Once again putting the cart ahead of the oxen
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 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.
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 %.
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.