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Cuban cigars are coming to America - sort of

Cuban tobacco legend Alejandro Robaina smokes one of his own brand cigars on his 91st birthday at his farm in Pinar del Rio in this 2010 fphoto. Robaina, known in international cigar circles for producing the best of his country's famous tobacco leaves, died on April 17, 2010 at the age of 91.
Cuban tobacco legend Alejandro Robaina smokes one of his own brand cigars on his 91st birthday at his farm in Pinar del Rio in this 2010 fphoto. Robaina, known in international cigar circles for producing the best of his country's famous tobacco leaves, died on April 17, 2010 at the age of 91.(Reuters)

WASHINGTON — For cigar aficionados around the country, the warming of US-Cuba relations might best be celebrated beside the smoky glow of a Cohiba. And yet stateside, that still won’t be easy to do for some time.

On Wednesday, the White House announced that it would reestablish ties with Cuba. In addition to opening a US embassy in Havana, the government will ease travel restrictions for Americans to the island nation. Commercial imports of Cuban goods, however, are still frozen despite the diplomatic thaw.

In 2013, the global retail value of the cigar market was more than $23 billion, according to data from Euromonitor International. And Corporación Habanos, an iconic producer of Cuban cigar brands like Cohiba, was the 18th-largest cigar company in the world last year, selling more than 215 million units.

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For those cigars to make their way into American shops, Congress would need to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, which is codified in US law and beyond the scope of the executive power that Obama exercised on Wednesday. The president did, however, say in a press conference that he hopes his actions will lead to ‘‘a serious debate about lifting the embargo,’’ and that ‘‘increased commerce is good for Americans and Cubans.’’

While the sale of Cuban cigars is less than imminent, small quantities will soon be easier to bring into the United States for personal use. Speaking on background, a Treasury Department official said rules on enforcement of Cuban cigar importation would ease, according to the travel changes announced by Obama.

To this point, the importation of tobacco from Cuba was not previously authorized, even for the small group of citizens who were permitted to travel between the two countries. Once the president’s changes take effect in the coming weeks, however, authorized American travelers will now be allowed to import up to $100 of Cuban alcohol or tobacco products.

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Due to decades of embargo, cigar makers have long looked for other ways to satisfy Americans’ taste for the smoky contraband. In the United States, Swisher Sweets is currently the most popular brand, with a market share of 31 percent. But many brands create cigars that are ‘‘Cuban style’’ or ‘‘made with Cuban seed,’’ in an effort to skirt the illegality of importing cigars produced on the island.