As of May 21, 2015, government officials in the United States announced that they are closer to fully normalizing relations with the Caribbean island nation than they have been. Cuba next week will be removed from the U.S. list of of nations that sponsor international terrorism. U.S. diplomats, however are still not free to travel in the country unfeterred.
The news regarding Cuba may be great for cigar smokers in the U.S.—eventually
By Rick Rhay
Most of us know exactly where we were and what we were doing when the news came in. It came to me in the form of a text message from my brother, a fellow cigar lover: “The ban on Cuban cigars is over!” It was nothing less dramatic than that.
It was December 17, 2014, at 10:11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. I was in the car, driving to the mall with my wife to do some Christmas shopping, and I quickly jumped on my phone to check the regular news outlets. Sure enough, it was all over the Web. What has in the weeks following become known as the “Cuban Thaw” was just beginning to break, but for everything I could find, it was true. The embargo was ending. Cuban cigars would be legal again.
That was the first few minutes. As I continued to read, the realities of the situation began to set in. You don’t tear down a 50-year-old foreign policy wall overnight. The Cuban Trade Embargo has been in place longer than the Berlin Wall stood. This would take some time, and what has happened as of this writing are merely the first steps on a long and difficult road.
How the Embargo Came to Be
The date generally given for the onset of the trade embargo with Cuba is February 7, 1962, with an executive order issued by President Kennedy. But this was only an intermediary step in an ongoing series of political maneuvers between the two nations. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro’s Movimiento 26 de Julio (26th of July Movement) overthrew the government of then-Cuban-President Fulgencio Batista, establishing at first a socialist state, which evolved into the communist state that persists in Cuba today.
The most direct cause of the embargo was the nationalization of nearly all American-owned businesses and property in Cuba in late 1960. This action took assets in Cuba rightfully owned by American businesses and individuals, and transferred their ownership to the People of Cuba, in the form of the Cuban government, effectively stripping the American owners of their property without compensation or payment, and giving that property to the Cuban state. Properties and businesses nationalized included oil refineries, agricultural companies, mining operations, banking institutions and countless others. By 1968, the government of Cuba had nationalized all privately owned businesses in Cuba, including those of Cuban ownership, as well as those of other foreign owners beyond the U.S. The U.S. government maintains a registry of claims against the government of Cuba for the loss of American property nationalized by the Cuban government, and Cuba refuses to discuss compensation for those claims.
In response to what was deemed to be the theft of American property by the Cuban state, President Eisenhower enacted the initial embargo, which banned exports of goods to Cuba. As relations deteriorated, Eisenhower severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba just before leaving office in January 1961. The political climate worsened under the Kennedy administration, and a little over a year later, Kennedy expanded the embargo to include all imports of Cuban goods, thus making Cuban cigars illegal in the U.S.
It’s Not Going Away Overnight
Over the years, various U.S. presidents have made changes to the embargo, but ultimately, what began as executive orders issued by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy is now enforced by a series of laws passed by Congress. The result is that no president alone can end the embargo without Congress acting to repeal those laws. All any one president can do is modify those portions of the embargo that remain under executive order.
Given the political climate in Washington, the prospect of a complete or even partial repeal of the Cuban trade embargo in the near future is uncertain. Though most Americans—and much of the rest of the world—favor a return to trade with Cuba, Congress is divided on the subject, and not necessarily along party lines. High-level officials in both parties have come out in support of and against ending the embargo. A significant aspect of that division revolves around the Cuban-American population of Florida.
This culturally diverse and politically divided state has become something of a battleground in the argument over the Cuban trade embargo, in part because of the large number of Cuban immigrants who live there. Nearly one million Cubans have emigrated to the U.S. in numerous waves of migration. Though the mass exodus from Cuba began even before the Cuban revolution, some 400,000 Cuban immigrants arrived in 1980 or later. Most of those who came to the U.S. were fleeing the oppressive Castro regime, and they harbor strong anti-Castro sentiments even today.
