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Growing import


The Swiss-American love of Cuban cigars


By John Heilprin, Veronica DeVore



Even before US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba this week, Americans travelling to Cuba had gained the ability to bring back up to $400 (CHF389) of Cuban goods – of which only $100 (CHF97) could be their beloved Cuban cigars and rum.

Which may go a little way toward explaining why some two-thirds of the total value of cigars imported into Switzerland come from Cuba. (It’s about one-third when measured by volume, which shows how pricey those Cuban smokes tend to be.)

Since 1988, the value of Cuban cigars imported into Switzerland has more than doubled.

Americans’ insatiable taste for Cuban cigars accounts for at least one of every ten cigars the Cubans export each year, according to reports in the Cigar Aficionado magazine. In top cigar shops in Swiss and other European cities, the percentage appears to run higher.

Not only cigars mark the Swiss-American Cuban connection. Switzerland has played a good offices role as a discreet diplomatic go-between for Cuba and the United States for more than half a century. This service is coming to the end with the resumption of US-Cuba relations.

Nevertheless, the love of those smokes bear an outsized imprint. Earlier this month, Swiss cigar maker Villiger Söhne CEO Heinrich Villiger retired after leading the company for 65 years. His grandfather founded the company in 1888 to make Swiss Stumpen, or cheroots, near Lucerne.

It was Villiger – the brother of a former Swiss president – who set up a joint venture to import Cuban cigars into Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Poland. Villiger began visiting Cuba even before the 1950s revolution that brought leader Fidel Castro to power.

Not that Villiger, now an octogenarian, set up the import business to let Americans fill the Alpine air with tobacco smoke of a foreign origin. Zurich’s bankers also enjoy the pricey cigars, which dovetail with an upscale image cultivated by rich executives.

Contact the authors on Twitter: @JohnHeilprin and @vdevore 

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