Change: now that's a word we've all gotten used to hearing.
From its use (ubiquitous, sometimes annoying, and ultimately very successful) in a--well, a world-changing presidential campaign to its sudden prominence in our economic lives--how many finance titans have pronounced the words "the rules have changed" in the last several months?--we've all heard a lot about change in 2008. And we're going to hear more. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a President with fewer Washington-insider connections than anyone since the 1970s, it's safe to say that a lot of old laws and policies are going to be up for renegotiation.
So cigar aficionados may be wondering whether, given the general spirit of revision, the United States' long-term boycott of Cuba may be on the way to the chopping block as well. The incoming administration has already signaled its willingness to meet with regimes generally considered anti-US--including that of Cuba--and the Cuba embargo seems like just the sort of policy that the new President may reconsider. It's old, it hasn't achieved its objective, and some policy and foreign affairs experts--as well as any number of United States cigar aficionados--would like to see it gone.
Let's consider the charges one by one. "Old": The trade embargo has been active, in one form or another, since 1962, with a couple of brief respites. After all, US-Cuba relations weren't exactly friendly even before that. The trade embargo was enacted on President John F. Kennedy's watch, and the Camelot president was a well-known cigar aficionado himself.
According to his own press secretary, Pierre Salinger, JFK himself ordered Salinger to stock up on H. Upmann's the night before the embargo went into effect, and didn't sign the order until Salinger brought the boxes of cigars to the president himself. With a couple of brief exceptions under Jimmy Carter and others--the embargo has remained in place ever since. It has even been strengthened on a number of occasions, as during the early George W. Bush presidency.
"May not have achieved its objective": whatever anyone's opinion on the embargo, no one can claim that it has appreciably loosened Fidel Castro's grip on power. Only recent bouts with ill health seems to have phased a dictator who survived even the death of the Soviet Union, an event which left his island communist republic standing alone, with no powerful trading partner buying its exports and no military superpower watching its back. Even in severe international isolation, with terrible poverty and unemployment, Castro's regime has held itself more or less together.
Likewise, Cuba's dominance in the cigar industry has faced a number of challenges, especially from the Dominican Republic. Some of Cuba's best cigar makers left the island, either immediately after Castro's rise to power or during the course of a Cuba-initiated exchange program in which cigar makers went to teach their trade to interested parties in other Latin American countries. (Often, after getting out of Cuba, these folks stayed out, creating what has sometimes been called the "cigar diaspora.") But even with these challenges, and with United States cigar fans unable to buy its wares, Cuba remains a cigar powerhouse, rivaled only by (as stated above) the DR, Nicaragua and Honduras. So the embargo's justification will have, and has had for some time, to rest on something other than its efficacy in achieving its stated goal.
"Controversial": A number of former and current diplomats and experts on Central American politics have argued that the embargo only strengthens Fidel Castro by giving him an external enemy he can blame his country's problems on. Others argue that it may be keeping Cubans in unnecessary poverty. And cigar aficionados, of course, argue that it keeps them from enjoying some of the most famous cigars on earth! (There are, of course, two sides to this story; the embargo's supporters are quick to point out that it prevents the United States from acquiescing to a regime with a less-than-savory human rights record.)
So with all these factors against it, and a liberal, change-oriented president in charge, surely the embargo is on its way out and we can all look forward to lighting up some Habanos S.A., right? Don't hold your breath. Any change that does go forward will do so only after considerable congressional review--given the economic situation, opening up trade with Cuba is probably not high on the new President's to-do list, and the new President himself is known for his cautious, plodding personal style--his refusal to make snap decisions. And the Cuban embargo is beloved by several population groups with whom the bridge-building, fence-mending Obama is probably looking for ways to make nice--hardline conservatives and Cuban refugees chief among them. So it may happen, but probably not within the first, or even second, hundred days.
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