EspañolI was about to make a trip back to Argentina on business when I received a message from a childhood friend. It began to seem quite urgent when not a second later she sent me another. “Did you get it?!” she asked desperately. Now fully intrigued, I immediately opened the message. She knew I was about to arrive at the airport in Asunción. “I need you to bring me two bottles of Jack Daniel’s from the Free Shop.”
My friend was getting married in a month, and they were no more imports of this particular brand of whiskey coming in. There are, however, other examples like this — one for all tastes. Another friend recently gave up trying to buy her wedding dress from a designer in China after dealing with frustrating regulatory hurdles and taxes.
While drinking coffee with a friend near Calle Florida in Buenos Airies, he told me what he and some friends had to do to get a computer and several external hard drives in to the country from their trip to the Zona Libre de Colón (Colon Free Zone) in Panama.
“Look, Belén, what I did was wait in the area where they hand you your bags until a flight from Brazil arrived. The Brazilians hardly get checked.” These custom officials make you feel like a criminal. He continued, “the lady who traveled with me hid a tablet in her baby stroller, and Mariana (his girlfriend) hid her iPhone in her bra.”
But it is naive to think you can get through without being detected by AFIP (Federal Administration of Public Revenue), or as some call it, GestAFIP (after the Gestapo). The experience can often go very wrong, as with my friend Pablo. Customs officials found the Nokia 7D that the photographer had just bought and tried to make him pay the “fine” for buying the product outside the country.
Argentinians entering the country have a limit of US$300 (or US$150 for neighboring countries) for merchandise purchased abroad. If you exceed that amount, you must pay 50 percent of the total cost of the product that exceeds this limit.
Of course, if you’d like to claim that you already had this item before leaving Argentina, then all you need is the sworn written statement listing the product’s serial number that you made before leaving the country. If not, you’re out of luck!
Since the limit imposed by the state is US$300, and the camera is valued at US$2,000 — a difference of US$1,700 — Paul’s fine totaled US$850. Paul didn’t have the money to pay, and when officials attempted to “kidnap” his device, he refused and threw the camera to the ground as hard as he could. “If I can’t have it, no one will.”
There’s more. Many more. Argentinians have a reputation globally as creative and talented people. We don’t have a choice. Necessity has sharpened our wits.
This isn’t limited to airports either. It’s the same if traveling by land or by sea. As the physiocrat Bastiat said, “if goods do not cross borders, soldiers will,” or Argentinians.
Those who are lucky enough to live near the border province of Mendoza (known for its excellent wine) cross over weekly through the international tunnel to the Chilean capital to buy what their local industry either does not provide or provides at low quality and high prices. They travel on a gravel road to avoid customs (a much lighter route than the airport anyway).
Traveling by waterway is also a possibility. This, I believe, is the latest way to do it, and the border that is the least checked. Many returning from the United States, Europe, or Australia will extend their 11 hour flight by opting to land at the Carrasco airport in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.
From there, they’ll take the ferry over to the port of Argentina’s capital, crossing the widest river in the world, to avoid the ridiculous taxes imposed by Argentinian customs. The port stations and inspection schedules are well studied in advance by the locals to avoid detection. In this way, coming back from the first world can become a 24 hour journey.
The protection of national industry and the need to collect tariffs to maintain a bloated state are the reason why Latin Americans generally, and Argentinians specifically, have had to come up with ways to overcome the obstacles created by bureaucrats sitting behind their desks. Every (unjust) law has a (morally justified) loophole.