Cuba's customs agency is threatening to confiscate packages sent from the United States with people who travel to the island to deliver items under the radar for shipping companies.
Havana considers the method of shipping by travelers known as "mulas" (mules) to be illegal. But it has expanded rapidly in South Florida, following an easing of travel restrictions by former President Barack Obama.
José Luis Muñoz Toca, a top official of the General Customs Agency, told reporters at a news conference in Havana on Wednesday that his agency confiscated more than three tons of merchandise sent by companies abroad. Four legal charges of contraband have been filed, Muñoz said, without identifying the countries of the companies involved.
Muñoz added that officials have identified 29 companies based in the United States that operate “without authorization” to send goods to Cuba “with travelers who agree to deliver them in exchange for payment or compensation.”
Cubans living abroad use the package delivery services to ease some of the shortages faced by their relatives and friends on the island. Emilio Morales, director of The Havana Consulting Group in Miami, said about 90 percent of the packages that arrive in Cuba are sent from the United States.
He has estimated the value of the merchandise sent to Cuba in 2017 at $3 billion. Shortages are endemic in Cuba, where the government runs the majority of markets and the economy is highly centralized. The customs agency's announcement was seen as an effort to tighten the screws on the growing black market.
Wiliam Pérez González, deputy customs director, said those agencies “do not have an official agreement with Cuban companies that are authorized to carry out those activities.”
Pérez acknowledged the “mula” system sometimes involves official corruption. He also repeated his agency's warnings to passengers against taking unknown merchandise to the island.
“They could be trafficking drugs or other illegal materials,” he said.
Packages sent through companies to people in Cuba are considered to be commercial imports and are therefore subject to confiscation and worse, authorities said.
For more information on how to legally send packages to Cuba, visit the Cuban Customs site.