Alberto N. Jones
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.