Cuba could export $250 mn of cigars to US

The co-president of Habanos SA, Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique, laughs during an interview with AFP in Havana, on February 24, 2015 (AFP Photo/Francisco Jara)
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Havana (AFP) - Cuba's renowned cigar makers could export at least $250 million to the United States yearly if the five-decade embargo on the communist island is lifted, a top executive said Tuesday.

While the current US Congress looks unlikely to lift the embargo, the historic rapprochement announced in December by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro had industry insiders wistfully asking "What if?"

"I think we could (export) $250 million or more," said Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique, commercial vice president at Habanos S.A., a joint venture between the Cuban government and Britain's Imperial Tobacco.

Cuba has 70 percent market share for global cigar sales outside the United States, which accounts for two-thirds of world sales.

Fernandez Maique predicted Cuba could reach 25 to 30 percent market share in a post-embargo United States.

With that figure, "we would be the leader in the (US) market," he told AFP at the 17th Habano Festival, a five-day celebration of Cuban cigars in Havana.

But he acknowledged the United States was a "highly competitive and very complicated market."

"The competition's not just going to keep their arms crossed. We would have to reach consumers. We have some consumers in the United States, but not the majority," he said.

The cigar festival has drawn 1,600 cheroot aficionados from around the world.

At the opening day Monday, Habanos announced global sales of $439 million in 2014, down one percent from 2013.

Cigars are one of Cuba's main exports, after nickel, medicine and sugar.

After Obama and Castro announced a thaw in ties between the former Cold War foes on December 17, the White House eased certain trade and travel restrictions.

The measures included allowing American travelers to bring back up to $100 of Cuban rum and cigars.