Why Are Cuban Cigars Illegal in the US?

Key Takeaways

  • Cuban embargo: A trade ban imposed by the US on Cuba since 1962 to weaken Castro’s communist regime and its alliance with Russia.
  • Cuban cigars: One of the products affected by the embargo, making them illegal to import or sell in the US. They are highly prized for their quality and flavor.
  • Obama’s easing: A period from 2014 to 2019 when Obama relaxed some of the restrictions, allowing travelers to bring back Cuban cigars for personal use.
  • Trump’s reversal: A return to the strict embargo in 2020, prohibiting any import of Cuban cigars and limiting travel and business with Cuba.

Despite some signs of hope a few years ago, all Cuban imports – including cigars – remain outlawed in the US.

A strict trade embargo has existed between the US and Cuba since the 1960s. It was initially intended to destabilize Fidel Castro’s communist regime and is still in force to this day.

But why are Cuban cigars still illegal in the US?

There were signs of hope a few years ago, it now seems the embargo is not going anywhere anytime soon.

The only way to fully understand the situation today is with a quick history lesson.

Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution

In the fifties, Fidel Castro looked at the influence of the US on Cuba and was not impressed.

fidel castro
Fidel Castro fielding media questions

There was a lot of American money sloshing around in Cuban politics at the time, and Castro sought to liberate his country from this perceived “imperialist influence”.

He staged mass protests and assaults on the establishment, which gained him enough followers to stage a full revolt.

He was able to overthrow the government and become Prime Minister in 1959. As a follower of Marxism, Castro made it his mission to level the economic playing field, redistributing assets and wealth across the country.

Given the influence of the US in Cuba up to this point, there were a lot of American interests tied up in these seized assets. The nationalization of private businesses and property caused a lot of concern in the West, given the prevalent anti-communist sentiment of the day.

Bay of Pigs: April 17th – 20th 1961

This socialist tilt was not lost on Russia, which jumped at the chance to entrench communism in America’s backyard. The alliance was seen as incredibly useful in the context of the ongoing cold war, which pitted America against Russia from both a military and ideological perspective. 

Then Cubans did pretty well out of the arrangement, too. Russia was happy to back them with missiles and military equipment that would have been impractically expensive for the new regime at the time. With new friends in high places, Cuba no longer needed to rely on the US.

Naturally, America was pretty concerned about this.

The US attempted to claw back control through a beach landing to establish an outpost of their own in Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs. But in a shocking outcome, the Cuban army was able to take advantage of poor American strategy and repel the invasion, destroying plenty of valuable US ships in the process. 

Bay of pigs
American soldiers during the Bay of Pigs conflict

Cuban Missle Crisis: October 16th – 28th 1962

By October 1962, both the US and Russia were throwing their proverbial weight around through a series of provocative missile tests.

US tensions with Russia had been severe in the past, but at least they were half the world away. But through Cuba, Russia had missiles stationed on the US doorstep, which put them at a major advantage.

They were preparing to come to blows and letting each other know they had the firepower to do so.

Tension was so high it resulted in a 13-day standoff between the US and Russia, widely accepted as the closest the world has ever been to a full-scale nuclear conflict.

Protesters in Hyde Park, London
Protesters in Hyde Park, London

It was an incredibly dangerous time, fraught with existential anxiety for both parties. Mercifully both sides saw sense and de-escalated, and settled for disrupting each other through sanctions rather than violence. 

Trade Embargo: February 7th, 1962

In 1962, President Kennedy announced a decision to impose severe restrictions on Cuban imports in a perceived effort to cut the Cuban economy off at the knees. America was Cuba’s rich neighbor and primary trading partner, so this was an effective way hurt Cuba without risking World War 3. 

Cuban cigar factory
Cuban cigar factory

These restrictions included all imports from Cuba directly, as well as Cuban goods that had traveled via a third county. There were no loopholes. 

Sadly for us cigar aficionados, this trade embargo also included all tobacco products. Cuban cigars might be beautiful, but they’re not good enough for special treatment from Kennedy. 

He must have paused for thought- at least for a second. JFK loved Cuban cigars. Moments before he announced the trade embargo, he ordered a representative to bring him 1000 H. Upmann Cuban cigars so he would have a healthy supply until this all blew over. I guess it pays to have insider knowledge. 

Smokey Assassination Attempts

Castro was known as a cigar-lover, too. So much so that when the CIA was devising ways to take him out, Cuban cigars were never far from their plans. 

Fidel Castro enjoying a Cuban cigar. Again.
Fidel Castro enjoying a Cuban cigar. Again.

In the 1960s, they launched  “Operation Mongoose”. Yep, that was the name…

They were going to lace a fine cigar with botulinum toxin, and get Castro to smoke it. That might sound like something out of a Hollywood script, but it’s true.

In any case, it was more subtle than one of their other ideas: an exploding cigar. 

The idea was that with Fidel Castro out of the picture, everything would return to normal. But Castro has been out of power since 1976, and the embargo remains in place to this day. 

Can I bring back Cigars from Cuba?

Over the past few years, there have been some glimmers of hope for having Cuban cigars back on US soil.

Administrations have flip-flopped on their stance, but at the moment, we’re back on a hard no.

Which is a shame for cigar smokers like us.

