But Did He Inhale?

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SMOOTH: The Cuban in Question

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, according to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a cigar is an economic prop to a brutal totalitarian regime. Arguing against loosening sanctions against Cuba last year, DeLay warned that Fidel Castro "will take the money. Every dime that finds its way into Cuba first finds its way into Fidel Castro's blood-thirsty hands.... American consumers will get their fine cigars and their cheap sugar, but at the cost of our national honor."

DeLay has long been one of Congress' most vocal critics of what he calls Castro's "thugocracy," which is why some sharp-eyed TIME readers were surprised last week to see a photo of the Majority Leader smoking one of Cuba's best—a Hoyo de Monterrey double corona, which generally costs about $25 when purchased overseas and is not available in this country. The cigar's label clearly states that it was made in "Habana." The photo was taken in Jerusalem on July 28, 2003, during a meeting between DeLay and the Republican Jewish Coalition at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

"Generally, the Hoyo de Monterrey is considered a very good cigar, especially in those oversizes," says Gregory Mottola, tasting coordinator for Cigar Aficionado magazine. A review of the Hoyo de Monterrey double corona on the website www.topcubans.com raves: "Love at first sight. The beauty of the stick, is matched by it's (sic) paradisiacal even roundness in the smoke. The Hoyo sweet tastes (crushed cacao/coffee, Moroccan leather), give this cigar a childish naughtiness character. This is a smoke full of prestige and smooth class."

DeLay's smoke may have run afoul of his principles, but it did not violate U.S. regulations at the time. However, it would now. Last September, the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control tightened its prohibitions against U.S. citizens importing or consuming Cuban cigars. Even Americans licensed to bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban goods are no longer allowed to include tobacco products in what they carry. The regulation also noted that Americans are barred not only from purchasing Cuban goods in foreign countries, but also from consuming them in those countries.

Asked about the Majority Leader's consumption of a Cuban cigar, his spokesman Dan Allen replied there has been "no change in our Cuban policy."