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Commentary: Are Cuban Cigars Really Legal? Or Special?

23 Dec 2014


No, you cannot legally import Cuban cigars unless you are a licensed visitor to Cuba.

The recent announcement about relaxed restrictions for the importation of Cuban cigars has some people (and media) confused. To clarify, the rule will allow officially licensed travelers to import $100 worth of Cuban cigars or Cuban rum into the U.S. (as part of a $400 total import allowance). This is change from the previous policy which didn’t allow any Cuban cigars to be imported.

However, travelers to Europe, Canada, Mexico, or other countries where Cuban cigars are legally sold still cannot legally import any Cuban cigars. This was confirmed for by a U.S. Treasury Department spokesman who made it clear the new rules only apply to authorized travelers going to Cuba; they do not apply to travelers going to third countries. So don’t hit the duty-free shop in Heathrow for $100 worth of Cuban cigars before returning to the U.S. because of the announcement last week. It’s still illegal, and if you get caught ignorance of the law will be no excuse.

Are Cubans really all they’re hyped to be?

It’s almost inevitable: When a non-smoker or infrequent cigar smoker discovers I smoke a lot of cigars and write about cigars, I get asked some variety of this question: Are Cubans really the best? Or is it just because they’re illegal in the U.S.? Normally, it happens a couple times a month. In the past week, since Obama announced a move towards normalized U.S. relations with Cuba, I’ve been asked this question almost daily.

So here’s my response: The best Cuban cigars are without a doubt some of the finest cigars in the world. But many Cuban cigars are not world-class, and a significant percentage of Cubans are not even particularly good.

There are two primary reasons for this. First, the rest of the world has stepped up its game since the Cuban embargo was signed into law (after President Kennedy reportedly had his press secretary procure 1,200 Cuban cigars). When the embargo became law, most of the world’s premium handmade cigars were either made in Cuba or made elsewhere with Cuban tobacco. These days, great cigars are made in many countries, in particular the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras, where many Cubans who fled Castro’s Cuba brought their expertise after the Cuban government nationalized the Cuban cigar industry. These cigars also are often a better value than Cubans for the same cost.

Second, the authoritarian Cuban government has limited the ability of Cuba to consistently produce excellent cigars. Without the competition of the free market and with the Cuban government owning all aspects of the Cuban cigar industry, Cuban cigars have been able to rest on their reputation. But quality control has suffered greatly and Cuban cigars are notorious for inconsistent construction, and for needing considerable aging because often the cigars are made before the tobacco has had enough time to age properly.

Still, there is no denying Cuba can produce some of the best cigar tobacco. Cigar tobacco depends on micro-climates for its flavor and quality, and parts of Cuba are indisputably some of the finest places for growing tobacco. It’s the equivalent of the Bordeaux or Burgundy regions in France for wine, and despite the Cuban government’s interference, the pride and tradition of Cuban cigars still creates some fantastic cigars.

This is compounded by the Cuban government’s need for hard currency to pay for needed imports. Cigars are one of the most valuable exports the country has, and the government still has an incentive to make cigars that they can charge top dollar for in free markets around the world. This produces enough world-class cigars to boost the reputation of all Cuban cigars.

Ultimately, it’s too simple to say that Cuban cigars’ reputation is solely based the mystique of being a forbidden fruit to Americans. There are still enough excellent Cubans, especially high-end and limited cigars, sold to keep up the reputation for excellence, even though most Cuban cigars wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy if you didn’t know where it was made.

Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

8 Responses to “Commentary: Are Cuban Cigars Really Legal? Or Special?”

  1. Cigar Seeker Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    Wow. That was quick! The first section of today's blog exactly answers the question I asked in my email to The Stogie Guys just yesterday morning. Thanks!

    • Patrick Ashby Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 11:24 am #

      Ask and ye shall receive.

      Thanks for your email. It reminded us that the media, to date, has done a poor job of clarifying the changes in policy.

  2. Mike Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    Only a couple articles have noted that as far as the travel rules and cigar importations go, Obama's move only reinstates what the law was prior to the Bush administration tightening the licensed travel ban in 2004.

    Here's one of the better articles I found:

    I read one article quoting a US cigar store owner saying he would ensure customers bought no more than $100 in Cubans at a time!

  3. George e. Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    One byproduct of the changes and confusion I feel certain we'll see is a big increase in counterfeit Cubans. If you're buying from any source other than a licensed Habanos dealer, be very careful. It's highly likely they are bogus.

  4. Bennett Wednesday, December 24, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    Excellent summary of Cuban cigars. When they're good (and rolled well) they can be world-class. But, they can also be below average in taste and burn as well. Just like cigars from other countries. Cuba should be worried about what's being produced in Nicaragua these days, in my opinion.

  5. Larry Sunday, January 4, 2015 at 5:01 am #

    While I agree that the lack of capital, industrial and human, has hurt the Cuban cigar industry greatly, I would argue that people all over the world have already voted with their dollars / euros / yuans. Despite shoddy construction Cuban cigars still outsell Non-Cuban cigars by a wide margin. Everyone keeps saying that "once Americans get a chance to taste Cuban cigars they'll go back to their Non-Cuban cigars" however, the rest of the world has already had the chance to compare.

    Do I think the ending the embargo will dramatically alter the smoking landscape? Not really. I think that Americans who want to smoke Cuban cigars already do. It'll change, but not as much as people say.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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    […] clear, nor was did the media do a good job reporting what it meant. (We clarified everything here but the short version is unless you are visiting Cuba with the explicit permission of the US […]

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    […] 2) In Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama called on Congress to end the longstanding trade embargo with Cuba, saying, “We are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new.” The next day, the highest level talks between the U.S. and Cuba in decades commenced, with clashes over immigration. Clearly, while a new course for Cuban relations has been set, we are still a long way away from ending the embargo. If you’re looking for a summary of what this all means for cigars, you can revisit our analysis here. […]