US bans Gillingham man Alan Lawrence’s cigar box guitars due to long-standing Cuba embargo

Global politics and the legacy of the Cold War have left a guitar-maker singing the blues.

Alan Lawrence’s home-made instruments had been a smash hit at home and abroad – until he struck a jarring chord with the powers-that-be in America.

Now he is fighting to keep his fledgling business afloat after being banned from selling his hillbilly-style guitars on eBay.

It is all because the guitars and self-assembly kits consists of a £5 Cuban cigar box – and the USA has a long-standing embargo on any goods from the Caribbean island since Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959.

The exemption includes not just cigars, but the boxes they are packed in as well.

Mr Lawrence, 58, a former mental health nurse, only found out he had fallen foul of the 54-year-old ban imposed at the height of the Cold War, when the American-owned web company prohibited him from selling on its site – his biggest source of business.

An email from eBay stated: “After reviewing your account, it appears you have violated eBay’s embargoed goods policy.”

As a result the “violating listings” were removed last Friday and his selling privileges were temporarily restricted.

The ruling has prompted Mr Lawrence to write to the American ambassador in the UK, a letter he is considering copying to US president Barack Obama.

Mr Obama has taken the first steps to restore diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana but only Congress has the power to lift the trade embargo with Cuba and so far politicians have refused to budge.

Mr Lawrence, of Balmoral Road, Gillingham, started to make the cigar-box guitars after taking early retirement from the health service four years ago.

He said: “I wanted an enterprising project and a way of earning a few bob.”

His wife, Vena, 54, a nurse, is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and may not be able to carry on work for much longer.

Mr Lawrence said: “I am very surprised. All my components are bought by myself, a UK citizen, legally in the UK.

“It is not as if I am trying to smuggle drugs, firearms or livestock out of the country.

“My beef is that a country 3,000 miles away is interfering with my rights to trade feely.

“I feel it is an infringement of my human rights.”

In his letter to the ambassador, Michael Barzun, he stated: “The damage caused by your policy is not just financial.

“Apart from restricting free trade without good reason, you are restricting the sharing of cultural activities.

“There has been a long tradition of Britain and America experiencing each other’s activities in areas such as music, drama and art and I cannot help thinking that your prohibition of British people from adopting the American tradition of building and playing home-made musical instruments is as absurd as the British attempting to prevent Americans playing cricket.”

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