Rubin: Cuban cigar ban might return, but dealer is calm
It was a near-blizzard, and no one with the sense God gave a goldfish would have chosen that day to eat linguini in Windsor. So I tried not to be offended when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer on the Detroit side of the tunnel gave us what seemed like a particularly hard time.
Lunch, you say? Where did you eat? What did you order? Can’t you get that in the United States? Do you have a receipt?
I answered politely, trying to keep my good humor even as he treated us like skulduggerous smugglers.
Then he finally waved us through and I drove onward, steering perhaps a little stiffly with half a dozen Cuban cigars inside the arm of my bulky gray parka.
That was last winter — the bad old days, for those with an affection for Cubans or, in my case, a golf trip coming up with a cigar-loving friend.
The good new days began Oct. 17, when a presidential edict made it legal to bring Cuban cigars and rum into this great land of ours no matter where they were purchased.
For the last five weeks, says manager Jay Henderson of La Casa del Habano on Ouellette Avenue, online requests for directions to the shop have doubled, and sales of their 40 varieties of Cubans have correspondingly increased.
But wait: There’s a nuevo sheriff in town. Could the cigar boom go bust so soon?
“Donald Trump might reverse it,” says La Casa owner Raymond Chu. The president-elect has had more burning issues to deal with than cigars, but “we’re keeping an eye open. He might want to appease the anti-Castro crowd.”
Or maybe he’ll opt to keep that particular boat unrocked, and appease cigar smokers instead — people like David Stoyka, 50, who legally obtained a selection of Romeo y Julietas and Bolivars two weeks ago.
“They have very distinctive flavors,” says the publicist from Grosse Pointe Farms. And they’re Cuban cigars, for heaven’s sake, the leaf of legend.
“A big part is the mystique,” Stoyka concedes — and until last month, the mischief.
No harm, no foul
Officially, says Henderson, if he sold a box of 25 Montecristo No. 4s to an American, “we assumed he was going to go out to his car and smoke them all.”
Unofficially, he might mention that a cigar was less likely to be detected if it was on one’s person.
Assuming a purchaser’s vehicle was selected for a random search at the border, cigars would stand out in the trunk and look downright disingenuous beneath the spare tire. “But if they didn’t find nuclear material or a human ear” in the car, Henderson says, agents had no cause to look down somebody’s pants.
Hypothetically, says Stoyka, a person might visit his friend in Stony Point, Ontario, do some fishing and stay overnight to mask the purpose of a cigar-buying excursion. Or he might claim to have dined at the late Tunnel Bar-B-Q or say he was going to the casino, always stopping at the duty-free store on the way back so he had something to declare.
Any machinations were worth the effort, Henderson says.
“Whatever the reason — sun, soil, process — you wind up with a more complex and robust cigar,” he says, and now you can proudly display it on the passenger seat as you drive home.
Cigars or rum?
Two Decembers ago, with U.S.-Cuba relations thawing, a 52-year chokehold loosened enough to allow visitors to Cuba to bring back up to $100 in cigars or rum. The announcement last month allows purchases in any country but this one, with a theoretical limit of 100 sticks or $800 every 31 days.
Cuban cigars aren’t cheap, Henderson concedes, with a low end around $15, but good Dominicans and Hondurans are also pricy in a country where tobacco is heavily taxed.
“The only thing worse than buying a $1,000 box of cigars,” he says, “was having a $1,000 box of cigars confiscated.”
Those days are blessedly over, at least for now. But even if the new administration changes course, shop owner Chu says he won’t worry.
His part of the transaction will still be legal — and his customers always have a trick or two up their sleeves.