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BLOG: Sixty Years of the Cuban Embargo

Sixty years ago, President John F Kennedy ordered an aide to buy him as many Cuban cigars as he could just hours before he authorised the U.S. trade embargo - which subsequently made them illegal.

Kennedy asked his head of press and fellow cigar smoker Pierre Salinger to obtain '1,000 Petit Upmanns' on February 6, 1962, so he could have them in his hands before they were deemed contraband.

Then, seconds after he was told the next morning that 1,200 of Cuba's finest export had been bought for him, he signed the decree to ban all of the communist state's products from the U.S.

The exact exchange went as follows;
"Pierre, I need some help," President Kennedy told Salinger, who said he would "be glad to do anything I can."

"I need a lot of cigars," Kennedy told Salinger.

"How many, Mr. President?"

"About 1,000 Petit Upmanns."

Salinger recalls that he "shuddered a bit" at the request, but kept his reaction to himself.

"And, when do you need them, Mr. President?"

"Tomorrow morning."

Without going into much detail, Salinger says that he "worked on the problem into the evening" and was summoned into President Kennedy's office the very next morning.

When President Kennedy asked Salinger how he did, Salinger said "very well" and confirmed that he had gotten 1,200 cigars.

Salinger writes: "Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country."

[ Pierre Salinger and President John F. Kennedy; fellow cigar aficionados ]

1958: Ultimately, as we all know the wheels were in motion since December 31st, 1958 when Fidel Castro and his rebels ousted Batista and took control of Cuba largely through Dictatorship and Socialist control.

[ Fidel Castro in Havana after overthrowing Batista ]

1960: Castro nationalizes all foreign assets in Cuba, imposed high taxes on U.S. imports and establishes trade deals with the Soviet Union. President Dwight D. Eisenhower retaliates by slashing the import quota for Cuban sugar, freezing Cuban assets in the United States, imposing a near-full trade embargo, and cutting off diplomatic ties with the Castro government.

This was also the time that Fidel Castro forced all cigar producers and tobacco growers out of business; for some, this is probably the biggest event in the history of cigars as we now know them.

At this single junction in time, if Fidel Castro had not nationalized all businesses in Cuba, then the Master Blenders and Master Growers would quite possibly never have fled Cuba; which of course led to the nuevo-mundo (new world) of cigars we now have.

[ Fidel Castro nationalizes all foreign assets in Cuba including all U.S. banks and their assets ]

1961: President John F. Kennedy executes a plan developed under the Eisenhower administration to deploy 1,400 CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro. Unfortunately the Cuban military defeats the force within three days at the Bay of Pigs. The captured invaders reveal the heavy U.S. involvement. Despite the failed attempt, the U.S. administrations over the next several decades conduct covert operations against Cuba.

Also in 1961 the Quesada family who fled Cuba in 1960 went to the Royal Bank of Canada whom they'd conducted business with since 1907 and borrowed $200,000 with no collateral and recommenced their passion in the cigar business in the U.S. and Dominican Republic.

[ Prisoners captured by Castro's forces at the Bay of Pigs invasion ]

1962: President John F. Kennedy dispatches his aide Pierre Salinger to acquire '1,000 Upmann cigars' the night before the 7th of February when he signs a full trade embargo (only after he has secured over 1,000 of his cherished Upmann's).

Cuba, whose economy greatly depended on trade with the United States, loses approximately US$130 billion over the next sixty years according to the Cuban government and United Nations.

[ A mural in Havana reads "Down with the blockade" ]

October 14-28, 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

U.S. spy satellites discover that Cuba has allowed the Soviet Union to build nuclear missile bases on the island. In response, President John F. Kennedy demands the Soviet weapons be removed and orders a naval quarantine of Cuba, igniting a thirteen-day standoff.

With the threat of nuclear war on the horizon, the United States negotiates with the USSR via back channels. As the crisis nears its third week, Kennedy secretly agrees to withdraw U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey within a few months if the Soviet Union withdraws its missiles from Cuba. Kennedy also pledges not to invade Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev accepts the deal and announces that he will order the missiles removed.

