"Mules" stretch limits of U.S. trade embargo on Cuba

Wed Aug 11, 2010 3:18pm EDT
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By Esteban Israel

HAVANA (Reuters) - It all starts with a description given over a mobile phone: "Look for a woman with long blonde hair, blue jeans, silver heels and a black T-shirt arriving on the next flight from Miami."

When the woman emerges from Havana's international airport pushing a cart loaded with bulky black duffel bags, she is greeted effusively by a man she has never seen before.

"They hug as if they had known each other all their lives. Once in the parking lot, the woman hands over the bags and says goodbye," says Yanet, a Miami resident.

She is describing the tactics of growing numbers of human "mules" who regularly travel between the United States and Cuba carrying in their bags loads of clothes, food, consumer goods, electrical appliances and millions of U.S. dollars to the communist-ruled Caribbean island. They deliver the goods for a fee or free ticket, often to complete strangers.

"The system works beautifully," said Yanet, making her second trip as a "mule" to Havana in less than a month.

"But you have to stage a little show because you never know who may be watching," she added.

This burgeoning informal commerce between two neighbors whose governments have maintained a Cold War-era enmity for half a century belies the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba -- but also reflects recent relaxations of it.

Since 1962, the U.S. embargo's intended aim has been to force the Cuban government to abandon its communist rule.   Continued...

<p>Cuban American passengers unload their luggage carts after they arrive from Miami at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport August 11, 2010. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa</p>