,” Cavazos says, so not many of them are excited about normalizing the countries’ relationship. And those in the American cigar business worry that even if the embargo is lifted, they may not get access to Cuban cigars.
Habanos, the official manufacturer of Cuban cigars, is owned by the Cuban government and a Franco-Spanish tobacco company named Altadis, which has pumped money into rebuilding the Cuban infrastructure. Cavazos says that when the U.S. and Cuba started normalizing relationships a few years ago, Altadis began opening its own retail stores in the U.S. “The biggest rumor is that if the embargo is lifted Cuban cigars will only be sold through the Habanos-owned retail stores,” Cavazos says. “So the question is, would mom-and-pop stores even get access to wholesale Cuban cigars to sell? Or would there be some sort of lateral monopoly from production to retail? And if you’re a small cigar maker, there’s the fear that you won’t be able to compete with Habanos coming in.”
Alternately if the embargo isn’t lifted, Americans will continue to buy fake Cuban cigars elsewhere, which will also hurt domestic retail stores. “If they were to become available in the U.S., they’re still going to be very hard to come across for a very long time,” Cavazos says. “Habanos already can’t keep up with demand outside of the U.S. and the U.S. cigar market is something like twice the size of the entire rest of the world.”
Still, all this talk about Cuban cigars is good for business. Shop owners think this renewed interest in cigars could lead to a cigar renaissance like the one the industry experienced in the 1990s. More people are interested in trying cigars for the first time and others are returning to the market after leaving for other tobacco products. “We’ve already seen it happening in our store,” Cavazos says. “We’re getting people in every single day looking to buy Cuban cigars and most of them end up buying something else.”