Signs of Hope with Obama

Back in 2014, Barrack Obama passed legislation to ease some of the Cuban trade restrictions. Travelers were allowed to bring up to $100 worth of Cuban rum or cigars home with them – not a lot, but something at least.

The idea was that this was a reasonable amount for personal use, but would not be enough for meaningful reselling.

It was part of a wider move towards rebuilding the relationship with Cuba and included an increase in flights between Cuban and American cities. Obama even visited Cuba with his family in 2016 as a gesture of his good intentions.

Obama visiting Cuba in 2016
Obama visiting Cuba in 2016

That year, restrictions were eased even further. You were able to bring home the same amount of cigars from Cuba as you would from any country under general border rule.

In other words, there was a golden period where you could bring home either $800 worth of cigars, or 100 cigars – whichever metric was hit first.

This made it fairly easy for travelers to buy and transport cigars, but the embargo remained in place for online purchases or suppliers looking to import for commercial purposes. 

But Trump Wasn’t a Fan

When Donald Trump took office, he essentially reversed Obama’s changes. Tough luck for fans of Cuban cigars. 

In September 2020, the Cuban Assets Control Regulations were rewritten to prevent the import of Cuban cigars – from Cuba or elsewhere.

Cubans for Trump
Cubans for Trump

In addition to this, Trump’s administration also introduced the Cuba Prohibited Accommodations List.

This change prevents any US citizen from doing business in any property that is “owned or controlled by the Cuban government”. Because the Cuban government controls a majority of hotels and accommodations in the country, it’s made tourism prohibitively difficult for most people – dealing the Cuban economy another blow.

It’s still possible to holiday in Cuba through third-party solutions like Airbnb, but the limited supply means it’s comparatively expensive when compared to other South American destinations. As a result, Americans are spending their dollars elsewhere.

The Future of Cuban Cigars in the US

2014 – 2019 under the Obama administration was a bit of a golden era for Cuban cigar fans in the US. You could enjoy your smoke without looking over your shoulder.

But is it possible for us to return to those halcyon days?

The Cuban embargo came at a time of strong anti-communist sentiment, which led to an omnipresent suspicion of Cuba. However, it’s not clear that this public sentiment exists anymore.

According to studies conducted by Gallup in 2015, 59% of US citizens are in favor of reestablishing relations with Cuba – with only 30% actively opposed to the idea. 

A democrat administration headed up by Joe Biden is more likely to entertain such ideas, but over the last few years it’s been, quite understandably, not at the top of the list of priorities

At the moment, if you want to get your hands on an authentic Cuban cigar (while remaining on the right side of the law), you’ll have to get on a plane.

What Happens if You Get Caught with Cuban Cigars?

Attempts to import Cuban cigars constitute a criminal offense. The sentence can range from a moderate fine for a personal amount of cigars, right up to jail time if you’re running a large operation. 

It’s similar to the attitude towards policing drugs. If they’re for you, there will be some trouble, but if the authorities suspect that you’re supplying others, there will be big trouble. 

It’s just not worth the risk, no matter how delicious they are.

Can I Buy Cuban Cigars Online in the US in 2022?

In short, no. 

US citizens can’t enjoy Cuban cigars in the United States, period. If a company was discovered to be selling them on American soil, the authorities would put a stop to that pretty quickly.

Even when you were allowed to bring some cigars home from Cuba under Obama, buying Cuban cigars online was never legal.

So, why do so many websites offer “authentic Cuban cigars” for US delivery?

Well, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

These shady companies are likely offering counterfeit, imitation products – or worse still, will simply take your money and run. No reputable cigar website will suggest they can send you legit Cubans – it’s a huge red flag.

And even if they did come through on their end of the bargain, you’d be breaking the law. Your package could be seized at customs, and you’d be liable to receive a penalty fine – or worse if you’re a repeat offender.

FAQ – What You Should Know About Cuban Cigars in 2022

Can I bring Cuban cigars in my carry-on?

No. It’s been illegal to bring back cigars since 2020 when Donald Trump re-imposed the Cuban Assets Control Regulations.

Why are Cuban cigars illegal in the US?

Cuban cigars are illegal in the United States due to a trade embargo with Cuba.

It was imposed back in the 60s as an attempt to weaken Fidel Castro’s communist regime amid the Cold War.

Cuban imports remain illegal to this day, meaning you’ll have to leave the US if you want to get your hands on authentic Cuban cigars legitimately.

When did Cuban cigars become illegal?

All Cuban imports were made illegal by JF Kennedy in 1962 following the Cuban trade embargo. 

So if Cuban Cigars are Out of the Question, What Can You Do?

The closest thing to a Cuban cigar you’ll be able to get hold of legitimately are American cigars that use Cuban seed tobacco as the filler

Of course, these aren’t going to be the same as an authentic Cuban cigar, but there are reminders of the rich flavor that are worth exploring.

One of the reasons Cuban tobacco is so delicious is because of the nutrient-rich soil they are grown in, coupled with the unique heat and humidity. It’s pretty impossible to replicate that exactly in the states.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other types of cigars that offer a similarly moreish experience. Cuban cigars are universally loved, but finding something a little more specific for your signature smoke can be just as rewarding – if not more so. 

To help you on our search, check out our roundup of the best places to buy cigars online, and come back over the next few weeks for some special niche cigar reviews we have lined up.

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