14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 15 June 2018 — “You have to be calm until the wave passes,” says Rubén, 28, an informal vendor of vitamins and ointments from Miami. “Right now there are fewer products coming into the country and it is better not to risk it because in the airports they are more strict.”
Last week the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) threatened to confiscate packages sent from the United States through people who travel specifically to the island to bring goods and who are hired by shipping agencies based in the US.
To all his customers interested in products such as Omega 3, creams to relieve back pain or popular nutritional supplements, the merchant promises that he will have supplies “in two weeks.” And he says, “Here, the same people put the squeeze on you, and back off.”
After the declarations from Customs “we must take extreme precautions and avoid bringing a lot of the same product,” explains Rubén. “The ‘mulas’ (mules) are warned that they should not transport sealed packages, because that sets off the alarms that these are things are going to be delivered to different customers,” he says.
Parcel shipments through southern Florida agencies that the Island’s Government considers illegal have skyrocketed in recent years. The recipients on the Island are the relatives of Cubans who have emigrated, and also small businesses that have been opened due to the economic flexibilizations pushed by Raul Castro.
The economist Emilio Morales, director of the Miami-based consulting firm The Havana Consulting Group, estimates that 90% of shipments arriving in the country come from the United States. The value of the goods that were sent last year amounted to 3 billion dollars, Morales told 14ymedio.
The practice of carrying the packages has grown among some emigrants who see working as mule a chance to visit their relatives on the Island with the costs of the plane ticket covered. After the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana, direct commercial flights were restored, one of the things that triggered these shipments.
The most common products sent through the mules are medicines, appliances, clothes, footwear and also dehydrated or canned foods. “A good part of the country ends up with something from these shipments because those who don’t get a package directly end up benefiting from the contents of packages received by others,” says Raima Gutiérrez, a hairdresser in a private business.
“Here the products we use, such as dyes and peroxide, come in with the mules because in the national stores they are very expensive, of poor quality and often are not the most wanted colors,” Gutiérrez says. “In this last week we’ve had to tell several clients that they’ll have to wait for the packages to arrive because they are paralyzed on the other side”.
Raima’s mother is anxiously awaiting a blood pressure monitor that a niece sent her from West Palm Beach. A neighbor of the family says that her “package” is stranded in Miami without daring to send it, while one of the hairdresser’s customer tells the story of his brother who had a dozen suitcase locks he brought from Madrid in his luggage confiscated.
The mules have reason to worry because the director of Technical Customs himself, José Luis Muñoz Toca, said in a press conference that more than three tons of products people tried to bring into the country through the shipping networks were confiscated. So far in 2018 the authorities have detected 113 cases of trafficking in merchandise.
In the eyes of the authorities, there are 29 agencies based in the United States operating in an unauthorized manner to send goods to the island “through travelers who bring them in exchange for payment or compensation.” In South Florida, companies like XAEL Habana, Va Cuba, Cubamax Travel, Viajes Coppelia, Habana Air, Blue Cuba Travels and Central America Cargo have been banned.
The authorities blame the intensification of the controls on the fact that these agencies “do not have official contracts with Cuban companies authorized to carry out these operations,” while promoting the use of the officially approved companies to send parcels to the Island.
The importing of these goods is “a commercial transaction,” the authorities complain, and the contents of personal baggage, when it is used to transport commercial packages, are “subject to the administrative sanction of confiscation, if there is no more serious crime.”
“If they would let us bring in merchandise to maintain these businesses, in a legal and transparent manner, we would not have to engage in all these illegalities,” says Hilario, 47, an interior designer. This has been one of the great demands of the self-employed sector that aspires to obtain the right to import and export freely, along with the possibility of having a wholesale market.
“All the stores are state-owned and staples are very expensive,” the man says. “Without the monthly package, with toothpaste, soap and bouillon cubes that my sister sends me, everything would be more difficult.” The designer also receives materials that he needs for his work. “I was expecting good caladors and a laser to measure rooms, but now everything is stopped,” says Hilario.
The sharing of a video filmed at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, in which two Venezuelan women are seen being beaten and arrested for allegedly transporting merchandise to the island, has added fuel to the fire of fears.
The images have circulated widely via wifi or Bluetooth on mobile phones. “If this is what happens to foreigners what is in store for Cubans,” says Hilario.
Venezuelan journalist Elyangelica González recorded the images of the arrest of Yussely and Amanda López, who say they were beaten by immigration personnel after they were not admitted after an attempt to confiscate their luggage.
The Venezuelans claimed the contents of their luggage were gifts for the doctors who operated on their father and other friends on the island. Both deny that the products were going to be marketed.
Cuban Customs has also intensified in recent months the controls against the so-called Venezuelan “bachaqueros” (black-marketeers), who use the island to sell some products and buy food and dollars to take back to their country.
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