Cuban Government Admits It's Plotting to Corner America's Cigar Market

A cigar roller in a Nicaraguan factory.
A cigar roller in a Nicaraguan factory.
Photo by Michael E. Miller

For more than a half-century, communist Cuba has fought off the offenses of its northern neighbor. From the Bay of Pigs to the embargo to the internet, the island has resisted the influence of the United States.

Now Cuba is poised to go on the offensive -- by invading your humidor.

Officials for Cuban state-run cigar company Habanos S.A. say they expect to snatch 30 percent of the U.S. cigar market the instant the embargo falls. And they say that number could soon swell to 70 percent.

See also: Up in Smoke: The End of the Embargo Could Kill Miami's Cuban Cigar Industry

Habanos is a 50-50 venture between the Cuban government and British corporation Imperial Tobacco. The embargo prevents Habanos from selling its cigars in the States, but it already owns roughly 80 percent of the international market.

The company's bullish predictions come during this week's Habano Cigar Festival, when the Cuban capital is flooded with industry insiders and stogy-smoking European tourists.

"Some might consider that figure a little conservative, but I can tell you that with that figure, 25 percent, we would be the market leaders," Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique, a Habanos vice president, told reporters Monday.

Under rules recently relaxed by the Obama administration -- part of a broader attempt to re-establish diplomatic relations between the bitter Cold War enemies -- Americans are now allowed to bring back up to $100 worth of cigars from Cuba.

But cigars did not make the list of hundreds of items that can now be imported en masse into the U.S. from the island.

Vegas Robainas are one of many Cuban brands that could hit American humidors once the embargo falls.
Vegas Robainas are one of many Cuban brands that could hit American humidors once the embargo falls.
M Turner via Wikimedia Commons

Fernandez said the $100 change was "symbolic" and "not something that is going to make our sales explode."

If the embargo falls, however, Habanos officials admitted they hope to eventually obtain the same stranglehold on American premium cigar sales, as they already do in the international market.

In a two-part feature last month, New Times examined how this flood of Cuban stogies could kill Miami's cigar industry, which was largely founded by Cuban exiles fleeing Castro's communist revolution.

American cigar makers scoff at the suggestion that Habanos could instantly command such control over the U.S. market. They say that stogies from other countries -- such as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic -- are just as good as Castro's favorite Cohibas and that American consumers aren't suckers.

They also doubt that Cuba could ramp up production for the U.S. without skimping on its cigars' quality.

But Fernandez dismissed such concerns. "We are never going to give up on quality," he said.

See also:

- Cigar Wars I: The End of the Embargo Could Kill Miami's Cuban Cigar Industry

- Cigar Wars II: As the Cuban Embargo Fizzles, the Battle for the Cigar Industry Smolders

Send your tips to the author, or follow him on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.


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