Contraband, Cuban Style
October 24, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — As a kid, I used to sympathize with two types of
criminals: those who ripped off banks without violence and smugglers. I
saw them as Robin Hoods that stole from the rich and powerful, that is
to say, from bankers and the State.
Though I maintained a degree of sympathy towards certain characters as I
grew up, I learned that those who rob banks aren’t financiers committed
to the redistribution of wealth and that smugglers aren’t entrepreneurs
seeking to protect small, informal businesses.
These childhood memories came to me as a result of the ongoing debate in
Cuba regarding whether the sale of contraband items, that is to say,
products that entered the country evading official import procedures,
should be prohibited.
Cuba, however, is full of clothing, shoes, furniture and electrical
appliances that made it to the island this way. It is something that
happens all over the world. The difference here is that no one conceals
the fact: they sell these products at the very entrance to their homes
or advertise them on classifieds pages online.
These products are brought into Cuba through different means, from
Cubans residing or living abroad who avail themselves of a trip to earn
a few dollars to the crews of Cuba’s commercial airlines, who always
return to the island with suitcases full of products they intend to sell.
The largest volumes are brought to Cuba by “mules”, people who make a
living out of bringing packages to Cuba, and through cargo contraband, a
practice which requires the aid of some members of the Cuban Customs Office.
I know of people who every two months bring in a 20-cubic-foot container
full of products, including furniture, kitchen sets, refrigerators,
televisions, motorcycles, washing machines, air conditioning units and
different types of equipment needed to set up a private business.
I have actually seen how these containers are brought into the country,
in person, and therefore know the mechanisms employed to get the
products through customs –cracks and chinks in the system used to hide
the crime under legal paperwork (which ought not to be able to deceive
the inspectors present).
It doesn’t appear to be a legal problem, even though Cuban law is far
more tolerant than the one applied on the US – Mexico border, to mention
The problem is that a number of venal government officials have taken
advantage of this situation and set up their own private businesses
around this practice.
In Cuba’s case, contraband and corruption are not merely financial
problems. They also entail national security concerns: it was through
the airport, after all, that the explosives which were detonated inside
hotels in Havana in the 1990s entered the country.
For some time now, the Cuban government has been announcing that the
licenses it granted are meant to authorize the sale, not of contraband
items, but of clothing made in Cuba. What it has never explained is
where one can find the warehouses to buy the manufacturing supplies.
Encouraging the development of a textile industry operated by the
self-employed and cooperatives seems like a good idea, but, in order to
be materialized, ideas require resources: farmers need plows, drivers
need fuel and fashion designers require fabrics, elastics, decorations,
thread and buttons.
The State should help the sector it wishes to develop by importing and
selling supplies at wholesale prices, by reducing tariffs and taxes, so
as to allow new businesses to compete in the midst of the products
brought from abroad at ludicrously low prices.
Contraband in clothing and shoes has also been on the rise because the
items sold at State stores tend to be ugly, low quality or expensive
(and sometimes, all three at once). The country imports these items
without conducting any kind of market study, buying cheap trinkets in
exchange for commissions, and then adding voracious taxes to the price.
Like any other State, the Cuban State has the right to apply taxes to
imported products aimed at the local market, but it is also duty-bound
to guarantee the effectiveness of the institutions tasked with
To close down private businesses without plugging up the cracks in
customs and without the development of a local industry will simply
force these businesses to go underground. Yesterday, I saw a woman with
a large handbag offering items of clothing to the clerks at a bakery in
The situation is not likely to improve if we go after resellers, bother
travelers at the airport even more or place restrictions on what a
doctor can bring after completing a mission abroad, for these are not
the people who bring the largest volumes of contraband into Cuba.
A Cuban economist was telling me that, in order to be effective, an
anti-contraband campaign must include the sale of clothing (new or used)
at prices that are proportionate to people’s incomes, the real
development of a local industry and the constant monitoring of the
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in
Spanish by BBC Mundo.
Source: “Contraband, Cuban Style – Havana Times.org” –