The Impact of Cuba’s New Customs Regs

Alberto N. Jones

Cuban Customs. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Official statements describe the Cuban Customs Office as “the country’s first line of defense, responsible for preventing the entry of harmful materials,” while at the same time it “allows and encourages the free flow of trade and development between countries.” It seems that reconciling these two apparently antagonistic functions isn’t an easy task.

The severe shortages in Cuba over many years are a direct and exclusive responsibility of the entities responsible for the acquisition, distribution and sale of products to the public.

These entities, I believe, haven’t taken on their role with the due seriousness and responsibility that the people deserve. They have abused the revolutionary sentiments of the masses, who have expressed these feelings for decades by accepting — in silence — everything from gross ineptitude to poorly targeted annual production plans.

The devastation caused by several hurricanes in 2008 severely aggravated the shortages in the country, prompting Customs and other agencies to relax the regulations in place at that time. This led to the importing of millions of tons of food, personal items, various types of supplies, durable goods, medicine, medical supplies and others items, alleviating what was for skeptics and doomsayers was an irreversible and terminal situation.

Those circumstances touched the hearts of thousands of Cubans living abroad, who up until then had ignored their relatives in Cuba and had sworn never to return home. Given the devastation and human suffering that threatened to devour the country, these individuals put the interests of their families and the nation ahead of their personal feelings, which was clearly expressed in the more than 400,000 Cuban-American visitors to Cuba last year.

Prior to this, the Customs Office had for years terrorized Cuban travelers, confiscating their goods and applying onerous duties. This was the major cause of anxiety, hypertension and stress for those visiting the country, especially among the elderly.

In 2008, however, this hostile position changed. Exemptions were made on duties applied to food and medicine, which resulted in our relatives, friends and neighbors in Cuba seeing their rations supplemented with products and medicines that were non-existent in the country. This mitigated their needs, relieved the suffering of others, and helped to rebuild family ties and love for the country, which had been affected as a result of long-term separations.

Opportunists of all stripes, as well as many honest people (especially seniors on fixed incomes, the unemployed, students trying to supplement their college stipends, and people with no other recourse for visiting loved ones abroad), became “mules” or smugglers, bringing into the country huge amounts of material goods without paying the proper duties. In the process, many officials became corrupted by bribes and the country’s treasury lost millions of dollars.

How can we explain why such a vice that was so loudly criticized was not corrected, modified or adapted to the interests of all parties?

The solution found recently was the cruel, unexpected and devastating blow against defenseless victims, among them the elderly, children and medical patients – people who were deprived of food, medicine and vital medical equipment.

Why throw out the baby (needed goods) with the bath water (corruption)?

Many countries, even ones whose markets have all the material resources that their populations require, have import duties that are graduated according to the types of items, whether basic items, food and personal articles or durable and luxury goods. These countries don’t punish themselves by preventing the importation of specific products to any of their citizens.

Just like in the rest of the Third World, most Caribbean countries maintain extensive systems of sea and air deliveries of parcels from residents of First World countries to their families in their countries of origin.

What are typical are strong family/cultural bonds in our region. Jamaica, Dominica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico and others are served by dozens of shipping companies dedicated solely to this specialized service. They accept and make door-to-door deliveries of millions of tons in products that provide relief, are vital transfusions for millions of impoverished people, and that strengthen perennial moral and emotional ties.

In the 1980’s, the Cuban government charged the astronomical sum of $30 a pound for personal items. This was gradually decreased to $10 per pound for personal items and $6 per pound for food and medicine. Although this service continues to be the most expensive in the world, it has led to a proliferation of agencies and massive shipments of products to our family members and friends in Cuba. We have also seen the first direct shipping service between the two countries in half a century being born, which could now suffer a miscarriage with the new regulations just put in force.

If, like in other countries in the region, Cuba’s Customs Office applied a procedure that is rational, logical, humane and consistent with the needs and suffering of our people, think how much more food and supplies would enter the country, further mitigating the existing social problems while at least tripling the current imports and increasing the number of travelers and remittances.

Although the distance between the Dominican Republic and Miami is twice that between Miami and Santiago de Cuba, their parcel transport companies pick-up and make door-to-door deliveries of packages containing up to 70 pounds for $55 to $65, depending on the recipient’s address. The cost the same parcel sent to Cuba would be $700!

How can we assume that the severe economic crisis that’s afflicting and neutralizing development in Cuba, which will require hundreds of billions of dollars to put it back on its feet, can be countered with the existing scandalous 250 percent tax placed on the limited and unstable availability of products sold in CUCs or by this latest irrational customs tariff increase, while huge potential economic resources languish and remain ignored across the country?