The following July, Kennedy prohibits U.S. nationals from traveling to Cuba.

1964: After fleeing Cuba, José Orlando Padrón opens business in Miami with one cigar roller and a lot of guts. He sold cigars for 25 cents apiece and slowly built a business that has won accolade after accolade.

1965: The Plasencia family flee Cuba under the Castro dictatorship to Mexico, after two weeks they continue on to Honduras where Sixto Plasencia was offered jobs in the tobacco industry. After just 3 months the family move to Nicaragua to the Jalapa region.
( read the full article on the Plasencia Family here on Cigar Journal magazine )

1966: Fidel Castro indicates in a September 1965 speech that Cuban nationals can leave for the U.S. of their own free well, saying that "nobody who wants to go need go by stealth."
Days later, President Lydon B. Johnson announces he will open U.S. borders to all Cubans and signs into law an immigration bill that gives preference to Cuban migrants with family ties to U.S. citizens or residents.
Between 1958 and 1965 the U.S. State Department estimates that some 270,000 Cubans have arrived in the U.S.
In November 1966, Johnson enacts a law that allows Cubans who reach the U.S. to pursue permanent residency after one year.

1972: Sosa and Quesada establish MATASA in Santiago, Dominican Republic with just a table, phone and three rollers. With a couple of bales of tobacco that sat on the floor beside them, the opening capital of the company was $100. They were the first cigar producer to open in the Free Trade Zone in the Dominican Republic.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

1977: President Jimmy Carter reaches an agreement with the Castro regime to resume a limited diplomatic exchange, allowing officials from the two countries to communicate regularly.
The U.S. opens an interests section with a small staff in its former embassy in Havana under the auspices of the Swiss embassy; Switzerland had taken over the U.S. interests in 1961. Meanwhile, Cuba opens an interests section in Washington, DC, under the auspices of the embassy of the Czechoslovakia.

1980: Cuba faces intense pressure from thousands of Cubans hoping to flee the country as its economy suffers from a spike in oil prices and the continued trade embargo with the U.S. Castro states that anyone wishing to leave Cuba for Florida may do so from Mariel Harbour over the next 6 months; President Carter welcomes Cubans to the U.S. "with open arms" and as many as 125,000 Cubans take part in the Mariel Boatlift.

1982: U.S. Labels Cuba a Terrorism Sponsor for their ongoing support of communist groups in African and Latin American countries including Angola, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Cuba maintains that “acts by legitimate national liberation movements cannot be defined as terrorism,” according to a U.S. State Department report.

1985: U.S. Launches a Radio Service for Cubans called Radio Marti; it begins broadcasting news and entertainment programming to Cuba from studios in the United States. The federally funded station was proposed by Reagan in 1981 and created by Congress two years later. The Cuban government condemns the service as U.S. propaganda, jams the new station’s broadcasts, and calls its use of independence hero Jose Marti’s name a “gross insult.” Castro suspends an immigration agreement that would have allowed up to twenty thousand Cubans a year to immigrate to the United States and provided for the repatriation of some three thousand Cubans with criminal records or who suffer from mental illness. Cuba also halts visits by Cubans living in the United States.

1992: After the Soviet collapse, President George H.W. Bush signs the Cuban Democracy Act, which increases U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba. The move follows the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, with Bush stating that Cuba’s “special relationship with the former Soviet Union has all but ended. And we’ve worked to ensure that no other government helps this, the cruelest of regimes.” The statute bars vessels that have exchanged goods with Cuba in the previous 180 days from docking at U.S. ports and prohibits foreign subsidiaries of U.S. businesses from trading with Cuba. The legislation also limits the amount of U.S. currency traded with Cuba. The act does, however, offer a path to normalizing relations that is conditioned on Castro’s government making significant economic and political reforms.