This highly vocal and politically active constituency is strongly against lifting the embargo, and has taken significant steps to strengthen it over the years, including supporting the highly controversial Helms-Burton Act of 1996. Among other provisions, this act empowers Congress to override the president’s action with regard to ending the embargo. Consequently, what began as an executive order can now only be ended by Congress, which, in this political climate, could prove to be a difficult hurdle to overcome.
What Has Changed So Far
Prior to the announcements in December, regulations regarding travel to and commerce with Cuba were last updated in February 2012. This resulted in the relaxation of travel restrictions, permitting the movement of certain groups of travelers who met specific requirements. This included persons traveling for visits with close family, those doing humanitarian or academic work, or who were participating in certain athletic and artistic activities, and others. Regardless of the reason for travel, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) required the issuance of specific licenses, granting permission for qualified individuals to engage in travel-related transactions with Cuba under certain constraints.
Notably, the February 2012 update continued to prohibit the importation of goods of any kind or in any value from Cuba, consistent with the ongoing embargo.
On January 16, 2015, new travel regulations became effective, eliminating the requirement for many qualified travelers to acquire a specific license. Most individuals who qualify to travel to Cuba may now do so under the terms of a general license, which does not require any additional permissions or licensing. Some of the prior restrictions on commercial travel providers have been relaxed, and U.S. flight carriers can now resume scheduling flights into and out of Cuba. The categories of individuals eligible for licensed travel to Cuba remain substantially unchanged from the February 2012 update, however, as has the prohibition against general tourism travel.
The Cigar Outlook
The item of most interest to cigar smokers is the authorization of licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba to import up to $400 worth of goods for personal use, of which no more than $100 worth can be alcohol and tobacco products combined. While far from the end of the embargo, this provision does provide a narrow opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba, acquire Cuban cigars and legally bring them back to the U.S.
What does this mean for the average cigar smoker? For the time being, it means next to nothing. Most of us still cannot legally travel to Cuba, and for those who can, $100 in tobacco products won’t get them very many Cuban cigars. Additionally, the new provisions still do not allow for commercial imports or purchases of Cuban cigars in third-party countries, so it remains illegal for U.S. citizens to purchase Cuban cigars in any other country, as well.
That being said, for those who want them badly enough and know where to look, Cuban cigars are still available. Of course, the trade in counterfeits remains a headache both for consumers and for Habanos S.A., the Cuban state-run tobacco company.
In the medium to long term, this new policy toward Cuba could ultimately lead to the end of the Cuban trade embargo altogether. While such a change seems ultimately inevitable, the gears of government grind slowly. There is still strong anti-Castro and anti-communist sentiment in Florida and beyond, and improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba could quickly be derailed or even reversed following the next presidential election in 2016 (Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has been highly vocal in his opposition to lifting the embargo).
A sound approach for any administration involves a scaling up of trade relations, allowing the manufacturing concerns in Cuba to ramp up production in a healthy way, particularly with regard to cigars. The hope would be to prevent the collapse in quality experienced during the cigar boom of the mid-1990s.
It will likely be some time before La Casa del Habanos Cuban cigar shops begin opening up around the country, or until your local brick and mortar carries two brands of Cohibas, H. Upmanns and Montecristos. There are simply too many political and economic entanglements to unravel to expect any quick or easy solutions. The road to reconciliation is long, but every journey begins with a single step, and that step may have just been taken.
There will come a time when we can tell our grandchildren about the years when we couldn’t get Cuban cigars legally. They will wonder why, and we’ll tell them that the thriving democracy that is the Cuba they know was once a very different place, but with our help, Cuba overcame its demons and emerged as a vibrant, productive nation, and we were all the better for it. And then you’ll be able to tell them where you were when the Cuban trade embargo ended.
Rick Rhay is a Southern California photographer and cigar lover, and occasional editor of the Cigar Sasquatch online journal at CigarSasquatch.com.