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Posted June 26, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Cigars

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[url=http://www.granma.cu]http://www.granma.cu[/url] | BY MICHEL PORCHERON | Special for Granma International

ON the other side of the world, when you acquire a pair of counterfeit Nikes at a low price, a Lacoste T-Shirt or Cartier watch, you know that you are buying an imitation. The “deal” between the buyer and seller is clear and not a deception. You are a labels’ freak, but lack the money to buy, for example, an authentic Louis Vuitton suitcase.

In Cuba, when you buy cheaply priced counterfeit habanos, you really don’t know what you’ve acquired. Only the street seller is aware of the deception. When, on your return to Europe, Mexico or Moscow, you open the box in the hope of smoking a good cigar, it’s already too late.

The imitation Calvin Klein shirt will maybe survive two or three washes, but fake habanos have a much shorter life, given that they will end up whole in the waste bin. Even the box, likewise false, will be a cruel reminder and not worth keeping, unless some great-aunt wants to use it for buttons and thread.

Cuba being the paradise of cigars, it is logical that habanos should be the object of all kinds of ambitions.

But our tourist friends would appear incorrigible. Despite recommendations that generally figure on any tourist bulletin, despite warning leaflets available in the majority of tourist agencies their country of origin and, of course, in the international airport for Havana or Santiago de Cuba, our tourist soon falls into the trap.

With rings under his eyes, loud-colored shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, with the famous more or less voluminous waist pouch, our tourist leaves his hotel, generally located in Old Havana. Thus attired, that being his right, he takes his first steps toward the Capitol, the Plaza de Armas or Empedrado Street, converting himself into the prey of sharks, jackals or carrion, daytime or nighttime versions. At least $30 for a box of “puros” - our imprudent friends ends up buying at least two of them - the tourist who usually doesn’t know anything about cigars or is not even an enthusiastic amateur, has the feeling of having completed part of his agenda, as if he’s visited the famed hump-backed hills of Viñales, swum in the limpid waters of Varadero or savored one or two cocktails under a sunshade beside a hotel swimming-pool.

His stay in Cuba continues, in a generally agreeable, exotic manner, with the essential sunshine that confirms he was in the tropics in the middle of the European winter. Sun and cigars make up an irrefutable duo, better than a passport stamp, a duo that could become a trio if you throw in a straw hat countryman style.

But, before our tourist can strut about easily recognizable among the multitude of travelers returning to Mexico, Paris, Madrid or Moscow… he needs to complete some essential formalities in the airports of Havana or Varadero or any other Cuban city.


It so happens that, for some years now, through the Habanos S.A. joint venture, in charge of marketing our beloved cigars in Cuba and abroad, the Cuban state has established regulations that are supported by the General Customs Office of the Republic, which demands that these are met at emigration. These rules have created a series of increasingly subtle stumbling blocks to prevent fake habanos being taken out of the country by travelers trying to get around the established regulations.

If you are in order, as is the case anywhere in the world, you will be wished bon voyage and a prompt return. If you are not in order, despite possessing a positive appearance and face - now as colored as your Hawaiian shirt - you will be in a tight corner, while the individual who sold you the counterfeit cigars will be celebrating his new deception with his accomplices, probably tucking into a leg of roast pork.

In relation to the fake cigars, they will end up being seized prior to their destruction.

Why? Because Habanos S.A., working alongside the Customs authorities and other interested parties, has decided to launch an all-out war against fake cigars and illegal purchases in general in order to clean up the domestic market and ensure that every habano that leaves Cuba is the authentic version that has acquired international fame.

For a number of years, the arrival of counterfeit habanos abroad, on occasions in bulk, has been damaging the reputation of the genuine item, according to Hector de Moya Martínez, principal inspector at the Anti-Fraud Department of the Cuban Customs Office, speaking at its headquarters.

Have tourists not noticed how the net has been tightening around the fakers and their clients? Possibly. Maybe they haven’t paid much attention to the information that is always available to them? Probably.