1994-95: Havana and Washington implement two accords aimed at addressing the thousands of Cubans attempting to enter the United States annually. The first follows an abrupt policy change by President Bill Clinton in August 1994 that calls for all Cubans rescued at sea to be brought to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. It outlines terms for future legal immigration from Cuba to the United States, setting the number of Cubans allowed to enter the U.S. annually at a minimum of twenty thousand (not including immediate relatives of U.S. citizens). The second accord establishes the “wet foot, dry foot” policy [PDF], in which Cubans intercepted by U.S. authorities at sea are sent home while those who make landfall in the United States are allowed to remain and pursue permanent residency after one year. The agreement also allows for more than thirty thousand Cubans detained at Guantanamo Bay to enter the United States on parole status.

1996: Clinton signs the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, better known as the Helms-Burton Act, which tightens and codifies the U.S. embargo. It comes several weeks after the Cuban military shot down two U.S. civilian planes over waters off of Florida. Among other provisions, the statute penalizes foreign companies that do business with Cuba, provoking some U.S. allies to denounce it as a violation of international law. The law stipulates that sanctions may only be lifted after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul are no longer in office, Cuba has moved toward free elections and a free press, and it has released political prisoners.

1998: The Clinton administration charges five Cuban counterintelligence officers in the United States with conspiracy to commit espionage, among other illegal activities. The officers, who were sent by the Castro government to infiltrate Cuban-American exile groups in Miami, are arrested in 1998 and found guilty in 2001. Two are released at the end of their terms, in 2011 and 2014, and the remaining three are released on December 17, 2014, as part of a prisoner swap for a U.S. intelligence officer held in Cuba.

1999: The case of five-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the sole survivor of an attempt by his mother and ten others to reach the United States by boat, ignites a media storm. The Clinton administration is faced with deciding whether to allow the child’s Miami relatives to keep him, the course of action supported by Florida’s Cuban-American community, or send him back to his father in Cuba, the position of the Cuban government. After a seven-month battle in U.S. courts, a federal appellate court gives Elian’s father the power to act on his behalf in immigration proceedings. After the U.S. Supreme Court declines to review the case, Elian is returned to his family in Cuba.

United Nations condemns U.S. embargo on Cuba and for the first time Brazil joins the U.S. in voting NO
read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

Whose embargo is it anyway? From a business perspective, the restrctions and prohibitions regarding commerce with Cuba are neither cost-effective nor time-effective; given that in 1998 Cuba imported nearly $650 million dollars worth of bulk-food commodities for its 11 million citizens.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

2000: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez signs an agreement with Castro allowing Venezuela to send oil to Cuba at a heavy discount in return for Cuban support in education, health care, science, and technology. Chavez aligned himself early on with Castro’s anti-U.S. stance and, soon after taking office in February 1999, announced a government overhaul of state oil giant PDVSA, the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States at the time. In the following years, Venezuela boosts its oil exports to Cuba in return for more technical personnel from Cuba, including physicians, teachers, and other social-service workers.

2002: The Cuban Trade Embargo Paradox - President Bush is intent on toughening restrictions on Cuba, while the American people and the U.S. Congress are ready to lift them
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

2008: On February 24, 2008 Fidel Castro, announcing that due to his declining health he can no longer serve as president of Cuba, hands over the presidency to his brother, Raul, who had served as second-in-command of the government and a general in the armed forces. Fidel had already transferred power to Raul in 2006, when an illness forced Fidel to undergo surgery (he still remained active in government affairs). In response to Fidel’s resignation, President George W. Bush says Cuba should embrace democracy, adding that “the United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.” While campaigning for the U.S. presidency in 2008, Democratic nominee Barack Obama says, “If the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change, the United States must be prepared to begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades.”

You can also read Cigar Aficionado magazines "Fidel Castro resigns Cuban Presidency" here.

2009: President Obama eases restrictions on travel and remittances, which had been tightened by his predecessor. The move allows Cuban-Americans to send unlimited funds to Cuba and permits U.S. citizens to travel there for religious and educational purposes. The step is widely considered the most notable move yet toward normalizing relations, though the trade embargo remains in place.

