Cuba is associated with many things -- from our naval base in Guantanamo to Ernest Hemingway's second home, from Desi Arnaz to the Mambo Kings, from tasty pork sandwiches to intoxicating mojitos, from Fidel Castro, the old Communist dictator, to Minnie Minoso, the equally old White Sox star who fell just short of the Hall of Fame once again on Monday.
But perhaps one item has been identified more with Cuba than anything else: cigars. On Feb. 7, 1962, after reportedly receiving a shipment of 1,200 Cuban cigars for his own use, President John F. Kennedy issued an economic embargo on the Caribbean island, making it illegal for anyone to smoke a Cuban cigar on American soil. Lately, that long, cold ash of conflict shows signs of breaking off. In 2001, in the wake of a hurricane, President George W. Bush allowed U.S. companies to sell food to Cuba. This year, President Barack Obama allowed more Americans to fly directly from the U.S. to Cuba.
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Recently, the first direct flights in decades began from O'Hare to Havana. In January, an additional charter flight will be available on Mondays. If this Cold War thawing continues, the embargo might fall and make Cuban cigars available in our suburban cigar shops for the first time in 50 years.
"If cigars from Cuba were made legal, (cigar store owners) would have a line around the block on Day One of people waiting to get them," says Hal Elmore, 55, owner of the Bull & Bear Tobacco Shop in downtown Naperville, envisioning throngs of people willing to pay $50, $75 or more for a single Cuban cigar. "And then, on the second day, there would be no one in line."
A half-century of being labeled as the forbidden fruit has given Cuban cigars a mythical status they don't deserve, argues Elmore, who talks about tobacco leafs and cigar wrappers with the passion White Sox fans use to describe the hustling Minoso.
"I've had more conversations with people coming in asking about Cubans," says Elmore.
At one time, Cuba was the only place making cigars, Elmore says. The island had the perfect climate, the right soil, the best tobacco and the most-skilled wrappers. Then people started taking Cuban tobacco seeds to the Dominican Republic, Honduras and other places with good soil, fine weather and people who had learned how to make excellent cigars.
"I guarantee you that, if I laid five cigars on the counter and one of them was a Cuban, you'd never know which one it was," Elmore says.
The Fuente Opus X cigar, made in the Dominican Republic by the legendary Arturo Fuente family, tastes as good as anything coming out of Cuba, Elmore says, and it sells for $15 at the Bull & Bear. Elmore and a partner even produce their own cigar in the Little Havana section of Miami. It uses tobacco from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and "a tad bit of Brazilian," Elmore says. That cigar sells for $6.50 and goes by the name O.P. The name came from the answer Elmore once got when he asked a man what kind of cigar was his favorite: Other People's.
Friday's first flight from Cuba landing at O'Hare did not feature any passengers trying to sneak in illicit cigars, says Cherise Miles, spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at O'Hare International Airport. Officers confiscate one or two Cuban cigars a month from passengers on flights coming out of Europe.
"Those cigars are destroyed at the airport," Miles says, adding, "and that is by breaking them apart, not by smoking them."
Officers typically confiscate 10 to 20 cigars a month in mail shipments coming into O'Hare, says Brian Bell, a uniformed public affairs officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at O'Hare. In November 2010, security changes temporarily led to all incoming U.S. mail being routed through O'Hare and that resulted in a record confiscation of 144,000 Cuban cigars shipped from Sweden, says Bell.
Cigar merchants in the United States know they can't smuggle in Cubans, so most of the seizures at O'Hare are of a cigar or two meant as a gift, Bell says. Someone in another country might stash a couple of Cuban cigars in a box with a sweater or other gift.
"We usually see those on X-ray," says Bell, who adds that unmarked cigars or ones that have been rewrapped or repackaged also fall under suspicion. The rest of the gifts are sent on their ways without the cigars. People who bring back a Cuban cigar from a trip or order a few by mail get an explanation about why their cigars were confiscated by the government. Habitual offenders could face criminal charges. "Potentially, we could start seeing more and more cigars on those flights," Bell says. "Right now, its such a new thing, we're taking it one day at a time."
The romance and demand for forbidden Cuban cigars in this country reminds Elmore of a time when some brands of beer weren't sold in the Midwest.
"When I was in college, somebody would go to Colorado and bring back Coor's beer and we'd drink it warm from the back of a pickup truck," Elmore says. "It wasn't good."