The Impact of Cuba’s New Customs Regs

Alberto N. Jones

Cuban Customs. Photo: cubadebate.cu

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

  • September 23, 2012 at 8:51 am
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    Of course ending the US blockade “will not suddenly improve the Cuban economy” but things are going to move pretty damn fast when you look at the myriad of difficulties it is causing that will come to an end. For starters, US businesses are going to fall all over themselves in order to get a piece of the trade action. They are lined up now.

    And from its end, Cuba is ready and waiting as well. Plans for building golf courses all over Cuba – there’s only one, in Varadero at present – and marinas have been drawn up, waiting for tourists from a country with 10 times the population of Canada that currently supplies the most tourists, whose closest border is 90 miles away, not more than 1500.

    It will be pretty close to the “poof’ your buddy ‘Moses’ wrote about.

    You try hard to make the case there is an elite in Cuba equivalent to what exists in your country. You HAVE been to Cuba, haven’t you? Maybe not. There is certainly some wealth and power differentials but compared to capitalism, the privileged in Cuba would be looked on as poor white trash in your country.

    Of course the import tariffs will go into “govt coffers”. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but in your country, the money flows right out again into the hands of bankers and businesses and whatever elites your government chooses to bail out.

    You must be so accustomed to seeing it happen you think that’s the only way it works. Which is why it’s so valuable to have another working economic model around, don’t you think? And why you are so afraid of letting it succeed I suppose.

    No matter how hard you try to make it seem otherwise, the main problem seems to be, “it’s the blockade, stupid”. Let’s drop it and see if that’s true. What can it hurt? We know what the hurt is with it in place, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern of yours.

  • September 23, 2012 at 8:11 am
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    I second everything ‘Luis’ wrote and also noting the insanity of what ‘Moses’ writes, characterizing democracy as something the US ‘gives’ to people instead of it being something people give to themselves – what democracy is all about.

    Even if the US was a neutral player – hardly the case in light of its 50-year history of actively working to bring the Cuban government down – it’s hardly the business of the US to ‘bring’ democracy to Cuba, or anyone else for that matter.

    And as ‘Luis’ wrote, the version of democracy the US has is unrecognizable as democracy – why the elites in his country love it and why ”Moses’ writes, “Once democracy [US style] exists in Cuba there will be economic change.” There sure will be, just as ‘Luis’ describes.

    No one wrote that by eliminating the blockade, “poof! somehow, productivity will increase and buildings will stop falling down.” What WAS written is that the blockade must end before a government that has had to come to terms with it since its beginning can be judged.

    If a car is out of gas, you don’t decide to change the engine in order to get the car moving. At least I wouldn’t. ‘Moses’ seems to want to. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t like the brand of engine that’s installed. Some people do really stupid things like that. Not in Cuba, however.

    Still talking, and my fingers are doing the walking…

  • September 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm
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    Ending the embargo will not suddenly improve the Cuban economy. Cuba has a serious and growing trade imbalance, rising inflation, low productivity and a crippling dual currency system. They also have a very poor credit rating.

    The import tariffs have been imposed to further the central goal of the limited economic reforms introduced in the last few years: to direct the flow of foreign exchange into the govt coffers and the pockets of the powerful & connected. The excuse of fighting corruption is used to justify the actions, but the result is the further concentration of wealth among the Cuban 1%.

  • September 22, 2012 at 2:59 pm
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    “he Cuban people (not just the Castros) will determine economic policy ”

    No, the ‘democracy’ the US wants to impose to Cuba is the one that bankers, landlords and corporations will determine the economic policy. It always have and it will always will, not only for Cuba, but for many, many countries where Uncle Sam puts its finger on.

  • September 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm
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    An economic tool (US embargo) is being used to bring about a political change in Cuba (democracy). Once democracy exists in Cuba there will be economic change. The Cuban people (not just the Castros) will determine economic policy and the most productive strategies will prevail. You seem to suggest the reverse. Eliminate the embargo and poof! somehow, productivity will increase and buildings will stop falling down. If there were no embargo tomorrow, crops will not grow faster and buildings will not magically strengthen themselves. You talk the talk but there is no walk there….

  • September 20, 2012 at 8:21 am
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    Let’s see, so you admit the US blockade “has clearly succeeded” in causing suffering for the Cuban people but it continues to be imposed in order to bring down a government whose actions cannot be properly assessed until Cuba’s state of siege ends (see my comment below for the logic of it).

