Aaron Lukas is an analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies.
The U.S. Customs Service recently mounted a major offensive in the federal government’s latest brainchild: the war on Cuban cigars. Agents swept through exclusive Manhattan clubs and restaurants, arresting managers and patrons alike. Once again, law-abiding New Yorkers are free to stroll down Park Avenue without fear of encountering a contraband Cohiba.
News reports evoked images of grim-faced, Prohibition-era G-men busting up speakeasies: “[Agents] searched the upscale restaurant Patroon and arrested its cigar room manager Alex Hasbany,” reported the Reuters news wire. “The restaurant’s owner, Kenneth Aretsky, former president of New York’s famous ‘21 Club’ surrendered to authorities on Thursday.”
Good thing Aretsky went peacefully—gun battles in expensive restaurants were all the rage in the days of cigar-smoking crime boss Al Capone, but are passé today.
Federal prosecutors reported seizing several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of the prized stogies. At least nine people were arrested, including the head of U.S. securities at Chase Securities, Inc., a unit of Chase Manhattan Bank.
All of this suggests the question: doesn’t customs have anything useful to do?
The raids were conducted under the auspices of the Trading with the Enemy Act, which grants presidents the authority to prohibit the import of property from specified foreign countries. Federal law has banned most imports from Cuba since July 8, 1963, shortly after President John F. Kennedy ordered press secretary Pierre Salinger to go out and buy as many of his favorite H. Upmann Petit Coronas as possible.
In 1996 the Helms-Burton Act codified many of the unilateral economic sanctions against Cuba that the United States had maintained under the Trading with the Enemy Act. It also added noxious new provisions, such as extraterritorial boycotts of foreign companies that do business in Cuba.
Such laws offer massive potential for abuse because enforcement is nearly impossible. Prominent businessmen have been nabbed, but how many members of Congress have occasionally indulged in a fine Havana Montecristo or Cohiba Esplendidos? Don’t expect to see agents raiding Capitol Hill offices anytime soon.
Besides, is Cuba really our enemy? With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of subsidies to Cuba in the early 1990s, the Cuban security threat virtually ceased to exist. Now we isolate Cuba not to enhance security, but to “help” the Cuban people.
It’s difficult to see how commando raids on American citizens will promote freedom abroad. In any case, it’s bad policy. Our government was established to protect the life, liberty, and property of the people of the United States. We shouldn’t allow our rights to be compromised, even for seemingly noble goals. The example of a free and prosperous America is a more powerful force for change than any embargo will ever be.
Nevertheless, Customs has dramatically stepped up its enforcement efforts against Cuban cigars. The agency reported confiscating $3.1 million worth last year alone, in 3,700 separate seizures. As is the case with illegal narcotics, prices will rise and more smuggling will occur; oppression in Cuba will continue, however, just as it has during nearly four decades of U.S. isolation.
Sadly, the cigar sting is only the most recent embarrassment in America’s failed policy toward Cuba. Ongoing U.S. antagonism is a major reason that Castro remains so firmly in power, despite the Cuban economy’s deterioration.
If Congress and the Clinton administration are serious about encouraging liberalization, they should allow Americans to trade freely with Cuba. The Cuban embargo—and the cigar wars—should be consigned to the ash heap of history.