Cuba: The Other Embargo / Ivan Garcia

Cuban_and_American_Flag-560x330Although you can fly coach from Miami to Havana in less than forty-five minutes, the customs duties and price of an airline ticket are enough to give you a heart attack.

For Cuban residents living in Florida, it is probably cheaper to travel to Europe than to visit their relatives. The Castro regime has a secret weapon against the embargo that the United States imposed on the island in 1962.

The answer has been to milk Cuban exiles scattered across half the world, particularly those living on the other shore. Without fanfare, the Castro regime has created a formidable industry out of the sweat and sacrifice of emigres.

At the end of the 1970s, the inefficient Cuban economy squandered billions of rubles, fuel and material resources from the former USSR. A good part of this flow of money was set aside for Fidel Castro’s favorite project: destabilizing governments on the American continent and Africa through subversion.

His hidden agenda was to create an alliance of third-world countries that would stand up to “Yankee imperialism.”  This strategy cost a lot of money.

In the beginning, hard currency was obtained through raids on banks and sequestration of million-dollar companies on the part of pro-Castro groups in America. And it was kept in accounts managed by the Cuban government.

Another form of getting Gringo dollars was turning to the world market to sell part of the petroleum that the USSR had sent to Cuba.  But it wasn’t enough. Subversion is pricey.

It was then that leaders in Havana gave a sidelong glance to the north.  In southern Florida lay an opulent treasure. Hard-working Cubans had triumphed thanks to democracy, economic freedom and personal creativity.

A new strategy was devised.  The dollars of those formerly classified as “worms” by the regime now were needed to open accounts in hard-currency personally managed by the sole commander. Evoking “family reunification” in 1978 they established flights so that the Cuban community in the United States could visit their poor relatives on the island.

Castro didn’t care much about family.  It was a matter of business. Years before, writing a card to a parent or sibling residing in the “empire” was almost a crime and more than a few lost their jobs. At the time, it was also a crime to be Catholic, to listen to the Beatles or to wear jeans.

The ideological pirouette of the regime in cozying up to Cubans living in Florida was not a strategy born out of good will or remorse. Not at all. It was delicate handiwork to establish a channel for dollars to flow into the island.

Fidel Castro always had a peculiar philosophy. He considered the United States embargo illegal. Therefore, any way to make a mockery of it was a good option.

When Cuban emigres visited their country in the early 1980s, dollars were exchanged in the airport at one-to-one for pesos. A visitor had to spend money to stay at least three nights in a hotel, even though his family could put him up. A network of exclusive stores was created using dollars and tourist attractions which sold clothes, personal hygiene products and household appliances for the price of gold.

As an alternative, the government simultaneously opened up commercial outlets which exchanged gold and silver jewelry, fine china and paintings by renowned artists for stereo equipment, color televisions and Russian automobiles. When Soviet communism said “adiós,” the Caribbean autocrats strengthened their policies of bridge-building to attract remittances from Cuban exiles.

By 1993 Cubans were allowed to hold dollars legally. At the same time the dual-currency system began operating. There was the CUC or convertible peso, which had considerable buying power, and the Cuban peso, which was significantly devalued.

In the meantime a huge industry was set up in the midst of Florida’s exile community. Agents of the Castro government swarmed through Miami and Tampa picking up cheap merchandise, video games, electronics, computers and cell phone rechargers to sell on the island.

Extortionate-rate commissions were charged. Certainly, Cuban immigrants enjoyed a unique privilege: when they arrived on United States’ soil, they were automatically granted legal residency.

But at the same time they are the only immigrants in the world who have to pay outlandish fees to send money and packages home, to make long-distance phone calls and to reunite with their families.

A Cuban pays on average at least $1,000 to hug his relatives at the Havana airport. The Cuban Interest Section in Washington–the Cuban government’s quasi-embassy in DC–charges $375 for a passport. To renew it six years later costs another $375.

An airline ticket from Florida goes for a little over $440. When the plane lands in Cuba, the visitor had better be ready to open his wallet. The Cuban Customs Service has a long list of duties on a wide variety of items — from $10 for a fan to $400 for a computer.

And he has to pay $5 for every pound of luggage over the proscribed limit. In general this fee is collected by the airlines, not at the airport. Cuban exiles are among the few peoples of the world who have to have a passport to visit their own country. And in the event they are vocal opponents of the regime, they lose their right to even enter the country.

Much has been said about the US embargo. Every year UN delegates vote overwhelmingly to abolish it.

Most of the population as well as a majority of dissidents are also overwhelmingly in favor of lifting the economic and trade embargo. They believe the Castro brothers use it as a pretext for maintaining the political status quo.

The embargo, however, is riddled with holes. When the authorities or their relatives so desire, they can obtain a Hummer, a bottle of Jack Daniels or the latest generation of antibiotics from a third country or even from the United States itself. In Cuban hard-currency stores you can buy anything from a Coca Cola to an HP printer.

But our compatriots in exile must deal with an “embargo” that is not discussed either at the United Nations or by the world’s press. They often must pay too much for any service or any aid they send to their relatives in Cuba. The only crime they committed was that one day they decided to leave the Communist madhouse.

Iván García

 Photo: Cuban and American flags for sale. From

15 October 2013