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Cuba cracks down on goods in travelers' luggage

A man prepares to lift a large TV to a taxi as he helps a traveler who arrived from the United States at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Monday. Cuba has clamped down on the total value of goods allowed into the country.
A man prepares to lift a large TV to a taxi as he helps a traveler who arrived from the United States at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Monday. Cuba has clamped down on the total value of goods allowed into the country.
Published Sep. 2, 2014

HAVANA — Lugging duffel bags crammed with soap, socks, toys and other hard-to-obtain consumer goods, travelers arriving in Cuba on Monday complained that new government restrictions on their imports would leave their families wanting.

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 Monday.

At Havana's international airport, there appeared to be fewer bicycles, 40-inch TVs or other bulky household items that normally made the baggage carousels look like a 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. Though he had a bag stuffed with toys and clothes for his daughter, he said he wasn't 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 U.S. and Cuban governments in the past five years has allowed travelers to bring in nearly $2 billion of goods a year. The Cuban government says the new limits are meant to curb abuses that have turned air travel in particular into a way 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.

"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 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 value of a passenger's imported items can total no more than $1,000, with the estimate based on a long list of assigned prices for certain goods ($250 for a video game console, for example). Those values rose sharply under the new rules, making it far easier to reach the $1,000 limit.

Previously, the average flyer brought in goods worth $3,551, according to a 2013 survey of 1,154 Cuban and Cuban-American travelers conducted by the Havana Consulting Group, a Florida private consultancy that studies the Cuban economy.

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