In this cat and mouse game, it is hard to imagine how tourists - ill-intentioned ones of course - manage to get around the measures that Habanos S.A. and the Cuban Customs have recently reinforced. In fact, in the last two years, both agencies have considerably increased their arsenals by taking essential measures in the face of the proliferation of individual illegal purchases of cigars, in the main fake, as well as the appearance of organized networks and even mules or individuals paid to transport the illegal merchandise out of the country.

The Cuban Customs has not confined itself to identifying visitors and re-offending travelers - one has to be aware that the phenomenon goes beyond mere occasional tourists - that have been or will be the object of reinforced surveillance. A surveillance that has a dissuasive effect, as Hector de Moya points out. We have to recall that there were no measures in place for years. Until last October, any tourist could take out two boxes of habanos without presenting receipts, which were only required for the third box.

What is the current procedure? The measures in effect since the end of last year are simple:

n Any traveler leaving Cuba now has the right to take with him/her 23 loose cigars without showing a receipt. “Loose” means without any kind of wrapping, packet or box, with or without a seal.

n Beyond this number, the Customs Office will ask travelers to produce a receipt for the purchase of their habanos and keep a copy of it. The receipt or receipts produced must agree with the holographic seal that since last October has been present on one side of the cigar box, a seal that completes the traditional identification process of the product. Each box of cigars sold has this hologram


Customs also suggests - it’s a matter of practical advice to simplify the necessary verifications - that travelers also carry their habanos and receipts in their hand luggage. Keep both the receipts and cigars within easy reach, avoid placing your Habanos in suitcases that will go into the luggage compartment. Elemental, isn’t it? Otherwise, Customs will have no other option than to summon you before its officials. Then you will have to wait for your baggage to be brought, open it and show the habanos that you are carrying to be able to verify that everything (receipts, cigar boxes and holograms) is in order before getting on the plane.

In the case of any doubt, Customs may consult (from the airport itself) a database that daily updates every purchase made in every establishment in the country authorized to sell habanos. If necessary, Customs may also verify the authenticity of each hologram, thanks to an invisible security seal that can only be detected and read using a special technique, about which Hector de Moya prefers to maintain a discreet silence.

It is a matter of not leaving a single opening for counterfeiters who have already even tried to duplicate the holograms, just as they previously tried to falsify receipts using scanners.

To sum up, any cigars that don’t fall into the relatively simple framework established by such measures will be confiscated and retained for 30 days, the time allotted for passengers to present the appropriate receipts. At the end of that time period, the confiscated cigars are burned, a healthy way to proceed when we think about how those crafty characters sell low-price imitations of Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas that are often carriers of miniscule parasites that reproduce themselves through parthenogenesis and travel in the fake cigars as happily as worms in a piece of carrion.

The year 2003 was a good one for Cuban Customs, but a bad one for the buyers of imitation Cuban cigars. According to De Moya, nearly 10,000 infractions (9,914, to be exact) were detected, which translated into the confiscation of some 30,000 boxes of fake habanos (29,891). The previous year, 4,675 infractions “only” led to the confiscation of 19,810 boxes.

Cuban Customs has a lot of work ahead of it: in January, 4,033 boxes were seized as a result of 1,352 infractions, and in February, another 2,916 boxes were seized, corresponding to 1,017 infractions. Are the most recent measures yielding their first fruits? That is yet to be confirmed, according to the chief inspector.

However, De Moya tells us, a new sort of “mule” appeared some months ago: the traveler who, on a “business” trip, dedicates himself to smuggling. But he doesn’t take either imitation habanos or stolen boxes without holograms); rather pieces of boxes, just as in other countries autos may be exported in individual pieces and assembled again once the pieces have arrived the country where the sale will be effected.

It’s the same with cigar smuggling. The new “mules,” perhaps lacking contacts with his or her former providers in Cuba - who probably no longer have access to whole boxes, or who find fresh difficulties every day in keeping up with deliveries due to the vigilance of specially assigned police - are now specializing in the transport of each one or several of the elements that make up a cigar box.

