U.S. Travelers to Cuba Face Stricter Rules on Imports

Passengers on flights from Miami said they were bringing in far less than usual because of higher customs dutie...

Passengers on flights from Miami said they were bringing in far less than usual because of higher customs duties and stricter limits on the number of products allowed under rules that went into effect on Monday.

At Havana_s international airport, there appeared to be fewer bicycles, 40-inch televisions or other bulky household items that normally made the baggage carousels look like a Target or Walmart checkout line during a holiday sale.

_There are barely any bags on the floor inside,_ said Arnaldo Roa, a 45-year-old Miami handyman on a trip to see relatives. While he had a bag stuffed with toys and clothes for his daughter, he said he was not able to bring his usual extra bags filled with gifts for other family members.

_I_m upset,_ he said. _Some relatives are going to get upset because normally I bring them things._

The easing of travel restrictions by the United States and Cuban governments over the last five years has allowed travelers to bring in nearly $2 billion of products a year. The government says the new limits are meant to curb abuses that have turned air travel in particular into a way for professional thieves to illegally import supplies for both black-market businesses and legal private enterprises that are supposed to buy supplies from the state.

Ana Maria Perez, who works in a South Florida factory making airplane seats, said she had been forced to pay $95 in customs duties, far more than usual. _We_ve got to pay a lot now,_ she said. _I don_t understand it at all, but I paid._

The new rules run 41 pages and give a sense of the quantity and diversity of the commercial goods arriving in checked bags and, alternatively, by sea shipment. Travelers are now allowed to bring in 22 pounds of detergent instead of 44; one set of hand tools instead of two; and 24 bras instead of 48. Four car tires are still permitted, as are two pieces of baby furniture and two flat-screen televisions.

The authorities took to the airwaves and pages of state media in recent days to assure Cubans that the vast majority of travelers will not be affected. The change is intended _to keep certain people from using current rules on noncommercial imports to bring into the country high volumes of goods that are destined for commercial sale and profit,_ Idalmis Rosales Milanes, deputy chief of Cuban customs, told the government newspaper Granma.

Still, some travelers were furious.

_I_m not coming back anymore,_ said Diamara Cespedes, a Miami nurse. _They_re finishing off the Cuban people with this._

The government has justified the new rules with examples of prolific thieves, including one passenger who it said brought in 41 computer monitors and 66 flat-screen televisions in a year.

From $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion in goods were flown to Cuba in travelers_ baggage last year, with the average visitor bringing in goods valued at $3,551, according to a 2013 survey of 1,154 Cuban and Cuban-American travelers conducted by the Havana Consulting Group, a private consultant based in Florida that studies the Cuban economy.

_It_s sustenance, support that greatly aids in the survival of the Cuban family,_ said the group_s president, Emilio Morales. _Along with cash remittances, it_s the most significant source of earnings for the Cuban population, not the salaries the government pays._

While his study did not look at the final destination of travelers_ goods, Mr. Morales said he estimated that, based on his knowledge of the gift-giving, about 60 percent went to families and 40 percent to black-market retailers.

With foreign reserves dropping sharply over the last two years as Cuba tries to pay off sovereign debt and make itself a more attractive destination for foreign investment, Mr. Morales said, the government is desperate to reduce the flow of goods and push Cubans_ relatives abroad to send help in the form of cash remittances, which are subjected to hefty government fees. Limiting informal imports also would presumably help bolster business in state-controlled stores.


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