Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Impact of Cuba’s New Customs Regs

The Impact of Cuba's New Customs Regs
September 19, 2012
Alberto N. Jones

HAVANA TIMES — Official statements describe the Cuban Customs Office as
"the country's first line of defense, responsible for preventing the
entry of harmful materials," while at the same time it "allows and
encourages the free flow of trade and development between countries." It
seems that reconciling these two apparently antagonistic functions isn't
an easy task.

The severe shortages in Cuba over many years are a direct and exclusive
responsibility of the entities responsible for the acquisition,
distribution and sale of products to the public.

These entities, I believe, haven't taken on their role with the due
seriousness and responsibility that the people deserve. They have abused
the revolutionary sentiments of the masses, who have expressed these
feelings for decades by accepting — in silence — everything from gross
ineptitude to poorly targeted annual production plans.

The devastation caused by several hurricanes in 2008 severely aggravated
the shortages in the country, prompting Customs and other agencies to
relax the regulations in place at that time. This led to the importing
of millions of tons of food, personal items, various types of supplies,
durable goods, medicine, medical supplies and others items, alleviating
what was for skeptics and doomsayers was an irreversible and terminal

Those circumstances touched the hearts of thousands of Cubans living
abroad, who up until then had ignored their relatives in Cuba and had
sworn never to return home. Given the devastation and human suffering
that threatened to devour the country, these individuals put the
interests of their families and the nation ahead of their personal
feelings, which was clearly expressed in the more than 400,000
Cuban-American visitors to Cuba last year.

Prior to this, the Customs Office had for years terrorized Cuban
travelers, confiscating their goods and applying onerous duties. This
was the major cause of anxiety, hypertension and stress for those
visiting the country, especially among the elderly.

In 2008, however, this hostile position changed. Exemptions were made on
duties applied to food and medicine, which resulted in our relatives,
friends and neighbors in Cuba seeing their rations supplemented with
products and medicines that were non-existent in the country. This
mitigated their needs, relieved the suffering of others, and helped to
rebuild family ties and love for the country, which had been affected as
a result of long-term separations.

Opportunists of all stripes, as well as many honest people (especially
seniors on fixed incomes, the unemployed, students trying to supplement
their college stipends, and people with no other recourse for visiting
loved ones abroad), became "mules" or smugglers, bringing into the
country huge amounts of material goods without paying the proper duties.
In the process, many officials became corrupted by bribes and the
country's treasury lost millions of dollars.

How can we explain why such a vice that was so loudly criticized was not
corrected, modified or adapted to the interests of all parties?

The solution found recently was the cruel, unexpected and devastating
blow against defenseless victims, among them the elderly, children and
medical patients – people who were deprived of food, medicine and vital
medical equipment.

Why throw out the baby (needed goods) with the bath water (corruption)?

Many countries, even ones whose markets have all the material resources
that their populations require, have import duties that are graduated
according to the types of items, whether basic items, food and personal
articles or durable and luxury goods. These countries don't punish
themselves by preventing the importation of specific products to any of
their citizens.

Just like in the rest of the Third World, most Caribbean countries
maintain extensive systems of sea and air deliveries of parcels from
residents of First World countries to their families in their countries
of origin.

What are typical are strong family/cultural bonds in our region.
Jamaica, Dominica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Haiti, the
Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico and others are served by dozens of
shipping companies dedicated solely to this specialized service. They
accept and make door-to-door deliveries of millions of tons in products
that provide relief, are vital transfusions for millions of impoverished
people, and that strengthen perennial moral and emotional ties.

In the 1980's, the Cuban government charged the astronomical sum of $30
a pound for personal items. This was gradually decreased to $10 per
pound for personal items and $6 per pound for food and medicine.
Although this service continues to be the most expensive in the world,
it has led to a proliferation of agencies and massive shipments of
products to our family members and friends in Cuba. We have also seen
the first direct shipping service between the two countries in half a
century being born, which could now suffer a miscarriage with the new
regulations just put in force.

If, like in other countries in the region, Cuba's Customs Office applied
a procedure that is rational, logical, humane and consistent with the
needs and suffering of our people, think how much more food and supplies
would enter the country, further mitigating the existing social problems
while at least tripling the current imports and increasing the number of
travelers and remittances.

Although the distance between the Dominican Republic and Miami is twice
that between Miami and Santiago de Cuba, their parcel transport
companies pick-up and make door-to-door deliveries of packages
containing up to 70 pounds for $55 to $65, depending on the recipient's
address. The cost the same parcel sent to Cuba would be $700!

How can we assume that the severe economic crisis that's afflicting and
neutralizing development in Cuba, which will require hundreds of
billions of dollars to put it back on its feet, can be countered with
the existing scandalous 250 percent tax placed on the limited and
unstable availability of products sold in CUCs or by this latest
irrational customs tariff increase, while huge potential economic
resources languish and remain ignored across the country?

But much more serious would be the indelible stain made by the new
customs regulations, stigmatizing the history of Cuba with an action
comparable to the brutal measures of the embargo, OFAC [the US Treasury
Department's Office of Foreign Office Control], and the
embargo-strengthening Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts.

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