    Eliminate the blockade and we will see of course, but you don’t mind continuing a policy that “has clearly succeeded” in causing suffering, which is a worry.

    If, after eliminating the blockade, Cubans see their economic problems continuing, that will provide plenty of evidence for THEM to come to terms with it. They hardly need an American’s advice on this I think – a citizen of the country that “has clearly succeeded” in causing suffering for the Cuban people has rather tainted credentials in the caring department.

    But you do seem to like to rub salt in Cubans’ wounds by reminding them of their economic burden. Somehow your ‘caring’ seems hollow in light of what your country has “clearly succeeded in doing, as you admit.

  • September 20, 2012 at 7:58 am
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    Orlando,

    Your history of supplying humanitarian relief to Cuba is laudable but limited, I feel, to focusing on band-aided solutions, much like the Red Cross and first-responder aid organizations. Whilst providing valuable and needed services, their mission statement clearly declares they address immediate need and not the reasons for the need.

    In your last paragraph you finally acknowledge the “brutal measures” of the US blockade of Cuba, OFAC and the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts, designed to strengthen the blockade.

    But you seem to acknowledge the reality of the blockade only in order to write that Cuba’s customs regulations would appear “much more serious” if there was no blockade. Your argument begs the question – if there was no blockade, would the regulations be the same? You actually inadvertently indicate they would not by citing a variety of other countries in the region without them, but failing to note these countries are NOT under a US blockade.

    You write that the regulations and the blockade are comparable in brutality, yet you choose to provide a lengthy criticism of the government of the country you are no longer a citizen of and let the government of the one you are currently living in – presumably one you could be directly pressuring as a citizen – off the hook with only a one sentence acknowledgement of the role it plays in equally brutalizing Cuban people.

    We cannot pretend that charity represents coming to terms with the reason why there is need for handouts. Supporters of the US blockade claim it is the fault of Cuba’s government and if Cubans changed their government their economic problems would be solved. My response always is, drop the blockade and we will see.

    You write, “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,” implicitly defining the “entities” as components of the Cuban government, whilst ignoring the US “entity” that has, by your admission, at least equal responsibility for those severe shortages leading to difficulties in acquisition – resulting in nothing to distribute or sell.

    You write, the Cuban government has “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.” Cuba has been under siege for those same decades – as long as the Revolution has been governing. We need for the external blockade to end before we can determine what internal blockades exist. It seems only logical.

    You write, “countries don’t punish themselves by preventing the importation of specific products to any of their citizens.” Canada effectively prevents imports by levying high tariffs on products they don’t want brought in. The choice of tariff’ed items is determined by business lobbyists who want to restrict competition. Despite having a so-called free trade agreement – the notorious NAFTA – reality strikes whenever Canadians import anything from cars to DVDs.

    You write, “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.”

    None, of course are under a US blockade. Drop the blockade and we will see what eventuates

    You write, “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.”

    My response, using your words, if the US government followed a policy that is rational, logical, humane and consistent with the needs and suffering of the Cuban 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.”

    It is only logical. You have stated US policies and Cuba’s customs regulations are comparable in causing suffering.

    In summary, what I am saying is, it is illogical to assume that all of Cuba’s problems are the result of the US blockade. But it is equally illogical to blame the Cuban government when there is a Mammoth-sized elephant stalking the region that needs to be dealt with before we can understand what the internal problems really are.

    Why does the US insist on not allowing Cubans and the rest of the world to know what problems are caused by Cuba’s government by dropping the blockade? I can only speculate on why. Do you know, Orlando, as a former Cuban who has lived in the US for decades, who seems to care for the Cuban people and not one who is focused on bringing about regime change so they can return to their former privileged existence in Cuba?

  • September 19, 2012 at 7:41 pm
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    While the US embargo against Cuba has clearly succeeded in only half of its original purpose, that is to cause suffering for the Cuban people, it is the self-imposed embargo that has proven to be the most harmful. Customs regulations are just the latest layer. The 240% import tax on foreign-made products, the low salaries, the requirement that Cubans pay 150 cuc (slightly more than a year´s salary in Cuba) for an exit travel permit, and many other Cuban on Cuban restrictions are far worse and impactful on the everyday lives of Cubans.

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