14ymedio, Havana, 4 January 2021 — Cuban commerce was just beginning to take off when it suffered another blow. The Government of Havana’s restrictions on the number of flights that can come to Cuba, which came into force on January 1, has been bad news for the mules who feed Cuba’s informal networks, and bad news for their customers.
“We thought that the reduction of flights was not going to be so hard but for Copa Airlines, of the 20 weekly flights they flew before, only three are left,” laments Randy, a 43-year-old from Havana who managed to travel in December, after the restart of regular flights at the José Martí International Airport in Havana.
“I flew out, I did a lot of shopping because I went with my wife, but the products flew out of our hands. People were like crazy,” he explains to 14ymedio. Randy details that among the products they brought were “coffee, soap, toothpaste, bouillon cubes, cumin and oregano, and hair care products.”
Panama is one of the most popular destinations for Cubans who shop abroad. In 2018, the manager of the Colon Free Zone, Manuel Grimaldo, acknowledged that more than 15,000 Cubans were arriving annually at that time and spending about 100 million dollars. In view of the success, the Panamanian Government authorized a five-year visa and multiple entries for residents of the island.
“I had already bought another ticket to go in the middle of this month, but I don’t know how my situation will turn out now,” he laments. “On the airline’s website they tell me that I won’t lose my money and that I can reschedule my flight until December 31 of this year, but my urgency was to go now because I left merchandise I bought there and they were orders from people who already paid me.”
Offers for many products that had returned to the classifieds pages with the reinstatement of flights are now sold out and advertisers are quick to warn interested parties that, until further notice or until travel is normalized, the situation will remain the same.
The eight months with Cuban airspace closed hit the informal traders hard in 2020. Many of them had to reconvert themselves into resellers of products bought in national stores, or into coleros (people who stand in line for others for pay), or messengers for food delivery businesses, using electric motorcycles imported from abroad.
The reopening of the country’s main international airport, which began on November 15 in Havana, was a brief relief for them. The rise in the number of cases of Covid-19, many of them caught from people who came from abroad, forced the authorities to make decisions. But this time, they chose not to cancel all commercial flights as they had in April, but to reduce the flow of travelers from the countries believed to be the main importers of the virus to the Island.
The Panamanian Embassy in Havana posted on its Facebook page, “The Government of Cuba reported that, given the current national epidemiological situation, the frequency of flights from certain countries, including Panama, will be reduced. As of January 1, 2021, the number of flights to and from Panama will be reduced, by virtue of a decision of the Government of Cuba. The frequency of flights will gradually resume when the Cuban health authorities determine it.”
In the list of countries that are most affected by reductions in the number of flights are the shopping destinations most visited by Cubans: the United States, Mexico, Panama, Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There are no restrictions for other nations that have appeared frequently in the statistics of imported cases of Covid-19 such as Russia. The United Kingdom and South Africa are countries with a new strain of Covid-19 on which there are strong international restrictions, and which is not in Cuba. The first is one of the main sources of European tourism to the Island.
Some airlines have done worse, such as Air Century, which has had to indefinitely suspend all the flights it made every Tuesday between Santo Domingo and Havana. “We deeply regret the inconvenience that this measure, beyond the control of the company, may cause in their plans. Affected passengers may reschedule their flight dates,” explained the company, which made several telephone numbers available to customers.
“My sister bought me the ticket from there to spend her birthday together and, incidentally, bring some merchandise, but she has been calling the numbers provided by Air Century for days and there is no way to communicate,” Lisandra, a woman from Matanzas, told this newspaper. She travels up to five times a year to the Dominican Republic to bring products. “I was left with a packed suitcase and no hope of traveling soon.”
With their luggage packed, the customers of the 20 weekly flights that the Mexican company Viva Aerobús has suspended have also stayed. “Passengers who have a ticket purchased on any of the suspended flights should contact the travel agency with which they made their purchase to be rescheduled to the closest flight and route with availability,” the company detailed on its Facebook account.
Mexico’s Viva Aerobús has substantially reduced its flights but maintains the connection between Havana and Cancun. The itinerary between Cancun and Camagüey will be flown only on Wednesdays, between Cancun and Holguín, on Tuesdays, and between Mexico City and Havana, on Saturdays.
“I had already booked the apartment where I was going to stay and everything,” explains a Cuban clothing and footwear supplier who, before the pandemic, made the itinerary between Havana and Cancun up to three times a week to supply his goods to the informal market. “Now I will have to wait, but the hardest part is all the dreams I had for myself. Go to the stores, eat a whole chicken or a good beef steak without lining up.”
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