Once again putting the cart ahead of the oxen


1-Customs merely abides by the decisions of the Cuban government and the new regulations are not that restrictive.
Customs merely abides by the decisions of the Cuban government and the new regulations are not that restrictive.

HAVANA TIMES — In Cuba, hacerse el sueco (literally “playing the Swede”) is a popular idiom that means to play dumb and to pretend not to notice the obvious. I believe that, following the implementation of the new customs regulations on the island, more than one Cuban authority has magically turned into a Scandinavian, looking for a scapegoat where they can vent their rage.

Cuban Customs has been bombarded with criticisms, even though everyone in Cuba knows that such regulations aren’t established by an institution that merely complies with the resolutions approved by the government.

The new regulations are not exactly extremist when compared to those of other countries. Five pairs of shoes is more than enough for one person (no matter how much they intend to walk), and even the cleanest among us can make do with a few dozen bars of soaps.

The prices of some products lead to contraband. This piece of cheese costs the equivalent of a State employee’s 2 full monthly salaries.
The prices of some products lead to contraband. This piece of cheese costs the equivalent of a State employee’s 2 full monthly salaries.

The problem is not what customs allows us to bring into the country but what we (Cubans and foreign residents alike) need to bring home in order to fill the enormous hole produced by shortages and/or the extremely high prices of the domestic market.

I can solemnly swear that it doesn’t please me in the least to have to travel back from Spain with 4 car tires under my arm. Finding and packing them isn’t easy, let alone finding a cab that’s got enough room to carry them to the airport without protest.

Standing in line to check in for flight to Cuba anywhere in the world is like going to a street vendor convention where you find people with the most unusual products: furniture, electrical switches, car parts, light bulbs, television sets, water pumps and breast implants.

3-Cubans bring the strangest things from abroad, from car tires to disposable diapers.
Cubans bring the strangest things from abroad, from car tires to disposable diapers.

What’s defective are not Cuba’s customs regulations but the country’s domestic market, and the government must acknowledge that it has always been so. There has practically been no time in over a half century in which the country has had a steady supply of products, without shortages or rationing.

An old joke says that, had Jesus Christ been Cuban, he would never have been crucified because, if you’re lucky to get your hands on a hammer in Cuba, you’ll soon find out that nails are few and far between and wood is nowhere to be found. In fact, there isn’t a single place in Cuba where you can buy a couple of wooden planks legally.

The black market immediately takes advantage of these shortages. I doubt there’s a single country in the world with a black market as vigorous and modern as Cuba’s. It’s even got webpages, like Revolico and Porlalivre, where you can find anything, at twice the price you can find it abroad and half what the State charges in Cuba.

From a tube of toothpaste to a state-of-the-art laptop – everything will be cheaper than at a State store, for black market sellers raise the price by 100 % while the government does so by 240 %.

4-These fridges cost 600 euros at stores around Europe. They are sold at double that price in Cuba.
These fridges cost 600 euros at stores around Europe. They are sold at double that price in Cuba.

Most of the clothes and shoes sold in State stores are old, expensive and of poor quality. A pair of shoes can last you a month, and there’s nowhere you can go to complain when they break because consumer rights in Cuba are only theoretical.

With the new customs regulations, the government has placed the cart ahead of the oxen, forbidding the import of certain products before having built a commercial system that can satisfy the basic consumer needs of its citizens.

No one should worry that imports will bring about a crisis in Cuba’s domestic market – the authorities responsible for supplying the market are more than enough to achieve this. They’re not even able to maintain steady supplies of floor mops at stores.

The worst part of this is that the measures will only affect people who travel only occasionally but will not put an end to large-scale contraband, which comes into the country on a daily basis in the luggage of plane crews or in large packages, let through by corrupt customs officials.
(*) Visit the blog of Fernando Ravsberg.