But much more serious would be the indelible stain made by the new customs regulations, stigmatizing the history of Cuba with an action comparable to the brutal measures of the embargo, OFAC [the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Office Control], and the embargo-strengthening Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts.


13 thoughts on “The Impact of Cuba’s New Customs Regs

  • October 8, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    Hi Lawrence,

    The more we read, the wider our exchange, the closer we come to finding common ground in our supposedly differing views. I agree fully with your premise except, that Cuba have been literally at a stand still, rightfully defending itself, but at the same time, it is been subjected to a “wasting” “debilitating” position imposed from abroad, which have begun to have its effect on the country’s youth, affected by scarcities, lack of basic resources and leading them to think only of migrating.

    Among the many things my limited knowledge and experience of the US-Cuba stalemate could suggest, is to introduce and immediately achieve greater results towards either weakening beyond repair or outright demolishing the embargo/blockade in a very short time, is the following option:

    Promote among 80 million retirees in our hemisphere, many of whom are living slightly above the poverty line, suffocated by the never-ending increases in their cost of living, safety breakdown, violence against the aging, adverse weather, high cost of housing, food, medicine and total disregard by a community too busy to care, while thousands of prime vacant lots in valleys, waterfront, suburban, hillside or inner city through the length and breath of Cuba are ignored and where none of our guests, would ever fear being assaulted, raped, robbed or murdered, as it commonly occur in their respective countries and most importantly, they would be able to live comfortably with their actual basic income.

    This simple concept would mean, billions of dollars in housing income for Cuba, the creation of hundreds of thousands of well paid jobs in healthcare, senior care, recreation, personal care, transportation and travel, generating hundreds of millions of additional dollars, which could begin to finance the huge development the country demands to move out of its present stagnation.

    What could the United States do to stop its senior citizen from relocating to Cuba in search of conditions their country have proven incapable of providing? Will their retirement funds be frozen and subjected to hunger as they tried to do to Cubans?

    Would the United States deny their citizens a visa or send out the Coast Guard to stop and shoot at those sailing towards a better, affordable, safe living conditions?

    How can anyone, anywhere, argue in favor of keeping the Embargo/Blockade in place, when their own citizens have chosen to live in the “hell” they have described and is now denounced by the actions of their citizens, by unmasking false assumptions, lies and wicked effect the embargo exerts on the citizens of Cuba, for whom they will become exceptional eye witnesses?

    Dear Lawrence, what legal instruments would Cuba require to implement a project as simple as this, except for the screening of all applicants for proper social behavior, addictions or perversions?

    How difficult could it become to further release small and mid size business to provide the services, hundreds of thousands of new, semi-permanent residents would require to live in comfort?

    This is just one, of the many options under the rug, that could expedite the demise or demolition of what Cuba can only relish in October, when the UN, in what have become a yearly ritual, list all of those countries who oppose, denounce and decry the cruel US embargo and the 2-3 accomplices who support this monster, to no avail.

    There are viable options. There are ways of testing its feasability. There are ways of reversing this project in face of an adverse outcome. There should never be the unwillingness to try, explore and evaluate!

  • September 24, 2012 at 10:10 am


    Thank-you for joining the conversation. You succinctly and concisely summarized what the US blockade represents. Perhaps, as you wrote, we can reach other common understandings through a fruitful exchange of ideas.

    You write that I have “tried to convince us all, that standing firm, not coming up with innovative, creative ideas, that may alter the status quo, is the way for Cuba to go, even if this leads to the biblical Lot become a pile of salt.”

    I suppose I have, not out of desire, but out of believing what is possible is limited in the current circumstance except to stand firm – what armies in combat have to do when offensives are not possible without losing ground, or the war.

    The ‘Tokyo Roses’ of this website would have us believe it is a lost cause, attempting to win with propaganda what has been unwinnable through other means.

    The ‘Griffin’s of this website would have us believe that surrendering to the persecutor is the only way to come out ahead.

    And you, as I read it, feel that it is possible, with “creative ideas, methods, devices” to ‘bore holes in the blockade. I would argue that this is what the Cuban government has been trying to do, and is trying to do with the current reforms. Can it do better? Maybe, but it is up against enormous odds that are almost impossible to imagine, possibly more enormous than any other country in the world has ever had to face, maybe throughout history.

    The odds for success are not good but it is still possible if Cubans can come to terms with the Tokyo Roses, the defeatists and those who have unreasonable expectations for what ‘creative ideas, methods and devices can achieve.

