HAVANA TIMES — As a kid, I used to sympathize with two types of criminals: those who ripped off banks without violence and smugglers. I saw them as Robin Hoods that stole from the rich and powerful, that is to say, from bankers and the State.
Though I maintained a degree of sympathy towards certain characters as I grew up, I learned that those who rob banks aren’t financiers committed to the redistribution of wealth and that smugglers aren’t entrepreneurs seeking to protect small, informal businesses.
These childhood memories came to me as a result of the ongoing debate in Cuba regarding whether the sale of contraband items, that is to say, products that entered the country evading official import procedures, should be prohibited.
Cuba, however, is full of clothing, shoes, furniture and electrical appliances that made it to the island this way. It is something that happens all over the world. The difference here is that no one conceals the fact: they sell these products at the very entrance to their homes or advertise them on classifieds pages online.
These products are brought into Cuba through different means, from Cubans residing or living abroad who avail themselves of a trip to earn a few dollars to the crews of Cuba’s commercial airlines, who always return to the island with suitcases full of products they intend to sell.
The largest volumes are brought to Cuba by “mules”, people who make a living out of bringing packages to Cuba, and through cargo contraband, a practice which requires the aid of some members of the Cuban Customs Office.
I know of people who every two months bring in a 20-cubic-foot container full of products, including furniture, kitchen sets, refrigerators, televisions, motorcycles, washing machines, air conditioning units and different types of equipment needed to set up a private business.
I have actually seen how these containers are brought into the country, in person, and therefore know the mechanisms employed to get the products through customs –cracks and chinks in the system used to hide the crime under legal paperwork (which ought not to be able to deceive the inspectors present).
It doesn’t appear to be a legal problem, even though Cuban law is far more tolerant than the one applied on the US – Mexico border, to mention one example.
The problem is that a number of venal government officials have taken advantage of this situation and set up their own private businesses around this practice.
In Cuba’s case, contraband and corruption are not merely financial problems. They also entail national security concerns: it was through the airport, after all, that the explosives which were detonated inside hotels in Havana in the 1990s entered the country.
For some time now, the Cuban government has been announcing that the licenses it granted are meant to authorize the sale, not of contraband items, but of clothing made in Cuba. What it has never explained is where one can find the warehouses to buy the manufacturing supplies.
Encouraging the development of a textile industry operated by the self-employed and cooperatives seems like a good idea, but, in order to be materialized, ideas require resources: farmers need plows, drivers need fuel and fashion designers require fabrics, elastics, decorations, thread and buttons.
The State should help the sector it wishes to develop by importing and selling supplies at wholesale prices, by reducing tariffs and taxes, so as to allow new businesses to compete in the midst of the products brought from abroad at ludicrously low prices.
Contraband in clothing and shoes has also been on the rise because the items sold at State stores tend to be ugly, low quality or expensive (and sometimes, all three at once). The country imports these items without conducting any kind of market study, buying cheap trinkets in exchange for commissions, and then adding voracious taxes to the price.
Like any other State, the Cuban State has the right to apply taxes to imported products aimed at the local market, but it is also duty-bound to guarantee the effectiveness of the institutions tasked with preventing contraband.
To close down private businesses without plugging up the cracks in customs and without the development of a local industry will simply force these businesses to go underground. Yesterday, I saw a woman with a large handbag offering items of clothing to the clerks at a bakery in Havana.
The situation is not likely to improve if we go after resellers, bother travelers at the airport even more or place restrictions on what a doctor can bring after completing a mission abroad, for these are not the people who bring the largest volumes of contraband into Cuba.
A Cuban economist was telling me that, in order to be effective, an anti-contraband campaign must include the sale of clothing (new or used) at prices that are proportionate to people’s incomes, the real development of a local industry and the constant monitoring of the customs department.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.