Ah, the mythical Cuban cigar. Nothing is more coveted and sought after in the cigar aficionado community. The very mention of the words sends one into thoughts of tasting subtle notes of mahogany, relaxing on a Havana beach rocking a guayabera and fedora. Although it deserves the accolades it enjoys, the legendary Cuban cigar also has an interesting and complicated history with the United States.
So, why are Cuban cigars illegal in the US?
Cuban cigars are illegal in the United States because of the strict trade embargo to ban all imports of products containing Cuban goods. The embargo was established in February 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to counter Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba.
At one point in time, getting caught attempting to smuggle a Cuban cigar through U.S. customs would’ve cost you a fine of up to $55,000!
This ban is part of the allure and nostalgia associated with the Cuban cigar. Simply put, people want what they can’t or aren’t supposed to have.
Keep reading to unwrap the mystery of the tough relations between Cuba and the U.S.
Let’s fire this bad boy up!
The Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s Rise to Power
We can’t talk about the history of Cuban cigars without mentioning Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, or “El Caballo”, as native Cubans call him. A devout believer in Marxism–Leninism, Castro sought to further socialism and Marxism in Cuba.
In his view, the Cuban politicians had given to much control to the imperialistic United States. This lead to 1953 Castro attempting to overthrow the Cuban government and President Fulgencio Batista by leading a failed assault on Moncada Barracks.
Fidel finally snatched power and was sworn in as Prime Minister on February 16, 1959. From there he began to consolidate his power and confiscate land and business owned by rich Cuban citizens and foreigners.
The Divide Grows Deeper
After assuming the role of Prime Minister In 1959, Castro set out to the US to a so-called “charm-offensive”, that was anything but. President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to meet with Castro furthering his disdain for the United States. Instead, Eisenhower sent his Vice President, Richard Nixon, to meet with Castro. It is said that Fidel had an immediate dislike for Nixon — Good eye? Maybe. “Game peeps game”? Who knows?
Next was what is known as “The Bay of Pigs Invasion”. This was an attempt to project power by landing a ship to form a beachhead on the shores of Cuba. This attempt failed and further agitated the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union with Cuba in the middle of it all.
At the height of the Cold War, the tension flared between the U.S. and Cuba with the onset of the “Cuban Missile Crisis” in October 1962. The Missile Crisis was a 13-day standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. The confrontation began when the US discovered that U.S.S.R. had positioned ballistic missiles in Cuba. This conflict is widely considered the closest time the world came to nuclear war.
The U.S. Trade Embargo Against Cuba
The anti-communist push that began in Eisenhower’s administration only strengthened in Kennedy’s as Cuban became closer to the United States’ fiercest geopolitical enemy, Russia.
In 1962, by Executive Order, Kennedy increased measures of the embargo by broadening the scope of restrictions. This included a restriction on goods regardless of whether they were manufactured or constructed outside of Cuba.
But get this, before he made the Executive Order, he instructed one of his officials, Pierre Salinger to bring him back 1000 H. Upmann cigars from Cuba. Well, his Head of Press outdid himself and brought back 1200 of the soon to-be-rare commodity.
Moments after Salinger’s return, Kennedy announced the new restriction that now made Cuban cigars contraband.
Since 2018, the trade embargo with Cuba is strongly enforced by six primary statutes:
- Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 (banning arms trading)
- Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (maintaining the ban unless movement towards democratization)
- Cuban Assets Control Regulations of 1963 (domestic embargo enforcement)
- Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (sanctions geared towards the peaceful transition to democracy)
- Helms-Burton Act of 1996 (extension of the embargo to countries that trade with Cuba)
- Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000
The Poison Cigar and 637 Other Ways To Assassinate Castro
Castro was a well-known cigar lover. And being in Cuba he was in the land of riches. In the 1960s the CIA launched a covert operation to topple the Cuban government. The code name was super cool: Operation Mongoose. James Bond would be jealous.
As legend has it, the plan was to get Castro to smoke a cigar laced with a potent poison called botulinum toxin. But it never reached Fidel’s lips.
In a cartoonish manner, the US attempted to kill El Caballo with an exploding cigar! Bugs Bunny would be proud. Other zany attempts include a scuba diving suit tubercle bacilli and a booby trap conch on the bottom of the sea where he dove. Man, this stuff is so crazy you can’t make it up!
Fidel Castro eluded over 600 assassination attempts including one by the United States to kill him by poison cigar!NBC News
Are Cuban Cigars Illegal to bring into the U.S. today?
Although the trade embargo is still in place, you can legally bring Cuban cigars into the United States. In 2014 the restriction on bringing Cuban cigars into the U.S. was eased by President Barak Obama’s Administration. American citizens are now allowed to bring Cuban cigars into the United States. But at that time, travelers were only allowed to carry $100 worth of Cuban cigars with them into the U.S.
2016 saw this $100 limitation removed and now there is no limit to the amount that you can carry through US Customs. However, there’s a catch. According to these newer regulations, commercial importers returning with Cuban goods have to formally declare their goods starting at the $2500 entry-level. Also, you have to purchase the cigars from independent Cuban merchants. As I’ve mentioned, the entire Cuban cigar industry is run by the state. You’re officially in the “books”. So bringing more than that through U.S. Customs could arouse suspicions.
The point is you do not want to look like your selling “Cubanos” in the Little Havana section of Miami as soon as you jump out of your Uber. Don’t overdo it – at least not past the $2,500 worth of goods.
Cohiba and Other Cuban Cigar Brands
By far, cigars are Cubas most precious export. And perhaps the most famous cigar brand in the world, Cohiba was established as a private limited production. Cohiba was created to supply Fidel Castro and his cohorts with premium “stogies”.
The cigar began to take on a cult-like following as they were often handed out as gifts to diplomats. Thus, they have been state-run since their inception.
In 1982 Cohiba began to sell their cigars commercially. The cigars more premium selections have garnered the some of highest marks from world-renown critics.
Fitting the pattern of constant conflict, Cohiba has been in a patent fight with the US maker of the same name for decades.
Other lauded Cuban brands include:
- Romeo y Julieta
- Bolivar, Montecristo
- and the aforementioned H Upmann.
However, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, “Cuba’s tobacco sector is fully state-controlled”USITC
The Future of Cuban Cigars in the U.S.
The future of Cuban cigars in America is unclear. You can’t even be certain of the ones that make it to the US. 95% of all Cuban cigars in America are reported to be counterfeit.
A USA Today poll in 2008 showed that 61% of Americans believe that relations “should” be re-engagement with Cuba.
However, Cuban Americans show a declining support for reconnecting with the “fatherland”. And having lived in Miami for 2 years I can definitely testify that this is true. There is not a lot of love for Castro and the communist party in South Florida.
There are groups that promote the re-engagement with Cuba like Engage Cuba. So the hope is still alive to make the world’s favorite cigars completely legal in the U.S.
Until then keep stuffing your bags full of those coveted “smokes”!