Lacking any protection, Cubans enter the General Customs of the Republic where they pay the price of return. A chalk mark on the suitcase signals who must pass through the scaffold-of-valuation and the institutional assault-by-taxation on certain goods. Curiously, the airport employees have a keen nose for detecting returning nationals because they know they come bearing various and incredible objects. Outside, in the waiting room, families dream of embracing their emigrés and fantasize about the possible gifts, meanwhile they weigh the passenger’s luggage and show the heavy toll demanded to settle up.
One might come to think that in a country where so many products and resources are lacking, flexibility about importing them—on a personal scale—should characterize the customs process: but that’s not the case. Rather, we live at the other extreme, with a strict, “List of internal valuation” that forces repayment for the contents of the bags, whether it is soap, a tin of sardines, or a laptop. Everything is complicated when the excited visitor thinks to bring the relatives a household appliance or a digital camera. If he wishes to bring in these modernities, he must empty his wallet of an amount that runs from 10 to 80 convertible pesos. It comes to be like a ransom, given to the “kidnappers” of the foreigner so that the equipment can reach the hands of its recipients.
Like an industry of robbery, Cuban customs expands, daily, the numbers confiscated, while adding thousands of dollars to the cash box through the concept of taxes. Their huge storerooms are filled with hair dryers, Play Stations, electric ovens and computers brought by travelers. The destination of these goods is never explained, but we all know they take the Olive Green Road of so very much else. The Island would appear, if we are guided by the restrictions on entry, to be on the point of drowning under the pounds of abundance and prosperity. But we all know that its forty-three thousand square miles are on the verge of floating away, from the lightness that results from lack of productivity and scarcity.