Arnold’s Contraband

If the Governator doesn’t countenance civil disobedience, what’s with the Cuban cigars?

Smoking Arnold out?
Smoking Arnold out?

“I believe very strongly in domestic partnership rights,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Feb. 22 on Meet the Press.

I was all for—all throughout my campaign, I spoke out for it, but at the same time, we have also a law that says that we do not accept, you know, same-sex marriages which [in 2000] was passed by the people, Proposition 22, and so that is the law. So we cannot have, all of a sudden now, mayors go and hand out licenses for various different things. If it is—you know, in San Francisco, it’s the license for marriage of same-sex. …There’s a state law that says specific things, and if you want to challenge those laws, then you can go to the court and you can either challenge it there and let this neutral party, someone that can interpret the law, if there’s a dispute of it, make the decision.

In sum, Gov. Schwarzenegger stated that he could not countenance civil disobedience against the California state law prohibiting gay marriage. We may not agree with the law—indeed, Schwarzenegger, a longtime supporter of gay rights, very likely voted against Proposition 22—but it is, well, the law. It must therefore be obeyed.

But Schwarzenegger does not reject civil disobedience in all conceivable situations. When something really important is at stake, the Governator will defy the law to heed the dictates of his conscience. He will render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar’s, but he will withhold that which Caesar demands but is not, nor ever can be, rightfully Caesar’s. We speak here of Schwarzenegger’s private stash of Cuban cigars.

It’s long been known that Schwarzenegger is a connoisseur of Cuban tobacco leaf. But Chatterbox figured that when Schwarzenegger entered government, he gave up his Havanas. They are, after all, illegal to purchase or own in the United States (with one exception that almost certainly does not apply to Schwarzenegger). “Making a difference beyond the mirror—that’s my measure of greatness today,” Schwarzenegger said in a campaign speech this past September. “It’s what makes me feel good about myself … way better than being able to buy a $20 cigar.”

But who says you can’t have both? In a Feb. 13 New York Times piece, Charlie LeDuff related the following conversation between Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, who directed the first two Terminator movies:

Mr. Cameron asked him how governing was going. “They’re really shaken up up there,” he said of Sacramento. “It’s a trip. You should see it.”He talked about the art of compromise, popularity polls, special interests, prison investigations and the atrium outside his Sacramento office, where he is able to smoke his Cuban cigars—20 feet from the entrance as state law requires. “A lot of business gets done there,” he said. “Who doesn’t like a good stogie?”

In congratulating Schwarzenegger for scrupulously obeying California’s anti-smoking law, LeDuff neglected to note that Schwarzenegger’s apparent ownership of Cuban cigars violates the Cuban Assets Control Regulations issued in 1963 (under the Trading With the Enemy Act) by the governor’s most famous in-law. The prohibition was subsequently reaffirmed by statute in 1996. You’ll find the relevant laws and regulations here. (Incidentally, it isn’t true that the United States allows no trade with Cuba; under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Exports Enhancement Act, passed in 2000, farmers may sell agricultural products to Cuba, as Slate’s Daniel Gross pointed out in a recent “Moneybox” column.)

Was LeDuff’s reporting accurate? Does Schwarzenegger really have a stash of Cuban cigars? Chatterbox posed this question to the governor’s press office in Sacramento. Terri Carbaugh, the deputy press secretary, assured Chatterbox that the only cigars she’s seen Schwarzenegger smoke were Daniel Marshalls, which the governor likes to give out to lawmakers. (Daniel Marshalls are made in California from tobacco grown in Connecticut, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.) Apparently, all the cigars in the governor’s office are Daniel Marshalls. If that’s true, though, why would Schwarzenegger have told Cameron that he smokes Havanas in the atrium outside his Sacramento office? Carbaugh stopped well short of saying flatly that the governor owned no Cuban cigars. In the absence of any such denial, Chatterbox has to believe LeDuff. Maybe Schwarzenegger saves the good stuff for himself.

It is currently against the law to obtain Cuban cigars abroad and bring them into the United States or to obtain Cuban cigars from someone who has brought them into the United States. The only exception is for travelers returning from Cuba, who are allowed to bring in cigars whose value does not exceed $100. And Schwarzenegger—much to his credit—doesn’t go in for late night chats with Fidel Castro. The Times’ LeDuff queried candidate Schwarzenegger about his Cuban cigars a few days before the election and was told, “I get them as gifts when I travel overseas.” But it’s illegal to bring those gifts back into the United States. The penalty for violating this law is a civil fine of up to $55,000 per violation or, in some cases, criminal prosecution.

Is it a stupid law? You bet. There’s a growing consensus that the best way to defeat communism in Cuba is to get its citizens hooked on American goods. Even if that isn’t true, it should be clear after more than 40 years that the (now modified) trade embargo doesn’t work. Fidel Castro is still in power. Still, it would be hard to argue that idiotic trade sanctions against Cuba cause more human misery—at least inside the United States—than do idiotic laws at the state and federal level prohibiting gay people from marrying and thereby acquiring the same financial security enjoyed by married heterosexuals. If the Governator means to uphold the law, he can’t do it credibly until he empties his humidor.