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‘Cuban cigar’ case has a bad smell

I don’t personally know Jeffrey Southworth, but he’s a friend of a friend, and he’s in big trouble. Federal authorities in Puerto Rico seized his Catalina 47 because it was carrying 33 boxes of “Cuban” cigars.

Now Southworth, who was sailing from the Dominican Republic, is in the position of having to prove that the cigars were actually cheap counterfeits to get his boat back. That means travel and lawyers, both of which are expensive.

Southworth’s story, assuming he’s being honest, is outrageous on three levels. First, it reminds us that U.S. police agencies continue to have the right to take private property without proving a crime. Second, phrased as a question, isn’t it kind of crazy to have a foreign policy with a cigar component? Third, besides being the most corrupt in our republic, Puerto Rican officials have shown a demonstrable pattern of hostility to Anglo cruisers, and today’s story may well be another case in point.

OK, Southworth is that kind of guy. He likes to smoke cigars and he likes to give cigars as gifts. The retired automotive engineer lives in the Dominican Republic and keeps his boat there. He says he’s never been to Cuba, nor has his boat. Cuban cigars are sold legally in the D.R., but most that you find are not real; they’re cheap knockoffs for the tourists.

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Here’s what Southworth says about his cigar smoking: “Those that have sailed with me know how I sail. I do not drink coffee. After two or more days of no sleep, when the sun goes down I have a hard time staying awake, but I smoke cigars through the night. Once the sun comes up I am able to stay awake, no matter how tired. … I often give these novelty cigars away because people get a kick out of them, but I also tell the recipients they are not high-quality.”

(In case you’re wondering what’s the big deal: Under the terms of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Cuban cigars may not be imported to the United States or Puerto Rico. Possession of Cuban cigars is a crime in the United States, punishable by fines and up to 10 years in prison.)

Southworth’s story began last fall when Hurricane Sandy damaged the Janice Ann while it was docked at the Casa de Campo marina, part of a five-star facility on the D.R.’s south coast. In early January, Southworth set sail with a buddy, intending to have repairs done in Puerto Rico or St. Thomas. The Mona Passage crossing was rough and exhausting for the crew, as these crossings often are. Southworth says he got no sleep.

The boat was stopped at sea by Puerto Rico’s marine patrol and boarded by U.S. Border Patrol officers, guarding against people smuggling. They allowed Janice Annto proceed to Ponce on Puerto Rico’s south coast to formally clear into the country.

Southworth says he declared the cigars to the Border Patrol officers at Ponce.

“We talk about the cigars and I tell him there are a lot on board, all of which are fake Cubans that I bought mostly in my city of Samana and some in Boca Chica, D.R.,” Southworth says. “Officer Rodriguez said they have an expert back at the office that can quickly tell whether they are Cubans or not. He said they will most likely be seized, but they would be returned if not of Cuban origin.”

The questioning continues, new officers arrive and search the boat, and Southworth gets the impression that someone may have dipped into his money stash. He communicates his suspicion and the questioning gets uglier. Southworth says he is then taken out, spread-eagled against the feds’ car, searched and handcuffed before being driven to the agents’ office.

Southworth says no cigar expert ever came to verify whether the Cubans were bogus. He says everyone involved knew they were fakes, but he was told to take his personal possessions off the boat and leave, anyway. Now he is preparing for his day in court.

“I was detained in Ponce for hours,” Southworth says. “I had not slept for over 40 hours and can't remember the last time I ate. Eventually two Ponce officers handed me a forfeiture of the cigars, a one-page document to sign. I asked them if they could fill out the form properly and call the cigars what they are rather than Cubans. They said no. If I signed the document I could return to my vessel and rest. I told them I would only sign the document under protest. If I had known that [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] would use that trumped-up document to seize my vessel (rather than just the cigars), I never would have signed it.”

The Daily Caller news website, which covered this story, contacted the agencies involved, but none would comment. Here are my comments:

• Fake Cubans are pretty easy to tell from the real thing, according to the magazine Cigar Aficionado. Cuban fakes abound. Some people pay too much money for them. Other people don’t care — as long as the price is right — since the fakes tend to be made by relabeling unbranded Dominican cigars that might be smokable in their own right.

• Our government is seizing someone’s $90,000 possession because there was $700 worth of cigars on board that might be Cuban. Really? And the standard for the seizure (to be upheld by a judge in civil, not criminal court) is not whether a crime has been committed beyond a reasonable doubt, but by the much lower standard of whether a crime has occurred by a preponderance of the evidence.

The crime in question — smuggling Cuban cigars — is itself a travesty. Why are we still fighting the ghost of the Soviet empire, anyway? The law is the law, you say. OK, then, charge Jeffrey Southworth with a crime, and if he’s found guilty, take his boat away. Otherwise give her back.

• I’ve been hearing for years about abusive behavior or just plain nastiness toward cruisers on the part of Puerto Rican officialdom. I get it. Our colonialist boot was supposedly on your neck for generations, and now that you have a badge you are enjoying a bit of turnabout. People that know me know that I love Latin America and her peoples, but I’m not happy with Puerto Rico — subsidized by our tax dollars, yet corrupt, ungrateful and anti-American.

And that’s why I support the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Viva Puerto Rico libre!

Stay tuned.