The Cuban Cigar Scam
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There was a tone of friendly confidentiality in his voice and a rather mischievous twinkle in his eye as he said to me, ŌSee that box over there. Those cigars sell for $250, but I could write up a receipt for you that would say you paid $60 for them. YouÕd still have another $40 to play with. Those customs people donÕt have the time to check on what everything really costs.Ķ
We were in Marigot, the capital and main city of Saint Martin, the French part of the Caribbean island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, shared by the Dutch and the French. In front of me was the largest collection of cigars that I have seen outside a JRÕs store, and they were apparently all made in Cuba.
What with the announcement by President Obama that we were normalizing relations with that nearest island country to the United States in the Greater Antilles, I was curious as to whether it was legal now to bring Cuban cigars into the United States. I knew that I had not yet seen any announcement to that effect, so I had asked the storeÕs cigar salesman about it.
ŌOh yes. TheyÕre legal for Americans now,Ķ he responded confidently, Ōbut you can bring in only $100 worth for personal use.Ķ At that point he produced an official looking sheet of paper purporting to show the new rules governing business with Cuba by Americans, with the part about the cigars and a $100 maximum highlighted in yellow. That explains the need for the proposed receipt legerdemain.
So there it was in black and white (and yellow). Who could doubt it? How many people, one must wonder, have seen this great opportunity to load up on the precious, newly available commodity, perhaps even with a thought of bending the rules a bit more by reselling them individually once back in the States? At the very least it looked like an opportunity to make a big impression on friends and associates.
Still, I had some nagging doubt. I like to think that IÕm a good deal better informed about such things than the average person, and this Ōnew policy,Ķ as I have indicated, was news to me. Furthermore, this amiable salesperson had just confided to me that he would freely lie for me when it was to our mutual advantage. Why wouldnÕt he lie just as readily to me when it was to his advantage alone? He could see that I was wearing on my chest a stick-on number that marked me as a member of a tour group from one of the five cruise ships that was in port that day. All the ships were moored at the Dutch side of the island in Phillipsburg. The likelihood that I, or any such customer like me, would return to the store and confront him after doing some Internet research was quite remote.
Later, back on the ship in the ever smaller area to which cigar smokers are confined, I told a fellow passenger about the Ōnew policyĶ as presented to me by the store man in Marigot. My interlocutor, whom I had tried not to bias with my presentation and who struck me as a rather sagacious fellow, said simply that he doubted it. I donÕt think he would have fallen for the pitch, but I also think he is a rare one. The salesman was very persuasive.
The facts of the Cuban cigar policy began to come into clearer focus upon our port of disembarkation, the U.S. island of Puerto Rico. (Celebrity, the cruise line I was using, charges an arm and a leg for WiFi and for their computer use, so I had remained in Internet darkness.) The shipÕs daily flier told us, for the first time, that it was illegal to bring Cuban-made products, including cigars, back into the United States. Just to make sure, I asked the U.S. customs agent there about the policy. He told me that he expected the policy to change in the near future, but for now, at least when it comes to Cuban products bought outside Cuba, it remains what it has been for most of my lifetime.
And what, exactly, is that policy? For that we go to the Frequently Asked Questions of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, one of which is, ŌCan I import Cuban cigars into the U.S.?Ķ
Persons authorized to travel to Cuba may purchase alcohol and tobacco products while in Cuba for personal consumption while there. Authorized travelers may return to the United States with up to $100 worth of alcohol and/or tobacco products acquired in Cuba in accompanied baggage, for personal use only.
Foreign residents and visitors to the U.S. (i.e., French, Mexican etc) may not bring in goods of Cuban origin under any circumstances. Purchasing Cuban-orgin [sic] cigars and/or Cuban-origin rum or other Cuban-origin alcohol over the internet [sic] or while in a third country (i.e. not Cuba) remains prohibited.
For more information about travel to Cuba, please see the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). *
Criminal penalties for violation of the Regulations range up to $1,000,000 in fines for corporations, $250,000 for individuals and up to 10 years in prison. Civil penalties of up to $65,000 per violation may be imposed by OFAC.
Does that clear things up? Maybe not, if you are the sort of person who needs an explanation, with examples, of what ŌforeignĶ or Ōthird countryĶ means in this context. Perhaps a quite easy-to-imagine scenario will bring it all home, so to speak. Let us say we have a tourist (T) passing through customs in San Juan or Miami after visiting St. Martin on his cruise of the Caribbean. He encounters the customs agent (CA):
CA: You say on your declaration here that you have $100 worth of cigars. Where were those cigars made?
T: In Cuba.
CA: Did someone give you those cigars?
T: Oh no. I bought them in St. Martin. I have a receipt here. See.
CA: So, you bought a box of 20 Cohiba cigars for $60 and a box of 20 Montecristo cigars for $40?
At this point our credulous cigar lover is probably beginning to sweat. He has begun to realize that $3 each for the top name Cuban cigar and $2 each for a serious rival is too good a bargain for anyone to believe, but he does have it in writing.
CA: Do you realize that you could be looking at a fine of up to a quarter of a million dollars and a prison sentence of up to ten years?
T: (Gulp) But I thought I could bring in $100 worth with no trouble.
CA: Who told you that?
T: The man at the cigar store.
CA: (Stares at the man silently for a few seconds, slowly shaking his head.)
T: But he showed me on a piece of paperÉ
CA: (The head shaking and silent stare continues, but now with a hint of a bemused smile. Reading the touristÕs name on his customs declaration, he calls to his associate to check him out on the computer for his criminal record.)
Now thinking the $450 he actually spent for the cigars is a small price to pay to escape his current predicament, our panicked tourist decides to try to cut his losses.
T: Well letÕs just mark those off the customs form. It was pretty stupid of me to believe that guy. Forget about those cigars. Here, IÕll get them out of the suitcase. I donÕt care what you do with them.
CA: ItÕs too late for that.
T: What do you mean?
CA: You broke the law when you bought those Cuban cigars. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Even if you had smoked them all before coming back into the country youÕd still be a lawbreaker. Of course, you probably wouldnÕt have been caught, but we have it in writing from you, with your signature, that you bought them.
T: (Now itÕs his turn for silent head shaking, but instead of staring at the agent, heÕs looking down at the ground.)
CA: (To the rescue) Tell you what weÕll do. The computer says you have a clean record. Just put the cigars in the bin over there, and let this be a lesson to you.
DonÕt ask me what happens to the growing number of Cuban cigars that Customs must be confiscating since the new Cuba policy was announced, but if there is a burgeoning black market in premium Cuban brands in San Juan and Miami, I would not be at all surprised.
IsnÕt it great to live in the land of the free, the only country on earth whose citizens are still forbidden under serious penalty of law to purchase and enjoy Cuban cigars?
As a postscript, to any readers who might suspect that I was actually victimized by the smooth-talking cigar salesman, I can only say that, for some measure of revenge I would at least name the store in question and give the manÕs ethnicity, which was clearly different from that of the majority of the population of the island. Having not been stung, IÕll just let the old caveat emptor dictum hold sway. At least those who read this article are warned, and if they encounter that guy in Marigot, St. Martin, until the policy actually does change, they should tell him heÕs a liar to his face.
* ItÕs still not easy for Americans to travel to Cuba. At the time of this writing it continues to be banned for purely recreational purposes.