    I believe some things can certainly be done – different things, by Cubans and by its friends outside Cuba. I don’t think that tying into young Cubans’ unrest without offering a perspective of what it’s really like outside Cuba – not the proliferation of consumer goods available here, both useful and junk, more the latter I’m afraid – but of what’s missing – what really matters for citizens’ general well-being, is being helpful.

    There is no question what you wrote, that the US blockade that Cubans have had to endure, with “tremendous dignity and at incredible price in human suffering for half a century” is outrageous. It is what all nations and groups have to endure when they are under a state of siege. By definition, they are crimes against humanity.

    But we are not “still debating the cause, effect and consequence”, I think. Those are all well-known. We are trying to agree on the best way of dealing with it.

    We certainly agree that ending the US blockade will prove one way or another what the Cuban government is capable of.

    I believe the crux of our differences lie with what we feel the Cuban government can do at this time. You write it has “supplanted thoughtful thinking, creativity, the ingenuity of the 1960-70, skepticism and fear mongering of regime change by those with vested interest in keeping things in Cuba As IS.”

    That is possible. Prolonged struggles are inevitably corrupting. With the imposition of the US blockade – blockades are commonly characterised as a declaration of war, one of the reasons US propagandists prefer the term embargo – the Cuban Revolution has never been allowed to reach a state of completion.

    And the enemy propagandists of the Revolution leap on any corruption, in vague terms, ignoring the monolithic corruption that is common in their own country that make Cuban government officials look like angels in comparison.

    To see if we can reach some common ground, I put this forward for your consideration, to see if we can agree on what Cuba is up against in order to achieve a realistic picture of what Cuba’s government is capable of doing.

    Cuba has had to contend with, for more than 50 years, the ambitions of the most powerful country on earth that is currently exhibiting behaviour that can only be described as like someone drunk on power, that exhibits no values whatsoever except the pursuit of power and world control, that has been successful at selling to its people ideas formulated by its elite class, utilizing the full power of its monolithic marketing industry, developed for selling products, required as the basis of capitalist systems.

    Under the circumstances, calling for “the day, when decency, morality and justice will return to our hemisphere on behalf of the victims,” however noble, is more in the realm of an unreachable fairy tale than a blueprint for what practicably can be done.

    The increasing disparity of income in the US is placing ever-increasing power in the hands of the few. The concomitant increase in power of special interest groups has had a direct effect on what Cuba is up against, remembering that Torricelli and Helms-Burton that codified the blockade into law were not installed until the 90s, 30 years after its imposition.

    As you wrote, “There are millions of well intended and not so well intended proposals on the table.” I would point out it introduces an additional challenge for Cubans – having to sort out the well intended from the not so well intended who disguise their motives and are an incessant presence on this website.

    I don’t place you in this category, but sometimes friends can be your worst enemy as the aphorism goes.

    I am not saying in any way that the Cuban government is perfect, near perfect or even suitable for Cubans. I am a staunch believer in participatory democracy and egalitarianism. As such, I could well be seen as an enemy of the current Cuban government.

    If there was no change in how the Cuban government operated after the US blockade was lifted, I would be the first one to decry it.

    But, there is a war on, instituted by the US. All governments act differently when they are under threat. Canada has a “war measures act” that grants the government dictatorial powers in times of crisis. There is an equivalent in the US, recently ‘enhanced’ which, using “terrorism’ as an excuse, is allowing it to invoke extra-legal procedures in times of peace involving torture, renditions, extra-legal assassinations and suspension of habeas corpus, far out-stripping anything the Cuban government has used.

    Due to the ongoing war, yes I would hope Cubans will ‘stand firm’ and understand what their government is up against. I have hopes that the arrogance the US is currently exhibiting around the world will result in countries insisting on putting some teeth into their annual toothless affirmation at the UN opposing the blockade, but economic forces will no doubt be the major influence, both within and without the US that will be the driving force for change, I think.

    I admit, it’s not a very rosy picture, but surrender is neither. The choices are both difficult, essentially “eventually you will be free of the US Empire” vs “you will never be free but if you behave, you will receive the same benefits trusties get in prisons”.

    It’s a tough choice for Cubans. It’s their decision to make. For my part, I’m trying to offer them a perspective of what it’s really like in capitalist countries and to identify the tainted or ill-advised advice they are getting, exclusively emanating from citizens of the country that is the main source of their misery, whilst, unsurprisingly, putting the blame on the Cuban government.

    We can discuss individual things you feel the Cuban government could do without threatening its existence as an autonomous government of Cuba. I have stated two – opening up travel and making the internet more widely available. Both involve risks but I think they are worth taking.

