Commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba augurs the demise of the ‘mules’
The start this week of the first regularly scheduled commercial flights
from the United States augurs the likely demise of Cuba’s “mules” —
suppliers of last resort for scarce consumer goods on the island.
For more than half a century, commercial air travel between Cuba and the
United States was all but non-existent, a victim of frosty Cold War-era
What little air transit there was between the two nations came in the
form of charter flights that made a profit not only selling plane seats
to approved groups of passengers, but marketing entire travel packages
including hotel, car rental and sightseeing tours.
Many travel agencies also squeeze out a profit by shipping light cargo —
clothes and consumer appliances — from Cubans in the United States to
their relatives on the island.
The packages and parcels — often containing consumer items that are all
but impossible to find for most Cubans — are flown to the island for $5
or $10 per pound via charter flight.
The practice is not illegal in Cuba, so long as the value of the wares
are within customs limits.
The items can include “televisions, microwave ovens, bicycles or an air
conditioner,” a travel agency owner told AFP.
“In Cuba, we need everything.” It’s an arrangement that works out well
for everyone: Consumers in Cuba get access to sought-after goods and
travel agencies get to pad their profits.
Mules benefit as well, typically getting to travel to Cuba for a deeply
discounted price of around $100 — about one fourth the usual cost for a
seat on a charter flight.
Charter companies over the years have been more than happy to allow to
fly planes to the island groaning with heavy luggage and boxes.
“Have you seen those flights?” asked Frank Gonzalez, owner of Miami’s
“It was practically a cargo business,” he said of the Florida-to-Cuba
In this new era of U.S.-Cuba normalization, all of that now appears
poised to change, as flight options multiply.
Washington and Havana agreed in February to restore direct commercial
flights, one of the watershed changes initiated in December 2014, when
US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro
announced a thaw after more than 50 years of Cold War hostility.
Jet Blue flies the first commercial plane on Wednesday from Fort
Lauderdale to the central Cuban city of Santa Clara.
Other U.S. air carriers planning to start airline service to the island
include American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Silver Airways, Southwest
Airlines and Sun Country Airlines.
In another development expected to hasten the demise of the mule, FedEx
is due to arrive in Cuba beginning next year, giving those who hope to
send their loved ones food, medicine and clothing another way to do so.
One Florida-based charter operator said the opening up of commercial
flights has led his company to scale back its charter flights already.
“We will stop operating charter flights in September and October,” said
Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel Services.
“We may operate flights again in December… but we are changing the way
we are operating,” Mr Zuccato said.
“Unless you can bundle the package together, the charter flight doesn’t
make a lot of sense. And right now the majority of the passengers are
Cuban Americans going to visit family, so they don’t require those kinds
Even though charter operators expect to be hurt by the change, travel
agents say they expect to sell more packages than ever, since Cuba
remains a somewhat unusual and complicated travel destination —
particularly for curious Americans eager to travel to the once-forbidden
Source: Regularly scheduled flights to Cuba augurs the likely demise of
the “mules” | In Cuba Today –