Shortages of essential products in Cuba triggered a spike in the shipment of packages from the United States. According to a simple survey conducted in 48 hours, there is a perception that it is very urgent to help family and friends on the island, but that this is increasingly difficult.
85% of the respondents had sent at least one package in the last few months. Medicines, hygiene and personal care items, and foods were the main items shipped.
Parcel delivery is generally done through travel agencies. Activity was way up between March and December 2020. Those customers whose packages were sent by air had better luck. Others shared unsatisfactory experiences.
The situation is expected to get worse. As of February 6 the Cuban Government is forcing international travelers to go through isolation at a designated institution. Thus, "mules" will be forced to stay longer on the island, which will boost the costs for agencies that often cover their travel expenses. The foreseeable result will be a decrease in mule travel, and even more delays.
The delays thus far have been due to Covid-19 and the suspension of flights. By plane it takes a few weeks because they are sent with the so-called 'mules', but by boat they take months. They are received at Planta Habana, and Cuba proceeds to distribute them with an inefficiency that delays the process even more," said José Pedro, who has been working at travel agencies for 25 years.
In June 2020 Elías Piñeiro sent some cereal, dehydrated milk, custards, jellies and food "for an old child." Cuco, her 104-year-old father, received those products in January, 2021 - six months later.
Also in June, Osvaldo Gallardo bought a microwave and a pressure cooker through Cuballama for his mother-in-law in Camagüey. The two appliances cost him about $400, and the shipping, just over $80.
They told him the items would arrive in three months. Five months later the mother-in-law notified him about a call from Cubapacks, saying that the microwave was in Camagüey, but that "the truck had broken down on the central highway." They asked her if she could go pick it up. She asked about the cooker, and they told her that they only had the microwave, that "maybe they gave the other pot to some other people by mistake."
"This was all in early December. I started to complain, and I have spoken with Cuballama three times," says Gallardo. They always say the same thing. They blame Cubapack. "Now it's February and the pressure cooker has still not arrived."
Gallardo is upset, and he has made this clear over the phone. "The people in charge of the company are ripping me off. They do business with the Cuban state, a bunch of thieves, so they are too. I pay here, not in Cuba, and they don't give me a penny back. They haven't compensated me for extra expenses, or for the inconvenience caused, or time wasted."
José Pedro explains that, "when a package is sent to Cuba by any means, travel agencies in the United States don't control its handling once it reaches the port [on the Island], because there is no 'liability insurance' and certainly no 'Inland Marine' insurance.
Waiting for the package
There are no guarantees in Cuba on almost nothing. Janet Hernández is aware of this. But, as the pandemic rages on, and the Cuban state does not guarantee stable supplies of anything, even bread, in six months she has sent 16 packages of three pounds each, at $20 a pound; plus a 10-pound package of medicines, for which she paid $50, all from Cubamax.
"Of those packages, there are two that do not have a tracking number. All the others have been registered with Aduana de Cuba (Customs). " Her family has received a total of four: two in Havana and two in Camagüey.
"To pick up the two packages, which we knew were in the province, my father visited the Post Office, and waited in line, for four to six weeks. They refused to open the bags to give them to him. One day when he arrived with the number, they told him that the package was about to be returned to Havana, because the name on it was unclear."
Added to these inconveniences is Correos de Cuba's steep price hike. "The same package of medicines that used to cost 10 pesos to get from the postal service now costs 95, under the new economic measures," says Hernández.
Despite all the hassles, Hernández refuses to desist. The agency told him that the packages were being sent by plane now. But, whether travelling by air or sea, when it comes to Cuba some rusty links must be removed from the "port-transportation-internal economy chain."
Many of us continue to struggle with it. As a group, we share a need. As individuals, we worry.
My grandmother and in-laws are still waiting for the medicines that I sent in September through Majesty Eagle. My uncle is also waiting for the saw blades and the coffee that my cousin sent with International American Travel, supposedly by plane.
When I scan the URL code on the invoice for the shipment of medicines, it takes me to a Cubapack site that says that my package arrived at Mariel on October 3, and to look for it at Correos de Cuba. The tracing concludes with: "No shipment with that code was found", either in 2020, or in 2021.
Answers in Cuba: "It must not be there, tell your relative to ask for it somewhere else." "That's still not in the system, so Customs has not checked the container." "They're waiting to fill a truck with the packages from Cienfuegos, at some point they will arrive."
A contact at Customs said that there are hundreds of packages with their data erased, whether by time or doctoring. Nobody knows any longer to whom they belong. And either the Customs officials nor the Post Office employees care.
After six decades of waiting for packages to arrive on the island, waiting a few months for one from outside, that still may arrive, is a cause for hope.