- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

HAVANA — The human mule is in her 70s, gaunt and hunched over with short, white hair and the deeply wrinkled face of a chain smoker.

She lives in Miami with her daughter but wanted to see her son and grandson in Cuba. After nearly three years of saving, she still didn’t have the $500 she needed for a plane ticket.

So she knew exactly which Little Havana travel agency to visit - and agreed to haul clothes, canned meat and evaporated milk to strangers in Cuba for a free seat on a charter flight.

“My daughter and I both work, but we only have just enough to live,” the woman said between drags on a cigarette in her son’s central Havana living room. “I did it this time, and I don’t want to do it again.”

Now that President Obama has allowed Americans with relatives in Cuba to make unlimited visits, such underground courier services are expanding. The so-called mulas have always helped the U.S. exile community support their families by delivering hard-to-get goodies in a country plagued by shortages of everything from toilet paper to potatoes.

But now they are starting to ship heavier and more-obscure items, such as auto parts and walkers, and advertise that they can deliver documents or family photos faster than any mail service to a country where the Internet is severely restricted.

The couriers carry everything from new underwear to popular video games. They also bring drugs such as antacids, ibuprofen and even anti-bacterial cream, as Cuba’s much-touted medical system suffers supply shortages as well.

Although such services are common between the U.S. and foreign countries, particularly in Latin America, the woman requested her name not be published for fear that it could jeopardize future trips to Cuba.

It’s not illegal for families to carry goods to Cuba from the U.S., but making a business of it violates both the U.S. embargo against Cuba and Cuban laws limiting private enterprise.

Under former President George W. Bush, who restricted family travel to once every three years, the couriers masked their trips through Cancun, Mexico, or the Cayman Islands.

They once carried about half of up to $1.4 billion that Cuban-Americans send relatives in Cuba each year, said Manuel Orozco of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. But Mr. Obama lifted restrictions on money transfers, as well, creating another reason couriers now carry more durable goods - or charge lower fees than competitors to transport dollars.

Since 2007, meanwhile, Cuban customs agents have drastically relaxed limits, allowing travelers to bring such items as DVD players, car stereos, brake pads and video-game consoles.

“The mulas are going to react quickly. They are quick learners,” said Mario Gonzalez-Corzo, professor of economics at Lehman College in the Bronx.

Mr. Gonzalez-Corzo has relied on the same courier for a decade to carry pens, paper, rubbing alcohol, shaving cream and other toiletries to his father’s house in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara. But now the courier has mounted a more aggressive campaign.

“It’s almost like he’s telemarketing,” Mr. Gonzalez-Corzo said. “He called me two times to just let me know, ‘Hey, Mother’s Day is coming up, and I am able to bring anything you need.’ ”

Many Americans think an iron curtain exists between their country and the communist-run island, which sits just 90 miles from Florida but has had no diplomatic ties with the U.S. since 1961.

But for Cuban-Americans, four daily charter flights take off regularly from Miami and land just 40 minutes later in Havana. About 200 U.S. tour operators have Treasury Department permission to provide travel to Cuba. A biweekly flight offers service to Cuba from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship for the couriers and the courier agencies. Although Cuban-Americans can now travel freely to see relatives, many don’t have the money and welcome a free flight. The courier agencies, in turn, need Cuban-Americans - among the few in the U.S. allowed to fly on charters to Cuba.

Rob Hodel’s Tico Travel is a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based agency with a Treasury Department license for Cuba tours. He said U.S. authorities know from passenger manifests who the couriers are, but the practice is so common that it’s hard to stop.

Asked about couriers using his company, Mr. Hodel said, “I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know the answer to.”

They are men and women, young and old. Some run their own courier services and others are recruited, such as the woman interviewed by the Associated Press.

She went to a Miami travel agent whom she wouldn’t name. They packed children’s underwear, men’s slacks, T-shirts, dresses and food for her to carry as luggage on her free flight, plus a list of addresses for delivery in Cuba.

The agency charges senders up to $18 per pound.

The woman brought no luggage of her own so she wouldn’t be charged for the extra weight. After she passed through customs at the Havana airport, a man took her bags and delivery list and disappeared.

Although most goods are destined for specific families, people often have to retrieve them at homes across the island that serve as secret warehouses, where unclaimed goods are sold on the black market. Some offer door-to-door delivery service.

No one from the Cuban government would comment on the couriers. But police stage periodic raids on the underground warehouses, and seizures and arrests are reported in state newspapers so others will get the message.

Havana resident Mayelin Delgado said Miami relatives frequently use couriers to send her clothing.

“Only one time I had something go missing,” said the 44-year-old office worker. “They told me they were going to send four pairs of shorts for my son, and I only got two. I called my family, and they went to the agency to complain.”

Soon, two more pairs were delivered to her door.

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