CubaNews / November 2002
By Larry Luxner
HAVANA — The elderly waiter at the Hotel Neptuno was clearing off our table when he casually leaned over, asking in a hushed voice if I’d like a bargain on a genuine Cohiba. How much, I asked out of curiosity.
“For you, two dollars, and only a dollar for a Montecristo,” he whispered — to which I quickly responded, “no thanks.” A
side from the fact that I don’t smoke, logic told me that at that such ridiculously low prices, the waiter’s cigars had to be fakes.
Apparently, the proliferation of falsified stogies has become a big headache for the Cuban government, which recently began applying a series of measures aimed at stopping the problem before it begins bringing down the image of Cuban cigars in general.
Theoretically, though not always in practice, tourists must now declare purchases of three or more boxes of cigars — regardless of brand — upon leaving the country. Bills of sale for any purchases must be presented, with the original and copy; meanwhile, the documents themselves are being perfected to avoid falsification.
Also being studied is the possibility of inserting in cigar boxes a “new element of identification, whose reproduction or imitation will be completely impossible, like banknotes,” according to Cuba’s chief customs inspector, Reinaldo Robaina.
In declarations to the weekly Granma Internacional, Robaina said his agency is coordinating its efforts with the Spanish government.
Last year, Spain was Cuba’s best customer for cigars, buying 45 million of them, followed by France, which bought 16 million cigars.
Sources within Habanos S.A. say increasing enthusiasm over Cuban cigars in Europe, combined with rising tourism to Cuba and the island’s continuing economic crisis, have all fueled the imagination of falsifiers, traffickers and suppliers of false cigars.
These con artists aren’t limited to waiters at the Hotel Neptuno. They hang out in tourist areas like the Malecón and Habana Vieja — especially near the Partagas and H. Upmann factories — where, in broken English, Italian or French, they offer boxes of cigars for $20-$30 each whose authentic version costs 10 times as much in shops.
Tourists who buy these phony cigars may have them confiscated anyway at the airport. Customs official Héctor de Moya Martínez said that in 2000, his office recorded 5,163 infractions involving 22,000 boxes of 25 cigars each. Thanks to greater scrutiny, in 2001, the number had dropped to 4,581 infractions involving 19,241 boxes.
Meanwhile, the Castro government is asking the World Trade Organization to grant Cuban cigars the same protection that wines and other alcoholic beverages enjoy under “denomination of origin.”
“In the past 10 years, Cuba has earned $400,000 in judicial rulings to respect these denominations of origin,” explained the vice-director of Cuba’s Office of Intellectual Property, Emilia Lara.