The chief inspector cites some figures. In 2003, 112 infractions of that type were detected, leading to a total confiscation of 343.70 kilograms. This does not refer to the weight of the cedar used to make cigar boxes, or the weight of the cigars; rather, it refers to the other elements that De Moya calls qualifications. These are elements that authenticate the origin of the cigar box: the bands, the fine rectangular labels that read “habanos” in red letters on a white background and seal one corner of the box, like the famous seal that proclaims “República de Cuba, sello de garantía” (Republic of Cuba, warranty seal), the cellophane separators that go inside the box. Or rather, 343.70 kilograms of paper and cellophane. In January of this year, 10 of these infractions were registered (34.5 kg) and in February, another nine (17.79 kg).

It is easy to deduce, without the chief inspector mentioning it, that other “mules” are responsible for carrying the cedar wood, more for the cigars themselves, and everything is “assembled” in the destination country, in order to present the buyer with a product that appears to be a real box of Cuban cigars.

We may continue to deduce: the measures adopted at Havana airport have had a dissuasive effect on the “mules,” who have been forced to adapt to the new situation in the internal Cuban “market,” and are dependent on small networks that in their turn, are also trying to adapt after the dismantling of the old traditional networks by the Ministry of the Interior.

Taking into account the risks to which they expose themselves in such roles, the very existence of such “mules” also assumes the existence of a significant demand from a real external market, in whatever country, that provides important dividends for those implicated. Without going into details, the chief inspector mentions several countries: Mexico, the Bahamas, Russia and Spain.


Confirming how coveted Cuban cigar brands are, especially in Central America or the Caribbean, De Moya pulls an elegant cigar out of his pocket, apparently well made, of the corona type (long tapering body and blunt ends), wrapped in transparent cellophane. The band on it says “Gran Cohiba,” the most famous of Cuban brands, and is identified by its characteristic colors (yellow with black dots on a white background), but it also says “Made in Nicaragua.”

Another method-perfectly official, according to what the chief inspector tells us - exists in Cuba for sending habanos to friends or relatives abroad: by mail. One box of habanos per month may be sent by mail. Of course, the same requirements must be met as those expected of travelers; the receipt corresponding to the hologram on a given box of cigars (here it must be mentioned that buying cigars or cigarettes by mail is forbidden in France).

Be they small, individual, occasional or of magnitude, the different types of smuggling operations around Cuban cigars, the island’s great luxury product, have acquired great relevance. According to the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur (November 27, 2003), in recent years more than two million fake Cuban cigars have arrived annually on the French market in the baggage of the 150,000 French tourists returning from Cuba every year. We should remember that during that time, it was possible to leave Cuba with two boxes of cigars without having to present receipts, which objectively signified an incitement to buy on the street, although Cuban experts consider that figure to be somewhat exaggerated.

For De Moya, taking into account that it is a national problem that goes beyond the simple framework of customs activity - what’s at stake is the health of the Cuban cigar market, both inside and outside of Cuba, and the protection of its undeniable reputation - the possibility of determining the origin of each cigar with the highest precision possible must be perfect, and not the slightest failure may be tolerated. The respect for its trajectory must be total.

In spite of a notable increase in sales at authorized Cuban outlets, much remains to be done.

Customs is the last obligatory step for every traveler carrying ill-gotten merchandise, and possesses the most efficient technical means for passing every bag of every passenger through a very fine sieve. While he knows every inch of his job, the chief inspector, who learns every week the extent to which the imagination and tricks of counterfeiters can go, from “mules” to even common tourists, offers us a series of examples that are as extravagant as they are grotesque, and reminds us of something obvious. The vigilance of every personnel member, Cuban or not, must be scrupulous at those moments that lead up to passengers’ departure, in order not to leave the most minimum breach for scammers.

The source of supply must also be eliminated, but that is another problem. •

Recuadro 1

• Four cases of confiscated products that the Cuban General Customs Office considers to be the most representative of 2003:

127 boxes (3,175) discovered on May 28, 2003, in a suitcase headed for the luggage compartment. Upon being summoned by Customs, the passenger did not present himself, and left Havana for Panama. His baggage was considered abandoned. This suitcase also contained 2.05 kilograms of elements for assembling Cuban cigar boxes (no further details provided).