    I’m not sure what your point was about my car metaphor. All metaphors risk being simplistic but I feel it suited the point I was making that you indicated you are in agreement with – look at the overall cause of a problem before trying to fix ones that may dependent on the overall problem.

  • September 24, 2012 at 7:03 am

    You wrote previously about how lifting the blockade would not “poof”, suddenly improve the Cuban economy. Now you write it would, but not improve the lives of Cubans, confusing, I think, the way things work in your capitalist country with the way it works in Cuba. In your country, ‘improving the economy’ means improving the economy for the elites, typically at the expense of the rest of us.

    ‘Griffin’ now writes that lifting the blockade “would be a large and difficult undertaking” for the US that is, requiring the dismantling of a couple of pieces of US legislation that codified the blockade in the 90’s, 30 years after it began. Various sections have been reversed by executive order since – the US is increasingly giving its president powers that don’t require legislative approval.

    ‘Griffin’ writes, if Cubans kowtowed “to the requirements stipulated” in the US laws, there would be no more ‘difficulties’. The arrogance of yankee imperialism seems to have no bounds. Once you start kowtowing, of course, there’s no easy turning back as countries soon learn – including my own.

    The Americans certainly seem to like to get what they want through torture – torturing Cuban citizens with their economic blockade in this case. The blandishments ‘Griffin’ offers reminds me of an interrogator who, after water-boarding you, tells you how your difficulties’ will end if you just give him what he wants.

    ‘Griffin’ can only imagine the blockade being lifted by ‘magic’, despite the whole world, save Israel and the US, wanting it removed, displaying yet more yankee arrogance. Bertrand Russell, in his book, “Power”, wrote that it is arrogance that inevitably has brought down powerful, seemingly invincible empires throughout history. Arrogance causes this basic fact to be ignored by the powerful – which is what makes it inevitable.

    ‘Griffin’s magical thinking imagines a scenario where the dual currency system would cause problems – forgetting, or hoping we will, that it came about because of the blockade and would naturally disappear with it.

    ‘Griffin’ also asks “where would all the resources & supplies come from to service the mushrooming tourism industry?”, again incapable of understanding, or hoping we won’t, what is possible without an economic blockade being in place.

    ‘Griffin’s magical thinking sees Cubans “working effectively as slaves for a tiny wage to serve American tourists”, forgetting that more well-off Cubans at the moment are people who work in the tourist industry.

    Boilerplate propaganda rhetoric follows – “people locked under the heal of the Castro dictatorship”. I’m always reminded of how Communist countries always used repetitive demonizing phrases like. “capitalist imperialist pigs”, for example. Interesting. You wouldn’t think US propagandists would ape that element, would you?

    ‘Griffin’ then presents us with his magical thinking scenario – “the US & Cuba sit down together and negotiate a series of steps by which they would move toward lifting both embargoes.” Translation: Cuba gives its economy over to capitalist neo-liberal ideology – the same ideology that has brought the world to the brink of economic collapse – dominated by the US, and the US will stop torturing the Cuban people with its economic blockade.

    ‘Griffin’s magical thinking continues, becoming a full-blown fantasy – “the US allows more travel of US citizens to Cuba, and Cuba allows freer travel for Cuban citizens. Notice how the US is restricting its citizens from traveling, like Cuba? Once a capitalist-friendly government is in place, they won’t be able to afford to travel having to continue to float across the Straits of Florida just as Mexicans have to swim the Rio Grande.

    The fantasy continues, the US and Cuba will move on “to diplomatic, communications, democracy, financial & trade issues.” Translation: Cuba will become another member of the US Empire, the 51st state?

    ‘Griffin’ finishes with the fantasy suddenly becoming a reality – “This approach has the advantages of avoiding a disastrous shock to the Cuban system” – it’s called graduated imperialism – “while also rewarding mutual trust through a gradual path toward normalized relations” – full membership as a client state of the US Empire, or “b2b” status – back to Batista days.

    ‘Griffin’ ends with, “Certainly, it’s better than the current situation, isn’t it?” There’s that interrogator-torturer role again.

    ‘Griffin’s fantasies are certainly telling. Do you think he might be a “capitalist imperialist pig”? lol.

    And the curtain descends on another fantasy of Walt Disney proportions. Only there is no happy ending in this one.

  • September 23, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    There are millions of well intended and not so well intended proposals on the table to end what everyone should agree upon: The imposition of a powerful, foreign country unilateral destructive decisions upon a small, sovereign nation, only because of its inability to strike back, causing unspeakable pain, suffering and deaths, on people who have done no harm to the United States, must end!

