Cuba's "mules" sentenced to disappear with regular commercial flights

Posted: 14-Sep-16 14:50

Referred to as "mules" due to their job of transporting consumer goods to Cuba from the US, these individuals who thrived on the limited air service to the island are now threatened by the launching of regular commercial flights. As rates to fly to the island grow cheaper, "mules" could be out of a job, as family members will be keener to travel often.

Cuba's "mules" sentenced to disappear with regular commercial flights

Partly due to the US embargo, Cubans have trouble getting their hands on a number of goods. This situation has developed over the years into a sort of trade for some people who make a living from buying consumer goods in the US and selling them in Cuba. Usually referred to as “mules”, suppliers of last resort for scarce products, these individuals’ current “jobs” are highly threatened by new commercial flights taking off in the island.

For over fifty years, commercial air travel between Cuba and the United States was at first non-existent, a victim of frosty Cold War-era enmity, and as of 2009 extremely limited. What little air transit there was between the two nations came in the form of charter flights that made a profit not only selling plane seats to approved groups of passengers, but marketing entire travel packages including hotel, car rental and sightseeing tours. Travel agencies operating these charters also managed profits by shipping light cargo including clothes and consumer appliances from Cubans in the United States to their relatives on the island.

As long as the value of wares is within custom limits, this practice is not illegal in Cuba and “mules” import items like televisions, microwave ovens, bicycles air conditioners that are sometimes in short supply and hard to come by in the Caribbean country. This arrangement was formerly beneficial for both the travel agencies who charged $5 or $10 per pound via charter flight as well as “mules” who usually got to travel to Cuba for a deeply discounted price of around $100 or for free, approximately one fourth the usual cost for a seat on a charter flight.

After the DOT authorised several American carriers to operate regular commercial flights to Cuba, this situation is very likely to come to an end. As flight options multiply and cost lowers, Americans are more eager to visit the island and relatives happier to go by themselves and take any goods family members may need.

Moreover, as the conversations continue between the Cuban and US governments, more business steps are taken and companies like FedEx, who specialise in transporting goods, will start operating in the island soon, giving those who hope to send their loved ones food, medicine and clothing another way to do so.

One Florida-based charter operator said the opening of commercial flights has led his company to scale back its charter flights already. Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel Services stated:

“We will stop operating charter flights in September and October. We may operate flights again in December... but we are changing the way we are operating. Unless you can bundle the package together, the charter flight doesn't make a lot of sense. And right now the majority of the passengers are Cuban Americans going to visit family, so they don't require those kinds of services.”

Travel between the US and Cuba continues to grow, and the old ways of charter flights and “mules” seem to be taking their last breath. Nevertheless, new opportunities are opening to other businesses.


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