It is possible that Cubans who have never traveled outside of Cuba or those who don’t have a “traveling” relative or reside in a foreign county have no idea of how “up hill” it can be, not only to return to the motherland, but to trespass the limits of the territory whose corners have been marked with the sacred urine of the Customs’ employees, a specimen representative of a Cuban’s worst enemy: another empowered Cuban, even if those powers are transitory and borrowed and turn a perfect stranger into an occasional executioner.
When a Cuban returns to the country, whether he is an emancipated slave (an émigré) or one of the permanent members of the slave crews (residents of the Island) he knows that before he can happily reunite with his family, he has to sort out the customs doghouse. Of course, there are customs controls in all the world’s airports, it’s logical. But ours is truly its own genus. To start, although you have already paid overweight baggage charges when boarding in the country of origin, here—inexplicably—you must pay again. Additional vexations start later.
In the sort of Ali Baba cave which is the Cuban customs, through which arriving foreign visitors can cross peacefully and easily, carrying any amount of baggage, Cubans are subjected, without the least consideration, to having their baggage opened, which customs employees search, without blushing, eager to find any “overweight” or “excess” items in order to proceed to the decommissioning, that is, to expropriate for themselves whatever is “too much” in the victim’s suitcase. “Decommissioned” items can be anything from an electrical appliance or a computer to underwear, shavers or cosmetics. Everything is “established and quantified.” For instance, there is a decree that establishes that a Cuban can only bring in 8 units of each product, so if you are Cuban and decide to pack 9 pairs of underpants, you should be ready to have one pair decommissioned when you go through customs.
In spite of all this, this sort of officially sanctioned robbery is the most tolerable. The real denigration is the abuse, the arrogance and the unbearable rudeness with which—as a general rule—customs employees treat you. There, they are the highest authority, the super overseers who decide which personal effects or presents you are bringing for your relatives will cross over the mysterious line that separates slaves and arriving emancipated slaves from those who wait anxiously at the plantation. Unfortunately, there are Cubans who are ready to bribe the customs official with some little present so that he “allows the rest to go through.”
The customs scrutiny can extend for an indefinite length of time, always measured in hours, depending on baggage volume, the interests and needs of the customs employees and on the number of Cubans arriving on said flight. I have heard the anecdote about a woman whose huge case of cosmetics meant for her niece, who was turning 15, was decommissioned, another who was deprived of her hair dryer, one whose daughter’s very expensive perfume was taken from her suitcase without the least consideration. The list of anecdotes is huge, but the systematic robbery continues. And I think that it goes on because, deep inside, we allow it. A Cuban woman was telling me that last year they decommissioned her computer and… what could she do? Well, she could wreck it before allowing them to grab it from her in that way, meekly.
As for me, when I was returning from Chile towards the end of 2000, I was bringing back, of course, three bottles of very good wine to celebrate Christmas Eve with my family. A customs employee started to quibble (he, too, wanted to uncork a good red Chilean at his table) and started to call into question whether I could only bring in 2 bottles. “OK, I said, give me a minute to decide which one of the three I am going to empty down the sink right now.” They let me go through with all my precious wines. So we’ll have to see definitely to what point they make us victims in this country and how far we really allow it: they have the power, true, but we should be ashamed.
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