Iván García, 30 January 2016 — After the American Airlines pilot made a perfect landing with the Boeing 767 on the Terminal Two runway at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, the passengers broke out into applause.
Gisela Mirantes could not contain her tears. “I haven’t come to Cuba for ten years. I am from Pinar del Río and live in New Jersey. I have heard that things have changed for the better here”, she said, before going down the steps to the customs area.
That’s when the tragedy began. Lacking any information, Mirantes had brought three televisions and the same number of PCs. And dozens of presents, domestic appliances and clothes for her poor family in Vueltabajo, all in bulky packages.
“Things are just the same, or worse. Those people in customs are shameless. They charged me $250 for excess baggage, in spite of the fact that in Miami I had already paid this charge to the airline. Then I had to pay $1,200 for bringing a third 42 inch television, because they only allow two televisions and one computer”, she told me angrily, while she was waiting for a taxi on a platform, more like a railway station than an airport.
Raise your hands, any traveller who has not been subject to harassment at the Cuban customs. You are hardly ever received with a smile. They go over your baggage like police frisking a criminal.
The air terminal workers openly offer travellers, arriving or departing from Cuba, to buy or sell dollars in a parallel market. After taking your money and charging an extortionate amount in duties, you get to a window where they exchange your money.
It is a legal casino. Cuba is the only poor third world country where, in spite of having two currencies which don’t float in the foreign exchange markets, they artificially value the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) higher than the US dollar.
“It’s daylight robbery. I came with my wife and children to spend a vacation and they gave me 2,690 convertible pesos for $3,000. Before I have even bought an ice cream I have already had to pay tax”, I was told by a Puerto Rican living in Tampa.
The ridiculous measures taken by Cuban General Customs, who impose duties on things you bring in and have to be paid in foreign currency if you travel more than once a year, make Cubans angry.
Even medical volunteers working in remote locations in the Brazilian Amazon don’t escape. “The government doesn’t even take into consideration that we doctors are the ones that contribute the most foreign currency to the economy. Not satisfied with grabbing more than half of our salaries, every time we return to Cuba we have to leave a large part of our money with Cuban customs”, complained Obdulio, a doctor going to Brazil.
In order to write this report, I tried to talk to a customs official so that he could explain to me why the Cuban state levies such extortionate duties on articles or goods that people bring here to improve the quality of life of the people.
“We don’t give quotes to counter-revolutionary journalists”, someone blurted out at me before hanging up the phone.
The problem is that these measures don’t just affect the “counter-revolutionaries”. Ernesto belongs to a unit of the Communist Party in Old Havana.
Twice a month, his daughter sends him parcels from Canada. “The post only accepts a kilo and a half free of duty. Just think, this weight is equivalent to a pair of mens’ shoes. My daughter sends things to the whole family. For any weight over a kilo and a half she has to pay 20 CUC per extra half kilo. Once she had to pay 80 CUC for one box”.
Camilo, an economist, considers that maintaining these stupid policies on duties and exchange is inappropriate in relation to the newly-revived relationship with the United States.
“Above all, it affects Cubans. Apart from medicines, the customs levies duties on everything over a kilo and a half, including on goods brought by Cubans who travel twice a year. If they want more American tourists to visit Cuba, they should change the dollar-convertible peso exchange rate. It’s a joke that the chavito (CUC) is valued higher than the dollar. This puts a brake on what tourists spend”, Camilo adds.
Apart from the high duties, there is the theft of articles in the airport and the stores where they keep the postal parcels. “And the inadequate handling. They broke the screen of my television by moving it carelessly. Neither the customs nor any other department paid for the damage”, Vilma, a Cuban American, told me.
Right now, three items of news raise the hopes of people on both sides of the water. It is hoped that this summer there will be regular American flights to the island, it is rumoured that the cost of a plane ticket will drop by 30%, and you won’t pay the arbitrary $422 for a return trip of 45 minutes, and that a ferry will start between Havana and Florida.
But, up to now, the Cuban authorities are not considering any reduction in duties, in the landing fees, or any other measures which could help bring down the cost of travel to Cuba. Although the ferry would allow passengers to carry up to 200 pounds each, it seems that the duties will remain as they are.
It is the Castro regime’s silent and effective “blockade*” on its own people.
*Translator’s note: The Cuban government calls the American embargo against Cuba “the blockade” even though it is, technically, an embargo.
Translated by GH