Photo: Ismael Batista

According to official data from authorities at Havana's José Martí International Airport, in 2016, 91% of the 2,444,501 passengers who arrived in Cuba through its air terminals did not declare any items on their customs forms and passed through what is known as the "green lane."

Let us recall that Havana is among the most popular destinations in the Caribbean and the main entrance point to the country, with 47% of all visitors to the island arriving at the city's airport. In 2015, a total of more than 1,680,000 passed through its gates, coming mainly from the United States, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Britain, and Germany. This figure increased by almost a million

from one year to the next.

In an in-depth interview with Granma International, the head of Legal Affairs at the José Martí International Airport, Maydel Tarré Cala, noted that although use of the green lane increased last year, up from 87% in 2015, it is a priority to further increase this figure, "to facilitate the movement of passengers through customs, conducting the required checks and clearance. This demands greater professionalism, and legal awareness as we deliver customs services, and that the population understands established regulations better."

Photo: Ismael Batista

The specialist explained that the increasing numbers of passengers arriving to the country has meant a higher level of activity for customs authorities at airports. Specifically this past year, 21,371 primary procedures were conducted, 2,700 more than in 2015.

It should be clarified that "procedures" means actions taken by a customs officer regarding a specific article or piece of merchandise, which involves completing documentation, such as a Retention and Notification Certificate or, in some cases, a resolution that authorizes confiscation.

On the other hand, in most instances declaring an item at customs does not imply that it will be held or confiscated. This only happens when a regulation has been violated or when a specific requirement must be met before the item is cleared and released.

All items retained are safeguarded and passengers are informed of their right to file a legal claim or complaint. As the number of these procedures has increased, the number of claims has as well, although in 2016 there were only 19 more appeals (487) than in 2015 (468).

Maydel Tarré Cala, head of the Legal Affairs Department at José Martí International Airport. Photo: Ismael Batista

Tarré reported that, over the last two years, most of these cases have involved Cubans living in the country or abroad.

Of the total number of claims, 89 were declared valid, according to the attorney. These cases, she explained, mostly involved passenger requests to re-route the item or transfer it to another traveling relative, or some documentation that the passenger did not have on the day of arrival.

"Although we are conscientious about following pre-established regulations, which at times dictate confiscation, there are situations that, exceptionally and with much humanity, we investigate more deeply. For example, when they involve underage or sick persons," said the legal expert, who is responsible for reviewing the internal data from each terminal.

Just as she explained, infractions occur when a relevant legal stipulation is violated or abridged, and customs, in the exercise of its responsibilities, must enforce the law, which may mean an administrative confiscation of the item.

Normally, confiscations are related to the possession of articles which cannot be imported; prohibited quantities of a single item that indicate a commercial use; or excess baggage, among other violations.

Despite the fact that the population often does not fully know or understand customs regulations, professional and cordial treatment of all travelers is a valued principle, regardless of category, migratory status, or citizenship.

In the words of Tarré, all passengers are equal, "If a foreign visitor commits an infraction, action is taken against him."

Tourists are subjected to customs checks when they travel to the country, although they are involved in fewer customs incidents and regulatory violations, since most of the time they are not traveling with much more than personal items, she noted.

"It is our duty to inform people and it is the duty of the user, or the receiver, to abide by regulations. We are state functionaries, invested with an authority that implies a great responsibility. At times, we are associated more with the confiscation of passengers' miscellaneous items and belongings, than with the vigilance we provide to prevent drugs or a bomb from entering the country. Everything we do is to assure citizens' peace of mind," she added.

Only a few know that behind constant efforts to improve the airport's functioning are six dynamic attorneys.

Although the practice of international law in many countries includes the specialty of customs law, this is not the case in Cuba. Nevertheless, the work of the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) over the last several years has led to broader awareness of the importance of this field.

Thus the work carried out by the women under Tarré Cala's leadership is truly unique. They function as the airport's defenders, at times advisors, and represent it in the negotiation of economic contracts; in disagreements with other institutions; and before the courts when needed.

They are also responsible for monitoring the legality of labor-related processes, ranging from AGR mandates and appointments to promotions and demotions.

Tarré, who came to work at José Martí International Airport in 2001 after finishing Law School at the University of Havana, noted that the subject of customs is a complicated one, and that attorneys must constantly update their knowledge regarding both national and international topics.

She notes that with greater access to the internet, they have been able to keep up with international agreements, and customs developments around the world, but adds, "It has been difficult to simultaneously take on motherhood and domestic tasks along with those inherent in such broad, diverse work, that never ends."

Via the Union of Cuban Jurists, to which all members of the legal team belong, they provide advice on the drafting and dissemination of bulletins and other informative materials; participate in professional events and present classes on customs regulations, technique, and confronting illicit activity; and train customs officials at the airport in legal affairs.***

Niusha Suárez Eizméndiz, well known for her solid work and 17 years of experience at the Havana airport, notes that a customs lawyer must fully understand a great deal of specific information, saying that the work requires "general culture, which allows one to know about patrimony, just as well as technical equipment, psychology, or computer science, without forgetting the legal point of view. It demands a great deal of documentation to exercise control, and participate in the professional training of Customs' fundamental workforce, officers in marinas, ports, airports, and mail depots."

Suárez notes that everything Customs does is legally stipulated and there is a solid foundation to enforce the law, adding that with few resources they are attempting to ensure the professional development of all staff.

In this regard, Tarré comments, "Likewise, we have not achieved the specialization we would like among supervisors in the Customer Service Department, which includes experts on customs issues. We meet with them to attend and process all claims and complaints that emerge from the enforcement of customs regulations, above all those questions of a purely technical-legal nature, such as a declaration of heirs or a notarized power of attorney."

Laimy Yi León, another veteran attorney at the airport with a decade of experience, adds that also central to the team's work is advising the population and customs officials, who must not only know the law, but be able to explain it to a passenger clearly and apply it correctly.

Tarré reveals that on the day of this interview the team was responding to complaints, claims, and appeals which had been submitted, challenging administrative actions such as confiscations, and fines on individuals and legally recognized bodies. They will present their findings to a Legality Commission, an advisory body headed by the head of Customs at the airport, which evaluates every claim and challenge presented by the population and travelers, as well as the regulations violated, what the plaintiff alleges, and proposed decisions.

The Commission meets on a weekly basis and the ruling agreed upon is communicated in writing to those involved by the Customer Service Department.

Among the legal team's very specific tasks at the airport are participating in prosecuting passengers who evade payment of customs duties or have an outstanding debt, as well as the inspections of areas within the terminals where Customs operates, such as the Lost and Found Department, or storage rooms for confiscated and held items.

On another topic, Tarré notes that Customs at the airport is currently working with a young staff, which requires further training. The AGR has a training school, which is constantly perfecting its teaching methods and study plans, projecting that the basic course for customs officers be more specialized.

She comments, "The attorney is essential. There cannot be a Chief Customs Officer who does not have a strong legal advisor. These days, we are being given a greater leadership role and participation in other spheres for which Customs is responsible, but we continue to aspire to reach higher levels in our legal consultation activity, especially at a time when work is being done on increasing institutionality in the country.

"We have influence in what is administrative, commercial, and economic law in Cuba. We deserve our own space. Everything that makes us more competent, including at the level of international law, is important.

"Our work to be more professional and competent as legal specialists makes us better public servants, with the purpose of ensuring the legality of all customs procedures and guaranteeing that the population's rights are respected."