How Cuban ingenuity is getting around the island’s tight customs control

A man prepares to lift a large TV to a private taxicab as he helps a traveler who arrived from the U.S. at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba.
A man prepares to lift a large TV to a private taxicab as he helps a traveler who arrived from the U.S. at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. AP

Ernesto Machado will never forget that cold morning in 1968 at José Martí International Airport in Havana, when an immigration official seized his parents’ gold wedding bands and ripped up his passport.

“This is property of the revolutionary government,” Machado recalled the female official in military garb saying before he left Cuba to never return.

Nearly 60 years after Fidel Castro seized power, the situation on the island is different, but the customs controls remain as rigorous: Travelers risk having their items seized and even prison terms as they try to evade strict controls on carrying goods into and out of the island.

Some savvy and perhaps unscrupulous business owners have found a way to get around the tight controls.

“I go to Cuba every 15 days. My business is to take medicines, food and money to any part of the island,” said one Miami Cuban who owns a package agency.

The first task is to find Cubans with Spanish passports or U.S. residency who remain legal residents of the island, because they have the right to bring a certain amount of goods when they “return” to Cuba. The business owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, pays them $300 — the fee for the 160 pounds of imports allowed per person each year.

“Everyone wins in this business. The travelers, because they go to Cuba to visit their relatives or earn a little money if they live there, and the agency because that’s our business, to send things and money,” he said.

Cuban law allows each arriving visitor to import $5,000 cash. Higher amounts require a customs declaration but do not carry a fee. Most countries allow up to $10,000 without a declaration.

This businessman says he never declares the cash. “We normally send it with several people, distribute the money to avoid going over the $5,000 limit. Sometimes I send a trusted person with a little more, taking a risk, of course,” he said.

Cuba’s official news media recently reported that customs officials had spotted 384 violations of regulations on cash arriving and leaving the island so far this year.

One of the cases involved a woman who carried 5,000 Swiss francs in condoms hidden in her vagina, and a man who carried 32,550 euros strapped to his body, according to the report.

“Many are beginners in this business or try to do things without helping others. You have to live and let live,” said the Miami package agency owner, who added that he frequently bribes Cuban customs officials.

“We’ve been in the business for some time. My people are known because we have codes. Normally, when someone gets to the airport and is offered help, things go well if they accept,” he said.

“There are businesses in Cuba that need to take money out of the country,” he added. “It’s no secret that most of the items bought by paladares (family-owned restaurants) come from the black market. If the owners get in trouble, they want to have a little something on the other side.”

Government reports on seizures of outgoing items so far this year include 165,816 Cuban convertible pesos — known as CUCs and worth roughly $182,000 — plus $73,822 U.S. dollars, 875 euros and 386 objects such as crucifixes and coins.

The Central Bank of Cuba allows those traveling abroad to take the equivalent of $5,000 with them. Anything more than that requires proof that the money was legally earned and a permit signed by the bank’s president.

Buying hard currencies in Cuba for travel out of the country is legal but complicated. Banks require the buyer to show a visa and an airplane ticket for the home country of the currency, and the limit is relatively low.

Travelers can also buy U.S. dollars on the black market, but that rate ranges from 92 to 97 cents of a CUC, much more expensive than the official rate of 87 cents of a CUC.

The Cuban government also regulates the export of gold, silver, diamonds and other valuables. The news media reports on seizures mentioned one 1.9 carat diamond ring as well as chains, bracelets and crucifixes.

Cubans emigrating to other countries are prohibited from taking any precious metals or stones with them.

Also forbidden is the export of CUCs. The currency has no legal value outside the island but is often bought at a discount by people traveling to Cuba. Cuban law allows the export of up to 2,000 regular Cuban pesos (CUPs), the island’s other currency, worth 27 to the U.S. dollar, or about $74.

A travel writer for the digital portal BravoTV was arrested in Cuba this summer when customs officials found she was carrying 800 leftover CUCs as she tried to leave the country after a visit.

“I accidentally broke this one rule — and almost went to jail. Don’t let it happen to you,” wrote Jaime Morrison. She was allowed to leave Cuba after a long interrogation, but lost the 800 CUCs.

Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba