Thawing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba might be changing how certain Cuban goods are handled by customs agents at U.S. ports of entry, but travelers should beware.
New rules implemented last month allow approved travelers to Cuba to return with up to $100 worth of tobacco products. But Cuban cigars bought in other Caribbean countries are still banned under the U.S. embargo of Cuban goods that went into effect in Baltimore at 12:01 a.m. Feb. 7, 1962.
Customs officials say the embargo has resulted in two incidents of Cuban goods being seized in Maryland in the past two years.
On July 24, 2013, Customs and Border Protection agents at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport found 10 Cuban cigars in the baggage of a U.S. passenger arriving from Montego Bay, Jamaica, and confiscated them.
On April 8, 2014, agents at the airport found 13 Cuban cigars in the baggage of a U.S. passenger arriving from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and confiscated them as well.
Neither passenger was fined, as they could have been, and both were reminded of the embargo, according to Steve Sapp, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.
Customs agents rely in part on travelers honestly reporting the items they bring into the United States, and some vacationers might have arrived in Maryland with Cuban cigars that were not spotted.
"Is it possible that travelers at times have smuggled lower threat items, such as Cuban cigars, past our inspection process? Sure," Sapp said in an email. "But there are consequences to travelers who are less than honest with CBP and on whom we detect undeclared prohibited items."
It is unclear whether the recent policy changes will mean more Cuban smoke rising in Baltimore, which once had a thriving cigar industry.
In 1922, more than 130 cigar factories here produced 350 million cigars. H.L. Mencken's father operated a cigar factory on Paca Street in the 19th century. And at one point, about 60,000 "Caton" cigars were produced a week by the Jacob F. Obrecht Tobacco Co. on Light Street.
The Caton — short for "The Pride of Catonsville" and the top seller in Baltimore from 1920 to 1940 — was a hand-rolled cigar with Havana leaf.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.