Cubans angered by new consumer import restrictions

By Daniel Trotta and Nelson Acosta
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A woman arriving from Miami pushes her luggage cart on arrival at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport

A woman arriving from Miami pushes her luggage cart on arrival at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport September 1, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

By Daniel Trotta and Nelson Acosta

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. They also protect the state monopoly on selling imported goods.

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

The new rules jack 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.

Cuban officials argue the new measures were necessary to curb a bustling underground market that robbed the state of legitimate tax revenue.

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.

"This measures puts the brakes on certain irregularities, considering the indiscriminate amount of goods people were importing," said Dionisio Perez, a customs officer working Havana's Jose Marti Airport.

Travel agents reported steep demand to travel before the new rules took effect. Previously, travelers routinely arrived with bag after bag stuffed with consumer goods.

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

"If they want to do away with the black market, then they should take measures against those people," said Amarilis Valdes, a Miami resident who came to visit her family in Cuba.

"It's not all that drastic. You used to be able to bring in 30 pairs of shoes. Now it's 15," she said.

The measures affect Cubans who run small businesses like restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns, transportation services and beauty parlors.

Many depend on travelers carrying suitcases full of goods because there is no wholesale market, forcing entrepreneurs to shop in state retail stores, where they pay a minimum 240 percent sales tax.

Some previous measures also proved 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 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!"

(Editing by Kieran Murray and W Simon)