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`Psst! I Got That Good Cuban Leaf'


Up Front: NEW WORLD ORDER

`PSST! I GOT THAT GOOD CUBAN LEAF'

THE DUFFEL BAGS CARRIED off the 37-foot fishing boat and onto a Key West dock looked suspicious to U.S. Customs Service agents. When they swooped in, the officers didn't find drugs. Customs says the swag was 2,700 hand-rolled cigars that the suspects bought for $3,600 in Fidel Castro's Cuba and could sell for $28,000 in America.

Smuggling Fidel's finest is on the rise because premium-cigar smoking is undergoing a renaissance. In 1994, non-Cuba imports expanded 5%, the first increase in two decades. While many restaurants have banned smoking, cigar bars are suddenly chic. U.S. demand for quality Cuban Habana Puros, Cohibas, and Montecristos is such that Cigar Aficionado magazine estimates up to 10 million cigars leave the island yearly for this country in defiance of the U.S. ban on Cuban imports. Americans may buy up to 100 Cuban cigars at a time in countries other than Cuba, but any amount over that runs the risk of confiscation by U.S. officials.

In the Key West case, two men were charged with smuggling, conspiracy, and violating the Trading With the Enemy Act. One pleaded not guilty, the other has yet to be arraigned. As for the cigars, Customs officials say they will be burned--but not smoked.EDITED BY LARRY LIGHT, WITH OLUWABUNMI SHABI David Swafford


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