A Turn of the Screw Against the Informal Market / 14ymedio

14ymedio, Havana, 30 May 2014 – A regulation of the General Customs of the Republic, published last Wednesday, has sellers of imported products and other private traders on edge. The official document includes new restrictions on travelers carrying goods to Cuba.

The measure adds to an escalation against the private market that hit a low point last December 31 when the government closed the so-called boutiques and outlets of varied merchandise, run by the self-employed. Many of these vendors transitioned to illegality, now offering their wares via catalogs that circulate hand to hand.

The Official Gazette has put special emphasis on warning of administrative or criminal liability for anyone who brings “foreign packages” to the Island. A direct reference to the so-called “mules” who bring clothing, shoes and other products sent by Cuban exiles to their families on the Island.

A video posted on the website of the Official Gazette shows a dramatization of the arrival of a traveler with 150 USB flash drives. On being questioned, the visitor said he did not know the contents of what he had brought because it came from another person who was sending it to his family.

For Antonio Tapia, who just bought an iPod through the classifieds website Revolico.com, it is “significant that Customs has chosen to issue their warning through these new technologies.” According to him, “For weeks we’ve been under a barrage of official propaganda against these technologies and now this shows up.”

The informal sellers are also very worried. On Reina Street in downtown Havana several outlets for imported clothing have been closed since the beginning of the year. However, most have continued to provide their customers with a wide range of dresses, brand name shoes and jewelry, although now they must do so illegally. “It gets worse and worse,” says Yanaisa, who has a boutique specializing in women’s underwear.

At José Martí International Airport Terminal 2, 14ymedio spoke with recent arrivals coming off a flight from Florida. So far no one has said they perceived a change in customs searches compared to previous trips. Carmen, age 61 and living in New Jersey, said that she was “very scared” when she heard about the measure because she always comes “loaded with gifts and commissions from others.” However, she reported “no problems of any kind” entering the country.

The effects of this new turn of the screw on the importing on merchandise could start to be felt in the coming weeks. But at the same time, in the words of Ruben Eduardo, a seller of computer parts, “We can always invent something.”