The decline of “mules”?

Sights set on industrial products.

A TV screen shows on the closed circuit channel of terminal 3 of Havana’s José Martí International Airport a paradisiacal scene of some place on the island, accompanied by a sign that says: “The first image of Cuba.” But the truth is that to be able to see even the exterior always in darkness (if it’s in the evening, of course) and hot (especially in summer) of the air terminal, the recently arrived have to go through three strict controls (migratory the first, customs the other two) that are not precisely paradisiacal, and that serve to warn the recently arrived visitors and to remind them that when returning to their country of birth (and at times even of residence) they have arrived in a place where you always must answer questions, no matter how much your documents and belongings are in order: where are you coming from? On what flight? Where are you going to stay? What you have in your bag is an audio device for automobiles? How many suitcases are yours? Are you bringing in food? Are you travelling on an official mission? Did you already import something this year?…among other possible questions.

The time that will elapse between the landing and that first vision of the Cuban exterior world, with its darkness, heat and crowds, depends on the questions and answers travellers can give (plus the process of scanning the luggage before it is put on the collection belts). Any Cuban (resident or not) who has gone through an airport on the island has a story to tell about their going through that tunnel of questions and controls. The story of some includes the time (three, five, seven hours) it took them to cross it, let’s say, because an e-book could have been considered a laptop, when in not very distant times it was forbidden to enter with impunity those objects to the island, or because a certain object included in the luggage looked a chorizo, the most dangerous of the products Cubans insist on bringing home, judging by how obsessed the customs officers are with it….

How is it possible – we thousands of fortunate Cubans who have lived that experience of passing under the slogan “The first image of Cuba” ask ourselves – that with the existence of those rigid controls and such costly customs regulations there are persons who devote themselves professionally to importing, as travellers, industrial products through Cuban airports? How can the business of selling clothes, footwear and other diverse items (for plumbing, electricity, etc.), which has flourished to the point that it has been necessary to decree its illegality in the outlets of the private workers protected by certain licenses since those importers and sellers are competing with the very State, be profitable?

As is well known, all Cubans residing abroad have to pay in hard currency for the price of their imports that are not considered as objects of personal use or that exceed the 30 kilograms free of taxes. As we also know, those of us who live on the island and travel abroad have the right to import products that are not for personal use and can pay in Cuban pesos only once a year, since the following times they have to pay in hard currency and in the end pay almost double the value of the imported product.

That customs regulation, created with the specific purpose of avoiding or discouraging the entry into the country of merchandise that would later be sold in the businesses of private workers, looks as though (it’s my personal experience) it has only visibly affected us Cubans who travel with a certain regularity, those of us who do not devote ourselves to those businesses and have to be careful with the weight of our luggage, even if what is imported are books (for work or simply to read…). And I say as though because the new government regulation announced in early October strictly forbids the sale of imported textile or industrial products that today are sold in hundreds of stands, improvised hardware stores or even exclusive “ateliers” of the self-employed persons. That is to say:  the fruit is picked because the tree that produces it continued growing and flourishing despite the customs restriction that should have uprooted them…. I again ask myself: by paying the existing tariffs for the import of those products, plus the very price of the products, the airfares, the Cuban taxes and everything else, does the business of the so-called “mules” and their receptors continue being profitable for it to be advantageous, even competitive with respect to an entire centralised State like the Cuban one?

The problem with that competition will surely be resolved, at least in today’s visible and extended fashion. The weight of the law will close the doors of the established outlets (since some have already closed). But the solution always generates a new problem – as we Cubans well know, and much more in a case like this, for the Cubans who don’t travel -, which in this case will affect the citizens who because of diverse reasons preferred to go to those private businesses than to the state-run hard currency-collecting shops. The big losers in this commercial game will thus be the average Cubans who found in the different outlets from fashionable clothes to the washbasin fixture they can’t find in the state-run shops, or that opted to purchase it from the private worker because the price and quality was better. Or they will lose, at least, the possibility of freely choosing, when those involved in all the points of that chain find the alternative to maintain their business, perhaps with greater risks, but with the same or greater benefits: the black market. The majority of Cubans, those who travel and those who don’t, are also well versed in that alternative to resolve a problem…. (2013)

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