Alan Gross, a subcontractor working on a democracy-promotion program for the U.S. Agency for International Development, is arrested in Cuba. Gross was bringing technology to help Cuba’s Jewish community gain access to the internet, which is heavily restricted on the island. Havana considers the U.S. agency’s activities subversive and illegal, and in 2011, Gross is convicted of attempting to “undermine the integrity and independence” of Cuba and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

2011-13: The Cuban government approves a slew of economic reforms in May 2011, allowing citizens to buy and sell residential real estate and automobiles, increasing bank lending, and expanding self-employment.

2014: Cuba hosts for the first time the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, during which regional leaders discuss trade, peace, and human rights. CELAC is considered an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), from which Cuba was ousted in 1962. Cuba’s OAS rights were restored in June 2009, but the Cuban government said it would not return to the institution, calling it “an organization with a role and a trajectory that Cuba repudiates.”

Barack Obama and Raul Castro announce they will restore full diplomatic ties following the exchange of a jailed U.S. intelligence officer for the three remaining Cuban Five prisoners. Gross is also released. The prisoner swap and release of Gross comes after nearly eighteen months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials that were brokered, in part, by Pope Francis. Obama says the United States plans to reopen the embassy in Havana, while members of the Republican-controlled Congress condemn the move and vow to uphold the economic embargo.

2015: The U.S. State Department removes Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The designation, first imposed in 1982, had prevented Cuba from accessing international finance and was a sticking point in U.S.-Cuba talks on normalizing relations. Obama had called for Cuba’s removal from the list in April, after the State Department found that Cuba had not sponsored terrorism in recent years and vowed not to do so in the future. Obama's announcement came days after he met with Raul Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in the first face-to-face discussion between U.S. and Cuban heads of state in more than half a century.

The United States and Cuban embassies, which had been closed since 1961, reopen. The U.S. trade embargo, which cannot be lifted without congressional approval, remains in place, however, and neither country names an ambassador. The top U.S. diplomat stationed in Havana is the charge d’affaires, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, while Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, oversees the reopening of Havana’s embassy in Washington.

You can read more here ( Crack In The Embargo, by David Savona on the Cigar Aficionado magazine )

2016: On March 21st, 2016 President Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president in nearly ninety years to visit the island nation. Obama meets with Raul Castro, as well as dissidents. His trip comes a month after Cuba and the United States signed an agreement to allow commercial flights between the two countries for the first time in more than fifty years. The first passenger jet flight takes place in August, and in the weeks that follow, several U.S. airlines begin service to Cuba.

New regulations make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, March 16 sees a major step-forward under Obama' led changes.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

Fidel Castro dies November 25, 2016; Fidel Castro dies at the age of ninety. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans gather at Havana’s Revolution Square to mark the first day of an official week of mourning. The country’s most prominent dissident group, Ladies in White, calls off its regular weekend protest for the first time in thirteen years. Thousands of Cuban exiles, many of whom regarded Castro as a dictator, celebrate in Miami and other U.S. cities and call for political change in Cuba. In a statement, Obama says that Cubans should know “they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.”

However in Miami, Florida the Cuban exiles and now U.S. citizens take to the streets to celebrate the death of the dictator Fidel Castro!

You can read Cigar Aficionado's article on the news of Fidel Castro's death here.

2017: June 16th, President Donald Trump announces that he will reinstate restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and U.S. business dealings with a military-run conglomerate but will not break diplomatic relations. The Obama administration’s loosened restrictions “do not help the Cuban people—they only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump says, adding that U.S. sanctions will not be lifted until Cuba frees all of its political prisoners, respects freedoms of assembly and expression, legalizes opposition parties, and schedules free and fair elections. Some U.S. business leaders and members of Congress criticize the move, saying it will further isolate Cuba and worsen the economic and political situation there. Cuban leaders say the changes “contradict the majority support” of Americans. The policy leaves in place new direct flights from the United States, cruise ship routes, and hotel ventures.

September 29, 2017 the U.S. State Department announces it will withdraw most staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana after diplomats and intelligence personnel develop mysterious health problems, including hearing loss and dizziness. Days later it expels fifteen Cuban diplomats from the U.S. for failure to protect Americans in Havana. It is alleged this was a potential deliberate act after the Trump administration backtracked on U.S.-Cuba normalization. 

