Though smoking cigars is practically a national pastime for Cuban exiles in Little Havana, those famous Cuban smokes, desired for their intoxicating aroma and intense flavor, cannot be found in one of the numerous tabaquerías—shops where cigars are rolled and sold—that have mushroomed along Calle Ocho. For these coveted leaves, one must search out a “mythical” underground network.
More than 50 years since the Kennedy administration imposed an economic embargo on Cuba, the country’s cigar retains its luster, so much so that cigars produced in other countries are billed as from a “Cuban leaf” or “Cuban seed.” For all one knows, buyers could be smoking cigar leaves from North Carolina that were rolled in Hialeah. But as with all things Cuba, it’s about the mystique. The reality is often much less fanciful.
“The truth is, the premium cigars you will get in Miami, the ones that come from Nicaragua, Santo Domingo or Honduras, will be much better than any black-market Cuban,” says Roberto Ramos, of Cuba Ocho, an art gallery and cigar shop in Miami. “The ones you get from Cuba here are third-class. The non-Cuban premium brands, like Alex Bradley and Padron, are superior. And people who truly understand cigars know it.”
The clientele for black-market Cuban cigars, adds Ramos, is mostly in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, where the Cuban cigar legend remains strong.