From Roller to Smoker: The History of the Cuban Cigar Trade

What do Fidel Castro, Groucho Marx and J. Jonah Jameson have in common? They all enjoy chomping on an over-sized Cuban cigar.

Even today, it is still a commodity among Americans. Sales of the product rose by five percent last year, totaling $445 million in sales. Suffice to say, the Cuban cigar is not going away anytime soon. But how did this famous cigar get started? What prompted the U.S. to ban and later repeal it? Let’s take a few puffs and check out its history.

How It Rolled Up

Even though the name implies it, cigars did not originate in Cuba. They likely originated in South America, where the Mayans were theorized to be the first tobacco users. However, when the tobacco plant was introduced to Cuba, it was found to be the best place to grow it. With fertile land and adequate climate, the tobacco plant grew plentiful in Cuba. The Spanish (who controlled Cuba at the time) would monopolize the cigar industry until 1817, and the rest is history.

Millions of cigars would be sold throughout Europe and the U.S. with many prominent users from all over the world including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and even King Edward VII. However, they would soon lose trade relations with the U.S. due to one word: Communism.

Cuban Cigar Smoked Out of Trade

Communist dictator Fidel Castro may have been one of the most famous faces with a Cuban cigar, but he did not have a good reputation with the U.S during the late 1950’s. After his rise to power, Castro seized control of the island in 1959 and with it seized control of all assets through his communist regime. This, of course, included cigar companies.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy established a strict trade embargo on all Cuban imports as a stand against the communist regime. Thus, a Cuban cigar was considered an illegal good, and people smuggling it into the country could be fined up to $55,000.

The Politics of Cigars: Kennedy’s strict trade embargo was designed to further isolate Cuba.

Cuban Cigar Ban Turns to Ashes

For more than 50 years the ban would persist until recently. In 2014, relations between the U.S and Cuba began to soften. Cubans were allowed to buy some U.S. goods online. Pharmaceutical companies between the countries began to do business, as well as being involved in joint medical research. Travelers could also bring a $100 limit of Cuban cigars back to the U.S.

On Oct. 14, 2016, President Barrack Obama eased further sanctions with the removal of limits on any of the goods that can be packed in luggage. Although the U.S. still bans general tourism to Cuba, the Obama administration has made it easier for Americans to travel to the island under several categories. Like an end to a love story, the Cuban cigar once again has made its way back legally into the hands of Americans. But there is still more left to this story.

Cuban Cigar Trumped by Changes

On June 16th, 2017, President Donald Trump announced to change many of Obama’s previous directives in trade and travel with Cuba.

Thankfully, many of the changes did nothing to limit the purchase of Cuban cigars, but getting to Cuba was made stricter. Trump provided more restrictions on the 12 categories of traveling to Cuba.

His Cuba policy also prohibits individual Americans from traveling to the island. They must instead travel through a licensed tour company under U.S. jurisdiction and be accompanied by a company representative.

Purchasing these goods may also be limited as travelers face restrictions through a comprehensive list of where they can spend their money on the island, which includes specific businesses and hotels. Although the Cuban cigar may have been spared by much of the changes, they can be difficult to buy under these circumstances.

Policy U-turn: Donald Trump’s tough stance on Cuba threatens to reverse his predecessors attempted thaw in relations with the communist regime.

Light It Up

As of now, the Cuban cigar is still legal for purchase. Whether a cigar aficionado or smoking enthusiast, this cultural commodity proved how far it has come in a history of restrictions and repeals. As King Edward VII announced after ending the ban on smoking held by Queen Victoria in the early 20th Century:

“Gentlemen, you may smoke.”

About Jarek Martinez

Born in Chicago, Illinois, a journalism major with plenty of hope for his future and career. Reporting and photography are improving every day, but writing is the passion. The drive. Avid movie watcher and media guy. Also minoring in legal studies and applying for paralegal certification. A big dog person as well.

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