San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How the Hacienda stole Christmas

The Finance Ministry is really getting into the Christmas season this year.

The ministry, according to executives of Aerocasillas, a Miami-based courier service with operations in Costa Rica, is demanding customs payments on some 5,000 packages ordered by folks in Costa Rica from retailers in the United States since Black Friday (Nov. 25), the largest shopping day in the U.S. The packages were ordered through courier services by customers who were under the impression that their small, online purchases were exempt from duties, said Aerocasillas Regional Director Jeff Duchesneau.

“This is a debate between the country of Costa Rica and the Hacienda [Finance Ministry],” said Duchesneau. “Rapid delivery businesses are caught in the middle of a polemic that developed from the decision to change, from one day to the next, the application of the law as it has existed for the last seven years in Costa Rica.”

The law in question is Article 93 of the Central American Uniform Customs Code (Cauca), which went into effect in 2004. Article 93 of Cauca classifies orders shipped to Central American countries, including Costa Rica, as exempt from customs taxes if the goods contained are for personal or family use; if the recipient is an actual, physical person who has not received an exemption on shipped goods in the last six months; if the amount of goods in the shipment are less than what could be considered for commercial distribution; and if the total value of the shipment is less than $500. 

There is no mention in the law of purchases made online.

In the past, this has meant that customers of businesses like Aerocasillas have enjoyed an exemption on many of their Christmas purchases from U.S. retailers. Aerocasillas offers shipping services and P.O. boxes in Florida, where Internet shoppers can have their orders delivered.

Duchesneau said he does not know why the Finance Ministry decided to change its interpretation of the law.

“This law is applied in exactly the same way today in Nicaragua,” he said. “This is not something new. This is something that is stipulated in Central American laws known as Cauca.”

The Costa Rican Finance Ministry announced the change via a press release posted in Spanish on its Facebook page at 9:23 a.m. on Nov. 24 – the day before Black Friday. Many people who live in Costa Rica also take advantage of Black Friday and the following “Cyber Monday” to cash in on bargain basement prices online from U.S. retailers.

In the press release, Customs General Director Gerardo Bolaños said: “Customs legislation provides that only such goods sent abroad for use or consumption of the recipient or his family are exempt from payment of duties, taxes and other charges, provided their total customs value does not exceed $500. Small consignments are regarded as a special form of non-commercial importation. Therefore, to qualify for the exemption, you must meet requirements established by law; otherwise, the imported goods will be subject to the corresponding taxes. Online purchases cannot be referred to as a shipment or transfer of goods, but of a purchase that was made by a person himself, which distorts the nature of the exemption above.”

Bolaños added that in order to qualify for the exemption, the landing bill attached to each order must be made out to a person and not to a business.

Manuel Gamboa, business manager of Aerocasillas in Costa Rica, reiterated that there are thousands of families whose Christmases are, literally, sitting in a customs warehouse.

“Today we ask publicly that the finance minister put on hold the decision,” Gamboa said. “There are many families in this country who are waiting for their Christmas presents, particularly families of very few resources, … because of a decision that was made outside of the process that should have been followed. There has been no official communication to the courier businesses or to the Costa Rica population on the part of the state saying that there was going to be a change [in the customs laws].”

The change in the law’s interpretation seems to be part of “Plan Nicolas,” an initiative the Finance Ministry announced in late October to combat customs duty evasion. Grace Zúñiga, president of the Association of Rapid Delivery Businesses in Costa Rica, said she met with Finance Ministry representatives on Nov. 23 to discuss Plan Nicolas, but was not informed of the exemption change until the press release was posted on the ministry’s Facebook.

The point of Cauca Article 93, Zúñiga said, is that shipments of goods exempt from customs fees meet specific criteria and are for non-commercial purposes. Christmas gifts, she said, seem to fit the criteria laid out in the law, particularly that the person who made the order has not enjoyed an exemption on customs charges in the last six months, that the value of the order is less than $500 and is for use by members of the ordering person’s family.

Zúñiga pointed out that these narrow criteria affect only a small percentage of courier companies’ business, a percentage that, obviously, surges during the Christmas season. Many people in Costa Rica regularly order items from U.S. retailers and pay the appropriate taxes.

“This is a country of rights and legality,” Zúñiga said. “So, until the Finance Ministry issues a statement rescinding [the Nov. 24 release], we as businesses have to follow the law. Our clients who have been effected are the ones who have to ask [authorities] to respect their rights.”

On Tuesday, T-shirts reading “I defend my right to exonerate” were seen at a march of organizations opposed to the government’s plan for fiscal reform (see story on Page 1). A Facebook group of the same name was created to support the cause. In the page’s information section, the group wrote: “We are demanding the return [of] what belongs to us as Costa Rican citizens. Having the opportunity to give to our families things that are beautiful and good at good prices is not a luxury, it is a right!”

Mauricio Ramírez, an Aerocasillas customer, passed out T-shirts at Tuesday’s protest. He said he represented all customers who ordered shipments from the U.S. through Aerocasillas, FedEx, UPS, DHL and Western Union.

“There is an agreement in all of Central America,” Ramírez said referencing Cauca, “that you can order two shipments per year from the U.S. for less than $500 and not have to pay a customs tax. When I went to pick up my order last week, I had to pay an additional $300 for the package.”

Ramírez said he asked Aerocasillas to hold his shipment of a computer for a week while he saved additional funds. He said he felt the Finance Ministry had reversed its policy in a “hidden manner.” 

Giovanni Segura also wore an “I defend my right to exonerate” T-shirt at Tuesday’s protest. He said he often orders electronics and clothing from the U.S.

“I planned to order a television from the U.S.” Segura said. “But if I have to pay an extra $200 or $300, I won’t make the order.” 

As of press time, neither the Customs General Director Bolaños nor the Finance Ministry responded to inquiries by The Tico Times about the customs charges.

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