19 thoughts on “Cuba’s Customs and the Import Market

  • Just a minor correction Colin Fenby. If you visit Cristo Street in Old Havana from 8.00 p.m. onwards you will see who actually picks up the garbage and sorts it.
    From that time onwards the scavengers gather with their daily accumulation of garbage to sell it for a few pesos to the re-cycling facility on the east side of the street. They get what sleep they can lying on cardboard on the sidewalk. Just go and look next time you are in Havana! Regarding the water, we boil all ours at home in Cuba as recommended by the health authorities and suggest that if you wish to avoid problems including cholera that you do likewise. So far the parts of Old Havana that have been “fixed up” have been at the expense of UNESCO, not the Castro regime.
    You are absolutely correct in saying that Cuba could purchase that 80% of its food requirements now imported, from countries other than the US. That the importing agencies Universal Trade & Management Corporation SA, Rafin SA (Rafin is an abbreviation for Raul and Fidel), Grupo de Administracion Empresarial SA and Teenotex all under the CEO Colonel Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lepoz-Callejas, son-in-law of President Raul Castro Ruz choose to make the bulk of purchases from the USA is inexplicable – it couldn’t possible be corruption when controlled by such an impeccable person?
    You are correct in indicating that many countries world wide are safer places than the USA which is notorious for its gun culture and “the right to bear arms” justifying carrying around and indeed using sub-machine guns. But it is for the citizens of the US to ammend their Constitution which is now 200 years out of date.
    The cops in Cuba don’t ask for bribes, but they will stop you in the street for identity check or even when travelling by state taxi, to check upon the identity of passengers.
    I say all this in good will to add to your knowledge of Cuba and its political regime as my home is there. I encourage you to return and enjoy the people of Cuba – “la familia” is the social backbone of society and music is its soul ! But note, both are free and Cubans have little else.

  • yuma! Mr. Goodrich has never been to Cuba although I have repeatedly urged him through these coloumns to do so. He could stay in Casa Particulars, travel by Viazul and study the REALITY of Cuba. He chooses not to do so but to pontificate about that which he doesn’t comprehend and fails to address.

  • Mr. Goodrich you are the absolutely perfect example of dichotomy. On the one hand you claim, perhaps as an indication of an inferiority complex, that you are within the 99 percentile group in comprehension of the English language and on the other hand you express views entirely bereft of common sense.
    In case you wish to know the origin of the expression “common sense”, it is credited to Professor Thomas Reid, Professor of Philosophy, University of Aberdeen when participating in the Scottish enlightenment in 1762.

  • I believe that Cuba can pretty well get most of what it needs from Spain, Mexico, China or Canada, so, as troublesome as it is to be on the wrong side of Uncle Sam, there are ways to get around the embargo. Many of the challenges stem from poverty endemic to the Caribbean. It’s also a fool’s game to try and surmise what Cuba would’ve been like had Castro not come to power. Let’s focus on tomorrow. Having been to Cuba a couple of times and Mexico half a dozen as well as a few trips to Central America, I can say that Cuba is generally much safer, cleaner and there aren’t any massive shantytowns or people combing over garbage dumps for scraps. At night in Havana, the garbage gets picked up by city crews and you can walk anywhere and talk to anybody (with lots of opinions too) and drink the water and not get parasites (a friend once got typhoid in Guatamala and I’ve been hospitalized after going to Cancun, and more than a few Canadians murdered there). Oh, and all the kids go off to school in the mornings in uniforms and the cops even in the smallest towns don’t ask you for bribes, plus, they have real artists and jazz musicians and not just tourista bands. I can tell you that I went to Miami a couple of years ago it’s pretty scary there even during daytime off the strip: you’d better be packing or you’re gonna get robbed or worse after dark. And don’t get me wrong, I love America too, but the point is to stop looking backwards and instead try and help Cuba transition to become a friend and partner in the hemisphere — so let’s keep the positive relationships going and get somewhere better. Imagine when Habana gets fixed up! Wow! Massive change is coming, lets hope it turns out well and not like Tijuana…

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