Cuba cracks down on goods in travelers' luggage

September 1, 2014 - 5:05 PM
Cuba Mules

People put their luggage in a private taxi as they arrive from the U.S. to the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. Cubans braced Monday for a clampdown on the flow of car tires, flat-screen televisions, blue jeans and shampoo in the bags of travelers who haul eye-popping amounts of foreign-bought merchandise to an island where consumer goods are frequently shoddy, scarce and expensive. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

HAVANA (AP) — Lugging duffel bags crammed with soap, socks, toys and other hard-to-obtain consumer goods, travelers arriving in Cuba on Monday complained that new government restrictions on their imports would leave their families wanting.

Passengers on flights from Miami said they were bringing in far less than usual thanks to higher customs duties and stricter limits on the number of products allowed under rules that went into effect Monday.

At Havana's international airport, there appeared to be fewer bicycles, 40-inch televisions or other bulky household items that normally made the baggage carousels look like a Target or Wal-Mart checkout line during a holiday sale.

"There are barely any bags on the floor inside," said Arnaldo Roa, a 45-year-old Miami handyman on a trip to see relatives. While he had a bag stuffed with toys and clothes for his daughter, he said he wasn't able to bring his usual extra bags filled with gifts for other family members.

"I'm upset," he said. "Some relatives are going to get upset because normally I bring them things."

The easing of travel restrictions by the U.S. and Cuban governments over the last five years has allowed travelers to bring in nearly $2 billion of products a year. The government says the new limits meant to curb abuses that have turned air travel in particular into a way for professional "mules" to illegally import supplies for both black-market businesses and legal private enterprises that are supposed to buy supplies from the state.

Ana Maria Perez, who works in a South Florida factory making airplane seats, said she had been forced to pay $95 in customs duties, far more than usual.

"We've got to pay a lot now," she said. "I don't understand it at all, but I paid."

The new rules run 41 pages and give a sense of the quantity and diversity of the commercial goods arriving in checked bags and, alternatively, by sea shipment. Travelers are now allowed to bring in 22 pounds (10 kilos) of detergent instead of 44; one set of hand tools instead of two; and 24 bras instead of 48. Four car tires are still permitted, as are two pieces of baby furniture and two flat-screen televisions.

The value of a passenger's imported items can total no more than $1,000, with the estimate based on a long list of assigned prices for certain goods ($250 for a video-game console, for example.) Those values rose sharply under the new rules, making it far easier to reach the $1,000 limit.

The new rules similarly increased the duties paid on goods shipped from abroad, another major source of foreign merchandise for the island.

Authorities took to the airwaves and pages of state media in recent days to assure Cubans that the vast majority of travelers won't be affected. The change is intended "to keep certain people from using current rules on non-commercial imports to bring into the country high volumes of goods that are destined for commercial sale and profit," Idalmis Rosales Milanes, deputy chief of Cuban customs, told government newspaper Granma in Friday editions.

Still, some travelers were furious.

"I'm not coming back anymore," said Diamara Cespedes, a Miami nurse. "They're finishing off the Cuban people with this."

The government has justified the new rules with examples of prolific mules including one passenger it said brought in 41 computer monitors and 66 flat-screen TVs in a year.

Between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion worth of goods were flown to Cuba in traveler's baggage last year, with the average flyer bringing in goods worth $3,551, according to a 2013 survey of 1,154 Cuban and Cuban-American travelers conducted by the Havana Consulting Group, a Florida-based private consultancy that studies the Cuban economy.

"It's sustenance, support that greatly aids in the survival of the Cuban family," Consulting Group President Emilio Morales said. "Along with cash remittances, it's the most significant source of earnings for the Cuban population, not the salaries the government pays."

While his study did not look at the final destination of travelers' goods, Morales said he estimated based on his knowledge of the phenomenon that about 60 percent went to families and 40 percent to black-market retailers.

With foreign reserves dropping sharply over the last two years as Cuba tries to pay off sovereign debt and make itself a more attractive destination for foreign investment, Morales said, the government is desperate to reduce the flow of goods and push Cubans' relatives abroad to send help in the form of cash remittances, which are subjected to hefty government fees. Limiting informal imports also would presumably help boost business in state-controlled stores.

The rule change already has had an effect in Miami, where many stores are dedicated to selling goods to island-bound Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Many employees reported sharp drop-offs in sales in recent days as people braced for the change.

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Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Christine Armario in Miami and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador contributed to this report.

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Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein