HAVANA – A steep hike in customs duties took effect in Cuba on Monday, catching many air travelers unaware and leaving some shocked at the new fees.
Nelida Diaz, a Cuban-American who arrived with her husband for a visit to the island where she was born, said she was astonished when officials docked her $588 at customs.
"We come every year, and they had never charged us like that," Diaz said outside the terminal at Havana's international airport, her blue, shrink-wrapped bags piled on a luggage cart. "There is a lot of irritation among the people."
Authorities have defended the measure as necessary to impose order in airports, which at times can look more like cargo terminals for all the baggage.
Experts say the measure targets so-called mules, who make frequent trips back and forth to places like Ecuador, Panama and Miami, carrying huge bags overstuffed with merchandise destined for resale or to supply the island's growing ranks of private entrepreneurs.
But some fear it could also hurt Cuban families that rely on goods imported five suitcases at a time, as well as the many islanders who are able to visit relatives abroad by agreeing to bring back heavy loads for others who pay the airfare.
Travelers are allowed to bring in 66 pounds (30 kilograms) of miscellaneous goods without being charged. Everything after that gets taxed at $4.55 a pound ($10 per kilogram).
Islanders get a once-a-year pass to pay excess baggage fees in the local peso, worth 24 to the dollar, but starting with their second trip they must pay the much higher dollar-based rates. Anyone who's not a permanent resident pays the higher rate from the start.
"They charged me 102 Cuban pesos ($4.25) because I'm a Cuban and it's my first time traveling to the U.S.," said Maria Roque, a resident of Matanzas province who was returning to Cuba from a trip to visit her son.
But Roque said she was put on notice at customs: "The next time, I'll have to pay in dollars."
While the new duty schedule was announced two months ago, many travelers said Monday they were taken by surprise. The terminal appeared normal on the outside, but passengers said operations seemed confused and sluggish at customs.
"There's a lot of disgust in there," said Roberto Suarez another Cuban-American, who reported paying double his usual customs fee. "There are people who came with a little money set aside to help family, and then they get hit with this."
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