On March 20, 2003, 300 boxes were seized from two suitcases and five cardboard boxes belonging to a traveler who was leaving for Madrid and was carrying a Bahamian passport. The ID tags on the baggage did not bear any names. The ID sticker is a seal that should be placed on the baggage by the traffic dispatcher of the given airline, and the full name, quantity and weight of baggage must be displayed on it. The error on the part of the dispatcher could have been intentional or not. The traveler was identified by the controls established for matching travelers and their baggage.

On April 14, 2003, 105 boxes were seized after being detected by X-rays in several suitcases headed for the luggage compartment. The traveler, a Cuban who was returning to Paris, where he resides, presented receipts that did not bear his name. Some of the boxes also presented irregularities in their warranty seals.

On November 8, 2003, 1,150 loose cigars (equivalent to the contents of 46 boxes of 25 each), without bands, were seized in a suitcase on its way to the luggage compartment. In addition, in a double bottom of the same baggage, seven disassembled boxes were found, along with 10 kilograms of elements hidden in craft objects. The traveler, a Ghanaian, was on his way to Nassau (the Bahamas). •

Recuadro 2

U.S. Court ruling favors Cubatabaco

• A very important element in any article regarding Cuban cigars would be missing here, if the legal victory on the Cuban Cohiba brand recently obtained in the United States were not to be mentioned.

A U.S. federal judge in New York ruled in favor of Cubatabaco, the Cuban cigar firm, after a trial on the famous brand’s rights. In the ruling, a 142-page document, the U.S. General Cigar Corporation is prohibited from marketing its cigars under the brand name of Cohiba. Judge Robert W. Sweet Jr. determined that Cohiba is a famous Cuban brand that should enjoy special protection at international level. In virtue of such a decision, General Cigar can not continue to sell its own cigars under the name Cohiba; rather, the registration of that usurped trademark effected in the United States by that corporation should be annulled. Cubatabaco is also demanding financial compensation, the amount of which will be established within the framework of a new court proceedings. The verdict handed down gives Cubatabaco the possibility of selling its Cohiba-brand cigars in the United States when the trade and economic blockade against Cuba is lifted. Since 1978l, General Cigar, a top cigar firm, has been selling its own “Cohiba” cigars in that country, thus exploiting the celebrity of Cubatabaco’s cigars, known at the time as Fidel Castro’s favorite (he stopped smoking in 1985). After several years of mediocre sales, General Cigar suspended sales of the brand from 1987 to 1992, the year it launched its new “Cohiba Super-Premium,” just at the same time as the first edition of the famous U.S. magazine Cigar Aficionado appeared, praising the quality of the Cuban brand.

“Judge Sweet’s decision is one of the first decisions in the United States that applies the well-known international doctrine of ‘brand-name celebrity’ in determining the rights related to them,” commented Adargelio Garrido, general counsel for Habanos S.A., which legally advises Cubatabaco. Garrido explained that Cuban courts in the past had already applied the aforementioned doctrine in favor of U.S. companies. Cubatabaco was represented by attorneys Michael Krinsky and David Goldstein, of the New York law firm Rabinowitz-Boudin-Standard-Krinsky & Liberman, RC. (For further details see [url=http://www.habanos.net]http://www.habanos.net[/url] and at [url=http://www.aduana.islagrande.cu]http://www.aduana.islagrande.cu[/url]

  1. Follow up post #1 added on July 09, 2004 by Epicurian

    How may I purchase “Authentic” (not Counterfeit)Mild Cuban Cigars.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on January 25, 2005 by banu with 2 total posts

    A friend of mine went to Havana and she bought around 40 cigars. She bought a box of Cohibas from the street but I don’t know if she knew that those were counterfeit cigars and that she shouldn’t buy them and she can’t buy more than 23 cigars or she shouldn’t keep them in a box. The customs police took her luggage after she checked in and she realized this when she came to Madrid. What should she do to get her luggage and of course is there a possibility of getting her luggage back? By the way she sent an authorization letter to the customs police so that they can open the luggage and check what is in there. And here is the last point I want to make: The guide of the travel agency told her to put the cigars into her luggage, not her hand luggage.
    Thanks by now for your answer.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on September 04, 2007 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Don’t miss our exclusive comparison of fake vs real Cohiba Esplendio Cuban cigars at http://havanajournal.com/cigars/cohibas

    Cuba consulting services

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