Cuban Cigars A Big Hit With U.s. Visitors


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June 16, 1997

Cuban cigars a big hit with U.S. visitors

by Ingrid Peritz, The Gazette

After the Grand Prix race ended yesterday, Jim Portner and his American buddies headed downtown to indulge in an activity that could get them arrested back home.

They bought Cuban cigars, lit them, and took several deep, satisfying puffs.

"Anything you can't have, you want," Portner, from Dallas, said at Vasco Cigars on Ste. Catherine St. "And you can't get a Cuban cigar back home. The appeal is the mystique."

"I was born to be bad," added his friend Todd Steele, from Laguna Beach, Ca.

All week long, Americans have been making pilgrimages to Vasco's and other cigar shops in Montreal to purchase Cuban cigars, which are forbidden fruit in the U.S. under that country's trade embargo against Cuba.

One country's embargo is another country's windfall.

And Montreal cigar stores, pleased to oblige the free-spending Americans, say sales this week have been smoking.

"It's been busier than Christmastime," said Martine Bonneville, a sales clerk at La Casa del Habano on Sherbrooke St. "Cuban cigars are considered the best in the world. People are carrying them off by the box."

At Vasco's yesterday afternoon, crowds of men stood before the racks of cigars like kids at a candy counter, wide eyes scanning the boxes of Cohibas, Montecristos and Diplomaticos.

One tourist from Colorado walked out clutching five Cohibas, worth $230. "Don't identify me," he said, half-jokingly.

Derek Cairnduff, a manager at Vasco's, said that whether his U.S. customers smoke the Cuban cigars in Canada or attempt to smuggle them home isn't his business.

However, he heard about one client who went to great lengths to get five boxes of Cuban cigars into the U.S.

"He returned to his hotel room, took every ring off (the cigars), repackaged them and took them home," Cairnduff said.

Cuban cigars are contraband in the U.S. Mike McMullen, a supervisor at the U.S. Customs Service in Champlain, N.Y., said that someone caught trying to smuggle Cuban cigars will have the smokes seized and destroyed.

"They're prohibited items," he said in an interview yesterday.

"They could be incinerated, or if it's a small amount, broken in half and thrown in the trash."

Still, some are willing to take the risk, driven by the growing cigar cult in North America. Cigars have become the new status symbol. There are cigar lounges and cigar magazines, as well as cigar-chomping stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to one news report, even U.S. President Bill Clinton was photographed with his hand in a box of Cuban Montecristos at a Washington-area golf club.

Still, Clinton has tightened economic sanctions against Cuba with the Helms-Burton law, which tries to force foreign companies and governments to join the American trade embargo against Cuba.

Americans like Portner showed little support for the U.S.'s trade embargo.

"It's a stupid law," Portner said. "I mean, we're trading with Iran and China. Why not Cuba"

"Sure, Cuba is a communist country," he continued. "But we trade with a lot of communist countries."

Albert Ruzich, a manager at Vasco's, wasn't complaining about the U.S. law.

"Once in a while, customers mention that they would like the embargo to be over," Ruzich said.

"But we don't. It's too good for our business."



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