    For the handful of faithful, who still attempt to justify the embargo, by alledging US business confiscation in Cuba after 1959, the illiteracy campaign, the defeat in Playa Giron, the Missile Crisis, becoming communist, foreign military itervention, freedom of speech, human rights violations, terrorist nation etc., etc., is nothing more than a smoke screen to justify a shameful crime.

    Anyone interested in a list of countries with which the US has close and friendly ties, that meet and exceed all of the above? Why this personal, selective, congressional decision that applies only to Cuba another 3-4 countries out of 200 in the world?

    Having settled this basic and irrefutable principle, let me take this hopefully fruitful exchange one step further.

    In Lawrence case, who have tried to convince us all, that standing firm, not coming up with innovative, creative ideas, that may alter the status quo, is the way for Cuba to go, even if this leads to the biblical Lot become a pile of salt.

    Cuba have done that with tremendous dignity and at incredible price in human suffering for half a century and we are still debating the cause, effect and consequence?

    Therefore, the idea of replacing an engine of a car that runs out of gas, is nothing more than a typical, dogmatic, self serving proposition, that helps no one, advances no cause, except a partisan, feel-good, self serving speech. Been there, seen that, done that!!

    Logic suggests, that everyone interested in ending the embargo/blockade, should carefully study and come up with creative ideas, methods, devices that are capable of boring holes in it, just as the US Treasury Department spend millions tracking every possible Cuban transactions to confiscate its resources, shut down sources of acquiring raw materials, spare parts etc., in addition to the eonomic, media and bioterror warfare.

    Let’s stop the hypotethics of what will happen when the embargo is lifted and Cuba is flooded with tourists. This is just another form of scare tactics, that have not happened since its inception. When that day arrive, the Cuban people will cross that bridge. In the meantime, all efforts should be to expedite the day, when decency, morality and justice will return to our hemisphere on behalf of the victims.

    Many predicts the Cuban government will do nothing if the American government changes its abusive behaviour against Cuba, that have earned it much animosity around the world. Why not do it and end the speculation and see what happens?

    If Cuba took a carefully pro-active stance with similar views, there are hundreds of things that Cuba can do, without having to resort to Think Tank analyses, that the United States illegal embargo could not stop and by spontaneous generation, would demolish this half a century war of attrition, which have began to bear its fruits, through a worsening of the economy, loss of hope, joblessness, collapsing buildings and endless debate by those leading the country.

    Any doubts, ask any old untrained, hungry, sich Cuban for ideas?

    Cuba’s worst enemy at this time, is a lack of action, that have supplanted thoughtful thinking, creativity, the ingenuity of the 1960-70, skepticism and fear mongering of regime change by those with vested interest in keeping things in Cuba As IS.

    They will loose, intelligence will prevail and Cuba will be what it is destined to be, for itself and millions in need around the world.

  • September 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    We already discussed why lifting the embargo without Cuban first meeting the requirements stipulated in the several embargo related laws would be a large and difficult under taking. It can’t be done simply by Obama issuing an executive order, “Lift the embargo!”

    But for this moment, let’s assume the embargo is magically lifted: what next?

    There would be a flood of tourists from the US to Cuba, providing a huge boost the the Cuban economy. But would it improve the lives of all Cubans? Not likely. With the dual currency system still in place, the flood of dollars would set off rapid inflation. The local peso would drop even further in value. Those with access to dollars would prosper, while those stuck in the peso economy will suffer more than ever.

    Where would all the resources & supplies come from to service the mushrooming tourism industry? Remember, the Cuban internal embargo is still in place. Cuba will still have problems importing goods, and they still suffer from low productivity and make very little that other countries want to import. The limited resources would flow to the tourism sector, while other more worthwhile sectors would lose. Consider the ugly irony of it all: Cubans would be working effectively as slaves for a tiny wage to serve American tourists, the people locked under the heal of the Castro dictatorship. Is that the future the Cuban revolutions was fought for?

    Here’s a better scenario: the US & Cuba sit down together and negotiate a series of steps by which they would move toward lifting both embargoes. They identify related issues and commit to resolving them, so that piece by piece, brick by brick, both the internal and external embargoes are removed. For example: the US allows more travel of US citizens to Cuba, and Cuba allows freer travel for Cuban citizens. They move on to diplomatic, communications, democracy, financial & trade issues. This approach has the advantages of avoiding a disastrous shock to the Cuban system, while also rewarding mutual trust through a gradual path toward normalized relations.

    Certainly, it’s better than the current situation, isn’t it?

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