2018: Raul Castro steps down as President and The National Assembly unanimously elects fifty-seven-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, first vice president and Castro’s hand-picked successor, as president of Cuba. Castro says he will remain the head of the Communist Party until 2021, a move that preserves his political influence. The transition marks the first time in more than forty years that a Castro is not the island’s president.

November 1st, 2018: The ‘Troika of Tyranny’ - in a high-profile address on U.S. policy in Latin America, National Security Advisor John Bolton labels Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela the “Troika of Tyranny,” blaming the trio for human rights abuses, causing regional instability, and embracing communism. Bolton’s speech marks a turning point in the Trump administration’s policy toward the island, and it soon announces a wave of sanctions designed to penalize Cuba and weaken its ties to Venezuela. Most notably, Trump permits certain lawsuits against companies that benefit from property confiscated by Cuba’s government. He also further restricts travel to Cuba, prohibiting group educational trips, banning cruises, and curtailing direct flights. Despite U.S. pressure, Cuba remains one of Venezuela’s closest allies.

You can also read on Cigar Aficionado magazine an article on Cuban President Migiel Diaz-Canel denouncing the Cuban Embargo during a U.N. visit.

2019: U.S. Senators push legislation to lift the U.S. Trade Embargo against Cuba with the "Freedom to Export to Cuba Act" which would rescind the John F. Kennedy embargo.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

2021: The U.S. State Department returns Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, reversing another Obama-era step toward normalization, as Trump prepares to leave office. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cites Cuba’s harboring of U.S. fugitives and Colombian rebels, as well as its support for Venezuela’s regime. But some experts question the administration’s motives, viewing the designation as a reward for Trump’s supporters, particularly Cuban-Americans. Cuban officials decry the move as “political opportunism” and accuse Washington of long-standing terrorism against Havana. The redesignation carries sanctions, though existing U.S. restrictions on Cuba are expected to blunt their effects.

From July to November rare protests again strike up against the Cuban government leading to arrests.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

Also in 2021, J.C. Newman Cigar Co. petitions the U.S. government to make cigars in the U.S. using Cuban-tobacco after reading that Cuban-coffee was being freely imported into the U.S.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

April 19, 2021 - End of the Castro Era Miguel Diaz-Canel is elected first secretary of the Communist Party, Cuba’s most powerful political position, replacing Raul Castro and ending more than six decades of rule by either Fidel or Raul Castro. The transfer of power occurs during a party congress that coincides with the sixtieth anniversary of Cuba defeating U.S.-backed forces in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Diaz-Canel takes over amid steep economic challenges, growing calls for domestic reform, and uncertainty about relations with the United States under the Joe Biden administration. In response to Castro’s resignation, the White House says shifting U.S. policy toward Cuba is not one of Biden’s highest foreign policy concerns.

August 26, 2021 - U.S. authorises limited humanitarian cargo flights to Cuba; in the wake of nationwide protests that erupted in July, the Biden administration has quietly approved a limited number of humanitarian cargo flights to Cuba.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

Other interesting reads:
A Conversation with Fidel - Marvin R. Shanken travels to Havana for an extensive interview with Fidel Castro.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

Smoking with Castro - Marvin R. Shanken and Fidel Castro and the Cohiba connection.
( watch the video here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

JFK and Che - a not-so-chance meeting led to the two powerful men smoking cigars in the Kennedy White House.
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

Trading With The Enemy - what happens when you are found with 1,500 Cuban cigars in your car
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

A Conversation with Facundo Bacardi - an exclusive interview with Marvin R. Shanken
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

Talking with Castro - in 1994 Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez traveled to Martha's Vineyard for a dinner with President Bill Clinton where a message from Fidel Castro was hoped to be passed on
( read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

JFK and Castro - the secret quest for accommodation recent declassified documents reveal what was happening at the height of the Cold War.
read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

A late night with Fidel - Marvin R. Shanken is on standby to meet with Castro.
read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

The Man who created Cohiba - Eduardo Rivera Irizarri the man behind Cohiba.
read the full article here on Cigar Aficionado magazine )

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