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Why Are Cuban Cigars Illegal?

Holt's Staff Cigar's picture

Holt's Staff

Cuban cigars have long been an elusive commodity in the United States. Their monumental reputation and demand prompt many younger cigar enthusiasts to question why Cuban cigars are illegal in the U.S. The Cuban cigar embargo is simply an effect of the larger ban on trade with Cuba enacted by the Kennedy Administration several decades ago. To understand the rationale behind these policies, we need to travel back to the late 1950s, shortly before the U.S. and Soviet Union became locked in a terrifying nuclear stare down called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro Takes Control

In 1959, political upstart Fidel Castro led a guerilla force into Havana to overthrow the Fulgencio Batista regime. Unlike his failed coup attempt six years earlier, Castro successfully forced Batista to flee the country, and assumed the position of Cuba’s unchallenged leader.

Soon after ascending to the presidency, Castro traveled to the United States to meet with then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who refused to meet with Castro, intensifying rocky relations between the democratic U.S. and the Cuban dictatorship.

Tensions heightened even further just a few short years later when Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy officially broke diplomatic ties with Cuba. The following year, Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union, and embraced Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev as a political partner. Castro authorized the construction of nuclear missile sites on Cuban ground as a deterrent to anti-Communist countries, primarily the U.S., and any governments hostile to a Communist agenda. A decades-long Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union resulted.

Why Were Cuban Cigars Illegal in the United States?

In 1962, Kennedy implemented a unilateral trade embargo against Cuba as a countermeasure to Castro’s pro-Communist stance, a prohibition that remained intact for nearly five decades.

The United States’ strict policies against entertaining Cuba as a trade partner took a heavy financial toll on the Cuban economy. Many Cuban cigar-makers and importers amplified their stateside inventories in the months leading up to the embargo. However, the ban on trade with Cuba would far outlast the supply of Cuban cigars legally brought into the U.S. Now rare and highly coveted, Cuban cigars only make it into the country through illegal means, via underground sources and the black market. In the decades following the Cuban embargo, Cuba’s premium cigar industry witnessed a mass exodus of its top tobacco growers and blenders as they fled to Miami and other Central American nations to continue making cigars for the U.S. market.

Cuban Cigars: One by One

In 2014, half a century after Kennedy imposed trade sanctions against Cuba, rules governing Cuban cigars were slightly eased, permitting Americans to bring home $100 worth, and not a penny more.

Two years later, following further relaxation of the restrictions on Cuban cigars, the United States allowed American travelers to bring home an unlimited number of Cuban cigars in their carry-on luggage, provided the cigars were for personal consumption and not commercial sale.

Today, the door for Cuban cigars is now open wider than it has been in decades, although the future is still uncertain.

The Future of Cuban Cigars

Cuban tobacco farmers know the potential of the U.S. cigar marketplace, and how much of a financial boon it could be with the negotiation of a normalized trading policy. As Cuba struggles to become a competitive developed nation, its allure as a U.S. travel destination, and thus a supplier of Cuban cigars for American travelers, is precarious at best.

In 2016 when the U.S.-to-Cuba route was officially (re)opened, tourism spiked, but then quickly tapered off. While many cigar lovers who crave genuine Cuban cigars were attracted to the thought of bringing home a nice stash for personal consumption, traveling to Cuba is not as attractive as many envisioned it would be. Additionally, past decades have seen the legendary Cuban cigar lose significant market share to cigars from the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, ground that may never be made up, regardless of eased trading sanctions. Many of the bestselling cigar brands in the premium U.S. market are blended and manufactured by families with deep Cuban roots. Generations of expertise has been transferred to other regions who actively trade with the U.S. Brands such as Arturo Fuente, Padron, Ashton, and Davidoff have been producing top-selling cigars for the U.S. market for decades. At the end of the day, the tremendous reputations of these brands will only serve to raise the bar for Cuban cigars.

As of 2017, the most cigar enthusiasts can hope for is the continued (albeit limited) availability of Cuban cigars courtesy of relaxed travel restrictions. While the future is undetermined, Cuban cigars will likely enjoy more than a passing curiosity should the embargo come to end.

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