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Cuba restricts goods in travelers' bags

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 thanks to 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 televisions or other bulky household items that normally made the baggage carousels look like a Target or Wal-Mart 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. While 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 over the last five years has allowed travelers to bring in nearly US$2 billion of products a year. The government says the new limits meant to curb abuses that have turned air travel in particular into a way for professional “mules” 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 US$95 in customs duties, far more than usual.

“We've got to pay a lot now,” she said. “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, alternatively, by sea shipment. Travelers are now allowed to bring in 22 pounds (10 kilos) 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 US$1,000, with the estimate based on a long list of assigned prices for certain goods (US$250 for a video-game console, for example.) Those values rose sharply under the new rules, making it far easier to reach the US$1,000 limit.

The new rules similarly increased the duties paid on goods shipped from abroad, another major source of foreign merchandise for the island.

Authorities took to the airwaves and pages of state media in recent days to assure Cubans that the vast majority of travelers won't be affected. The change is intended “to keep certain people from using current rules on non-commercial imports to bring into the country high volumes of goods that are destined for commercial sale and profit,” Idalmis Rosales Milanes, deputy chief of Cuban customs, told government newspaper Granma in Friday editions.

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