Cubans angered by new restrictions on importing consumer goods

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 01, 2014 8:27 AM

By Daniel Trotta

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has raised duties and restricted imports on consumer goods brought in by air travelers or sent by mail, imposing greater hardship for a fledgling private sector and angering people looking to counter chronic shortages.

The new restrictions, which began on Monday, take aim at black market dealers of goods that are hard to find on store shelves or come with steep excise taxes, while protecting the state monopoly on selling imported goods.

They also burden Cubans who run small businesses like restaurants and beauty parlors and depend on travelers carrying suitcases full of goods into the country.

"Nobody likes this and the people are angry," said Silvio Madero, a Cuban-American from Homestead, Florida, who has visited his Cuban family six times over the past four years, each time bringing merchandise.

"This country needs money coming in, and with these rules it's not going to happen. They should let all the goods in so we can help our family and friends," Madero said.

At Miami International Airport, Cubans and Cuban-Americans routinely line up for charter flights packing large-screen televisions, bicycle tires and myriad items in short supply on the Communist-led island.

The government's move to slow down the trade jacks up duties on the weight of mailed packages and popular items such as TVs, which now cost an additional $100 for most models. The duty is now $250 on a 32-inch (81 cm) screen, $400 for those between 32 and 42 inches (106 cm) and $500 on even bigger models.

Some Cubans or Cuban-Americans make a living as "mules" ferrying in goods as airline passengers. Others agree to take extra luggage in exchange for airfare. These frequent fliers will now be targeted by customs and their goods confiscated.

Under economic reforms enacted by President Raul Castro, Cubans can operate small private restaurants, beauty parlors, bed-and-breakfast inns, transportation services and many other businesses.

But there is no wholesale market, forcing entrepreneurs to import via air travelers or shop in state retail stores, where they pay a minimum 240 percent sales tax.

Cuba's attempts to modernize its economy have been uneven, marked by stops and starts.

Some previous measures also proved highly unpopular, such as banning home 3D theaters and the private sale of imported clothes and other goods last year. Cubans welcomed an initiative to liberalize the restricted sale of new cars this year but that turned to outrage when hefty taxes meant family sedans were priced like European sports cars.

The latest rules are another attempt to suppress the private clothing market. Previously, people could bring in 40 pairs of pants but now the limit is 20. Similar limits have been imposed for stockings, socks, blouses, shoes and other items.

"The new law is no good," said Jose Diaz Concepcion, a Cuban from the western province of Pinar del Rio who visits Miami every three months. "Going to Miami to bring back some trinkets is now ridiculous. How can this be, man!"

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Kieran Murray and W Simon)