Longtime cigar aficionados have followed the fluctuations in the US-Cuba relationship for years. Of course, officially, there is no relationship--the United States severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba in the early 1960s and has maintained a trade embargo with the island Communist dictatorship ever since.
But that absent relationship has very present consequences for the Cuban people who are denied the opportunity to trade legally with citizens of the United States. It has also taken its toll on United States residents with ties to Cuba, especially those who would like to visit regularly with family in that country. (Remember the parable of poor little Elian Gonzales?) And--though there simply is no comparison between the sufferings of Cubans or their relatives and this third, minor sort of deprivation--many US premium cigar smokers, especially hardcore cigar aficionados, think, not so fondly, of the US-Cuba embargo every time they go to their favorite cigar shop or visit their favorite online discount premium cigar store, where they are legally prohibited to buy Cuban cigars, by reputation some of the best in the world.
So, given the massive changes in United States policy toward nearly everything that the Obama administration is supposed to portend--well, at least if you listen to Washington pundits--many observers, from many points of view, have wondered over the past few months whether President Barack Obama had any plans to scrap the US trade embargo with Cuba. Such a move seems typically Obama-esque--it involves replacing an unpopular Cold War-era policy with one of "constructive engagement"--but this is also a policy in which many different lawmakers have invested decades' worth of time, energy and rhetoric. That alone meant the Cuba embargo would be a difficult policy to get rid of.
Early speculation, especially among premium cigar aficionados, quickly came to center on a January, 2009 cover story in Cigar Aficionado magazine, which featured exclusive excerpts from a recent book on the history of attempts to mend US-Cuba relations. (Not surprisingly, the Carter administration came within hailing distance of reopening that relationship.) Since then, there's been a premium cigar sampler worth of random speculations and suggestions thrown out by diplomats, reporters, pundits, experts and by the Obama administration itself, but little hard evidence that the Cuba embargo might be on its way out.
But in April 2009 came some great news for Americans with ties to Cuba--and which possibly augurs long-term trends that will be good news for cigar aficionados as well. On April 10, the Obama administration announced the end of Bush-era restrictions on travel to and remittances for Cuba. US residents who have family on the island will be able to travel and to send money there from now on. This came just days after Raul Castro treated members of the Congressional Black Caucus to one of the friendliest gatherings between US lawmakers and the Cuban Presidente in many years (the visitors also got a glance at the elderly, convalescent Fidel Castro). At this point, even some hard-core Republicans (longtime proponents of the embargo) and US News and World Report columnists are calling for an end to the embargo--how much longer can it last?
That's not a question President Obama seems very excited about answering. Obama officials, when asked whether the end to the travel ban was the first step in a more general loosening of relations with Cuba, have insisted that the embargo will remain in place until Cuba's abysmal human rights record improves. This argument, however, has its problems, say some pundits: we have relations with countries that make Cuba look like a human-rights paradise, after all. A more substantive roadblock to improved relations might be the report that also came out the week of April 10, indicating that many US State Department diplomats have experienced petty harassment and difficult working conditions when visiting or working in Cuba. Plainly, cigar aficionados had better not make room in their cigar humidors just yet.
But who knows. Cigar aficionados are encouraged to let their representatives know what they think (whether for or against the embargo). With a little effort from the Cuban government, maybe we're all just several months away from being able to log on to that favorite Internet discount premium cigar store and order our own premium cigar samplers--with Habanos S.A. premium Cuban cigars included alongside Rocky Patel, Gurkha, H. Upmann, and the rest of the gang. Some of those brands were once Cuban brands themselves, or are made by cigar-making families that once had ties to Cuba. After over forty years, maybe the time for a reunion is near. And maybe your premium cigar sampler is the place where that reunion will be happening, soon enough.
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