Cuban Cigars in the United States? Don’t hold your breath.

The Nic-Cuban hybrid…a dream or reality?

When President Obama announced he was opening talks with the Cuban government, cigar smokers across America rejoiced. After five decades of an embargo, there was finally hope that Cuban cigars would soon become available to consumers in the US. Would we finally be able to buy CCs without looking over our shoulders? Unfortunately, at this time, the terms of the negotiations indicate that legal Cuban cigars may be a long way off for Americans.

In order for full trade relations to happen, Cuba is demanding that:

  1. The US Naval base in Guantanamo Bay be returned to Cuba;
  2. The US stop broadcasting anti-Castro radio/TV into the island;
  3. The US pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for losses due to the embargo.

These demands illustrate that the Castro regime has no real interest in rapprochement with the US. Additionally, the Helms-Burton act of 1996 states the embargo can only be lifted by Congress. Under this act, Cuba must hold free elections, release political prisoners, guarantee worker’s rights, and allow freedom of the press. But the Castro brothers have as much revolutionary zeal as ever, and no interest in promoting democracy and privatization. Unless there is a regime change, the terms of Helms-Burton will never be met. And history has shown that only overt war can bring about such a change. No one wants that.

For negotiations to continue, Cuba needs to get serious. The demand for reparations is absurd, especially in light of assets stolen by Castro after the 1959 revolution. According to Fox News, an estimated $6 billion of property was seized from thousands of US citizens and businesses. It seems that Raul Castro has no real interest in doing business with the US.

What if?

To this cigar smoker, the end of the Cuban embargo seems distant indeed. But what if, through some bizarre circumstance, the embargo was to end in the near future? What impact would it have on the worldwide cigar market? Here are some scenarios to ponder…

Surge in US cigar sales

The novelty of being able to buy Cuban cigars in the US would be irresistible, not only for cigar smokers, but to the general public as well. Curious non-smokers will want to see what the fuss was all about. The public might flock to cigar stores to smoke their first cigar. This could make initial demand for CCs so great, that supplies will dwindle fast. This, in turn, would drive the prices up, making them less appealing to an experienced cigar smoker. We know the cigars we like, and what they should cost. Smoking a novelty simply doesn’t appeal to us. In this case, legal CCs won’t change the buying habits of those already passionate about their favorite cigar brands.

But how many first-time cigar buyers will actually become regular cigar smokers? My guess is that very few would actually enjoy the experience. Many will end up smoking fake CCs that taste awful, or are plugged. And even if they find a good Cohiba, paying $30+ for one cigar would probably make it a novelty purchase. Ultimately, once non-smokers have experienced their CC, they will tell everyone how great it was (even if they didn’t like it), and never smoke another. (Time and again I’ve heard non-smokers say they smoked a “Cuban”, and it was heavenly. The mystique of the “Cuban Cigar” is simply too powerful to resist.) So, I predict that, initially, cigar smoking in the US will jump once the embargo is lifted. Then after a few months, the numbers will fall back to what we’ve seen during the embargo years.

Supply and demand

Presently, the worldwide demand for Cuban cigars far outstrips the Island’s ability to produce consistent quality across all its brands. Add to that the world’s largest cigar-smoking nation, and an already thin system may get stretched to the breaking point. It’s been my experience that certain cigar vendors get better quality CCs than others. Also, the best vendors check their inventory for quality before sending out any boxes. This is one way they assure the consumer is getting quality Cuban cigars. But when local stores start selling Cuban cigars in the US, quality control will be difficult to maintain. Plus, the counterfeit cigar market will go wild. On a recent trip to Vancouver, I was amazed at how many cigar stores were there. From what I could tell, all but one was selling fake CCs. Only from experience was I able to tell the good from the bad. The fakes were everywhere. The US is fertile ground for this type of deception, particularly because we are unfamiliar with the product. It may take a while for things to settle, and for serious cigar smokers to find a source for good CCs. Until then, it could be a free-for-all.

Who will benefit the most?

Ultimately, the ones who will benefit the most from a lifted embargo are the non-Cuban cigar makers. With access to Cuban tobacco, they can add a new flavor element to their blends, one that had been forbidden for decades. Cuba has laws prohibiting export of its tobacco, but once that gets rescinded, the great cigar makers of Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and the US, will have access to some of the tastiest tobacco in the world. But the real boost in cigar flavor will come with the extra fermentation these great cigar makers will apply to their new tobacco. The best cigar makers never simply blend the tobaccos they buy. They ferment multiple times until they deem the tobacco ready for their brand. This is a stage missing from the Cuban cigar industry. With demand so high, the fermentation in Cuba gets short-thrift. It’s no wonder why CCs need to sit five years in storage to reach peak flavor potential. In the hands of caring cigar makers, Cuban tobacco can finally get its due. Blending perfectly fermented Cuban tobacco with the best tobaccos of other countries will yield cigars of unprecedented greatness.

The best CCs won’t be Cuban

Taking this one step further, I predict that the best CCs will not be made in Cuba. Once boutique cigar makers import Cuban tobacco, there will be cigar makers rolling sticks in the US (and elsewhere), made from 100% Cuban tobacco. And with the extra fermentation they will apply, these non-Cuban, Cuban cigars may surpass CCs in both flavor and construction.

There are many hurdles yet to overcome, and having diplomatic relations with Cuba is only the beginning. But in the end, we, the cigars smokers, will be the big winner when the embargo ends. How we will benefit is, at this point, only speculation. And at the current rate of negotiations, and the unwillingness of the Cuban government to bend, it’s hard to see when, or if, the embargo will truly ever end.