The Other Tobacco War

Article excerpt

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, lawabiding New Yorkers are free to stroll down Park Avenue without fear of encountering a contraband Cohiba.

News reports evoked images of grimfaced, 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 passe 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.

Sanctions Codified

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. …