Strange Customs

Ready for another installment of my own Reality Check
experience outside the United States?

I had always taken for granted, even when I lived in
Nicaragua as a teen and young adult, that if I purchased something online or
had something shipped to me, with very few exceptions it would arrive as
planned and be delivered to me. It must be that outrageous idea that my stuff
is actually mine. You know, that
silly notion about property rights? Well, I must have been out of my mind to
think that the Nicaraguan government cares anything about your stuff actually being

Remember back a couple weeks ago when I talked about being
extorted by Nicaraguan customs officials and brokers? That was just the tip of
the iceberg. When I arrived in Nicaragua, thinking that all my papers were in
order because I had paid the broker $1500 for arranging the import papers with
the Nicaraguan consulate, I was informed by the same broker that now I needed
to pay another $1500 to “arrange” things with the Ministry of Sticky Fing, uh,
Finance inside Nicaragua. Oh, and by the way, I now needed to provide proof of
having been outside the country for 10 years as opposed to the 5 they had
previously stated. Uh, since I had already arrived and my entire life was on
the ocean on its way to port, I wasn’t exactly in a position where I had the
choice to walk away. I worked it out, paid of course, and then waited for my
things to arrive, presumably duty free, into the country.

Yay! After more than a month in transit, my shipment and my
vehicles arrived on December 21st! So, I just went to the designated
customs warehouse, picked up my stuff, and took it home.

Uh, no. You see, it was Christmas Vacation! How could it
occur to me to ship anything to arrive in December? Customs was on vacay and so
I had to wait until after Christmas to even see my things. My things. Did I mention that my kids’ Christmas presents were in
that shipment? Off I went, to the toy store, to buy a bunch of new presents,
because a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old don’t understand that Santa got held up
by customs.

Christmas came and went, and I was ready to go pick up my
stuff now, thank you. Ooooh, no. Didn’t I know that New Years was coming and
that customs was only working certain days, and on those days they closed at
1pm (more like noon) and I had to wait behind other customers?

Customers? I thought all I had to do was pick up my things.
Silly me, I had to wait for all the paperwork to be done, pay $8000 in taxes on
the second vehicle (in cash) and wait for inspection. Whaaa? That’s when I
found out about the “traffic light.” You see, customs runs all shipments
through a supposedly random light. If it comes out green, you’re good to go,
yellow, and they do a light inspection, and if red, then you get the full
cavity search. Did I mention that 99% of the time it turns out red? Guess what
light I got?

But never fear! For the low, low price of $600 for the
shipment and first vehicle and another $300 for the second vehicle (paid in
cash), I could have the light changed to green! Did I mention this was not
optional? A red light and refusing to pay the “fee” resulted in maybe never
seeing your stuff again, as they would be sure to find some reason to delay
and/or find a reason to confiscate or hold your shipment with additional “fines”
to be paid. I bet you can guess what I ended up doing.

On January 6, after hemorrhaging money to customs and
fretting to no end, I finally was able to take my things and my cars home. My
good friend, a true Godsend, who managed the warehouse, actually gave me a break and
waived the warehouse fee while ensuring that my goods were safe. The one break I got the whole time.

I need to say this again. These were not commercial goods,
they were my own things. Old things. Clothes, furniture, toys. I own them. And
yet, until I took them home, I was never sure if I was ever going to be able
to. Some people have left their things abandoned in customs, to be auctioned (you
should have seen the graveyard of abandoned cars in the customs parking lot)
because they could not pay the arbitrary and exorbitant price to get their own
property back. Can you imagine shipping something to yourself and not being
sure if the government is going to try and extort you for it, or just
outright steal it from you?

I bet you’re wondering if I had any money left at this point
to actually invest in my businesses. Well, apparently customs thought I did,
because now I had to import some equipment for my company, and that was a lot
of fun, too. I’ll leave that one for next time.

Nicaragua has nothing concrete in its Constitution that
defends property rights, and that’s why customs is able to do these things to
people. I wasn’t the first, and certainly not the only one. My friends have
told me customs horror stories, which I’ll relate in my next post as well. I am
very thankful for my 4th and 6th Amendment rights, and
again marvel at the foresight and wisdom of the founders. However, even in a
country where owning (and keeping) property is a fundamental right, things
happen all the time that violate our property rights here in the U.S.A. That
comes later in my story. In the meantime, think about whether your property is actually yours, and
whether our government is protecting our property rights as it should be.

About Rosa Barron

I’m a first generation American whose parents came to the USA from Nicaragua. Educated partially in the USA and partially in Nicaragua, I’ve lived all over the USA and traveled all over Latin America for work. My formal training is in Environmental and Biological Engineering from Cornell University, and I also have an MBA from the University of Florida. When I married my wonderful Idahoan husband, the need for me to work disappeared and I moved permanently to the USA, where we live now, currently in California. I raise our kids, manage our investments, and learn more every day about this wonderful country in which I had the good fortune to be born.
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2 Responses to Strange Customs

  1. Lloyd says:

    Man, what would it have been like if the customs warehouse manager was your enemy?

  2. David says:

    This sounds like the confiscatory antics of the current airport thugs in the Amerika. They routinely steal items from checked luggage and now I hear they’re stealing from traveler’s wallets in their presence claiming illicit funds. They also find pleasure in tormenting and belittling people by getting into their space and private areas, criminal activity for anyone.

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