- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

CHICAGO
The 39-year-old ban on trade with communist Cuba hasn't stopped America's rich and powerful from enjoying their favorite stogies. Researchers say America is awash in Cuban cigars despite government efforts to cut off the flow at the borders. Politicians, movie stars, business moguls and others willing to pay $50 a pop easily can tap into a brisk black-market trade, they say.
"I would say that you could get them at 90 percent of the cigar stores in the country, maybe 80 percent I know 50 percent," said Diana Silvius, owner of a Chicago cigar shop who said she refuses to sell Cuban cigars.
People who visit Fidel Castro rarely come away without a gift box of Cohibas, the Cuban president's favorite brand until he quit smoking a few years ago on doctor's orders. During a six-hour visit in Havana in January, Mr. Castro gave Illinois Gov. George Ryan a gift of cigars.
"I smoked a couple," said Mr. Ryan. "They're OK."
He said he didn't bring back any of them, although it would have been legal. Under terms of the trade embargo, Americans on government-authorized visits to Cuba may bring back $100 worth of cigars for their personal use. But reselling them is illegal, as is bringing in Cuban cigars purchased in other countries such as England, Canada and Mexico.
Most cigars that come into the United States in boxes marked "Hecho en Cuba" are smuggled over the border.
They often are smoked by the smugglers themselves or sold to trusted, wealthy clients by stores specializing in fine cigars.
Customs agents who discover contraband usually just seize the cigars and allow the would-be smugglers to go on their way.
But a trial that got under way last week before U.S. District Judge Ronald A. Guzman in Chicago underscores the harsh fate smugglers can meet.
Lawyer Richard Connors, caught at the Canadian border with 1,150 illegal cigars, is facing charges including five counts of trading with the enemy that could send him to federal prison for years.
Prosecutors say Mr. Connors provoked a tough crackdown by smuggling in large quantities. But Mr. Connors claims the feds got after him because he wrote a novel in which a prosecutor sent a messenger to Cuba to buy cigars.
Whatever happens in the case, it won't halt the black market in cigars, which were smoked by Winston Churchill, among others. Churchill reluctantly stopped after critics said it was wrong to favor the Cuban kind over those made in Jamaica, a British Commonwealth nation.
"Arturo Toscanini, Sam Goldwyn, of course Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, all of those are legendary aficionados of the Havana," said George Brightman of Cigar Aficionado magazine and Cigar Insider, a newsletter.
He said many of today's Hollywood elite are just as enthusiastic, to say nothing of the nation's industrial giants.
Chicago insurance billionaire W. Clement Stone, who pumped millions of dollars into Richard M. Nixon's 1968 campaign while preaching the gospel of positive mental attitude, was renowned as a connoisseur of Cuban cigars.
"They were long ones, too, and they obviously didn't do him any harm," said Tom Roeser, a conservative activist and former corporate lobbyist.
Mr. Stone died last month at age 100.
Some say Cuba's finest output can be found only in the world's most elite cigar shops in London, Paris and Geneva.
They also say demand for Cuban cigars in America is so intense that counterfeits are everywhere. Some are shoddily rolled "farm cigars" made in the wilds of Cuba and dressed up with the wrappers of such prestigious Havana brands as Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo.
Some of the cigars have never even been to Cuba.
Would-be wholesalers, selling Cuban cigars real and fake, come around frequently, said Chicago dealer Miss Silvius, of Up Down Tobacco in the Old Town neighborhood.
"I'm not going to buy cigars from some guy off the street," Miss Silvius said. "I know where my cigars come from. I would like to sell Cuban cigars. But I won't until they lift the embargo and I can go down there and see for myself."
Customers ask for Cuban cigars, but Miss Silvius tells them her cigars are better. They are made from tobacco grown by "old Cuban families" who left after the revolution and now live in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, she says.
Meanwhile, many of America's high and mighty smoke only the real Havana variety. It's part of the mystique.
"I think they will if they know where to get them," said Peter Feller, general counsel of the Cigar Association of America. "And they know where to get them."


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