Cuba’s Customs and the Import Market

Once again putting the cart ahead of the oxen

FERNANDO RAVSBERG*

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.
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(*) Visit the blog of Fernando Ravsberg.

 


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

  • July 30, 2014 at 7:58 pm
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    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.

  • July 30, 2014 at 7:23 pm
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    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.

  • July 30, 2014 at 7:18 pm
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    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.

  • July 29, 2014 at 6:59 pm
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    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…

  • July 28, 2014 at 9:30 am
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    Not only has the Castro regime stopped calling you “gusanos”, they’re now begging you to come back and bring your money to help keep their corrupt dictatorship afloat. The irony is rich.

  • July 27, 2014 at 7:08 pm
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    Hehehe. Before you go can you back up that crap about the definition of socialism/communism?

  • July 27, 2014 at 7:46 am
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    John I don’t know if you have lived in Cuba, not just visited Calle Obispo and drank mojitos and “dated” young Cuban girls, but I live there 6 months a year and you have no clue as to what you speak. The Cuban government could easily end the black market by putting into State stores the products people need and want. Don’t blame the embargo, blame whoever is in control of buying the items that are on the shelves. Most products could be bought from China, Cuba’s new buddy, just like the USA does. Does a Cuban who makes $15 a month really need a $450 bottle of aged Santiago de Cuba rum that is sold all over the country in normal tiendas that Cubans go to looking for toilet paper? Get informed or shut up!

  • July 27, 2014 at 6:39 am
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    Hallelujah

  • July 27, 2014 at 6:35 am
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    Yeah, it’s curious how we Cubans who immigrated went on to prosper whilst those who stayed behind stagnated….and this during the hay day of the Soviet Union and their billions in rubles.

    In the final analysis the failure of the Cuban economy is the failure of communist central planning and the lack of freedom.

    Besides, if I were you I wouldn’t bitch. It took the freedom and capitalism of the country you hate so much to create the technology you hope will be bringing about your utopian society in 20 years (that’s your benchmark right?). It would not have happened in the Soviet Union and definitely not in Cuba (they can’t even grow their own food properly)

    ….and by the way, regarding you comment, weren’t you recently asked to bring something new to the table instead of the tired old same old, same old?

  • July 26, 2014 at 1:08 pm
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    Oh okay,
    It’s fine for them to repeat their lie of omission ad infinitum but not for me to point it out when it happens ?
    That would necessitate me avoiding the subject of that lie of omission and in effect self-censoring all my posts.
    So be it .
    It’s been fun .
    Good bye.

  • July 26, 2014 at 1:01 pm
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    Fine, I wish you great happiness in the capitalist paradise.
    You deserve each other.
    You bitch about totalitarian Cuba but can’t see the abject totalitarianism of capitalism right inside the heart of the best.
    You might want to check on the disappearance of the American middle class, the enormous and growing wealth gap , the inability to find a living wage job , before you talk about failed economies and
    your argument is one great lie of omission because if you don’t mention the effective U.S. embargo of 54 years, you’re not telling the truth about why the Cuban economy is suffering.

  • July 25, 2014 at 1:25 pm
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    Circles: thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comment. Let’s hope John heeds it. (but I am not getting my hopes up)

  • July 25, 2014 at 10:32 am
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    Can you imagine the shame that those ‘historicos’ must feel who 30 years ago, fat from their Soviet subsidies, arrogantly made fun of some young Cuban exile who left the island amidst the derisive chants and egg-throwers but today is a successful entrepreneur? The same kid they called a gusano is now their best hope for survival. Cubans have a gesture where they knock on the side of their face as if they were knocking on a door. It means be shameless. People who use that term gusano are shameless.

  • July 25, 2014 at 10:23 am
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    It would be helpful then if you choose to “interlock” Castro’s decision to foist an import tax of 240% with the embargo, that you share that connection with your criticism. You seem to have loads of criticisms justified by the same handful of tired old issues. By the way, still waiting for the source that agrees with you “bottom-up” requirement as a part of your kooky definition of socialism/communism.

  • July 25, 2014 at 9:51 am
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    John, every reader of Havana Times is by now aware that you believe that the US embargo is the main reason for any hardships in Cuba. Most are also aware this is the position of the Cuban government and officials at all levels. I encourage you to be less repetitive and/or predictable in your comments and try to add new ideas/perceptions to the discussion when possible.

  • July 25, 2014 at 8:56 am
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    To separate the U.S. economic war from all conditions relative to the Cuban economy is to be willfully ignorant.
    In a socialist-style economy all money is fungible .
    As far as me being able to understand the English language:
    I am in the 99 percentile group in this area .
    You don’t want to go there.

    As far as staying on topic: there are many interlocking aspects to any situation .
    You can’t or don’t want to make these connections for reasons previously stated.

  • July 25, 2014 at 8:24 am
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    The “gusanos”, a derisive term meant to ridicule those who reject subjugation under the Castro regime, has instead become a source of pride for us, the exile Cuban community. As of late however the Castro regime has stopped using the term. It’s not wise to offend the very people who are (unfortunately) bankrolling the failed Cuban socialist economy.

    …so I think you. I proudly embrace the term gusano.

  • July 24, 2014 at 4:03 pm
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    It would seem that your reading comprehension skills are lacking. This is an article about customs regulations and shortages. Cuba’s 240% import tax has nothing to do with the embargo. When Cuba has too much toilet paper in Havana and too little in Camaguey, you can’t blame the embargo for that. Limiting the number of women’s panties you are allowed to carry in your personal luggage is way outside the reach of the US embargo. You have been chin-checked several times recently about staying on topic. I really am starting to think that you don’t understand what you are reading.

  • July 24, 2014 at 1:01 pm
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    Okay, this is the second article printed today that bitches about the Cuban economy without a single mention of the U.S. war on the Cuban economy .
    I will readily grant that the policies of the totalitarian government
    are to blame IN PART but to totally ignore the elephant in the room, the crushing U.S. economic war, is just plain horseshit reporting that might well be acceptable to the editors at the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. .
    And what is this ?
    Are the embargo conditions now the accepted view of how things naturally evolve in an economy to the extent the imposed conditions are no longer are considered a factor and that the Cuban leadership is totally to blame for the shape of the Cuban economy ?
    Again, this is how the gusanos and the capitalists choose to frame the topic and it’s one massive lie of omission to do so .

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