Most of us really only know of NFTs as “digital art” like the one I bought: Clandestina Co-Founder, Idania del Rio’s dino called “Goodbye Broadband.”
cuban NFT by idania del rio
The actual NFT I bought was animated but here’s a cool still. Credit: Idania del Rio

Using (mostly) the Ethereum blockchain, NFTs provide buyers an opportunity to claim ownership of a digital asset and for the creator of that asset to benefit if it changes hands, creating value in the future. I think you know that. If not, what that means in English is that if you buy a Cuban NFT, or just an NFT period (i.e., a digital photograph), it’s yours and only yours. If you sell it one day, not only do you benefit, but so too does the photographer who sold that NFT to you.

Most of us really only know of NFTs as “digital art” like the one I bought: Clandestina Co-Founder, Idania del Rio’s dino called “Goodbye Broadband.” It’s a jpeg of Clandestina’s Google inspired dino biting through a fiber optics cable. And… It’s mine. Well, one of nine copies is mine. And, speculative or not though speculative, early adopters are hoping that they increase in value. There’s something happening here: an NFT sold by Christie’s auction house, the most expensive yet, went for $69 million. (I didn’t pay quite that much.)

Today, it’s mostly art that’s being traded as NFTs. But, art isn’t really the game.

(BTW, if you don’t know what blockchain is, give this piece a look. I’m skipping over that part for this piece.) 

Ken and Zuzy talking about NFTs over a cafecito (or 7) in NYC.

Today, it’s mostly art that’s being traded as NFTs. But, art isn’t really the game. It’s just the beginning: the potential is so much bigger. NFTs’ implications for our economy, efficiencies that are possible with our work force, and how we value skill sets in general are all just getting started. In short, if it’s “digital,” it can theoretically be NFT-i-tized. Today when people think NFTs, they’re thinking graphics, photographs, music, rich-entrepreneur’s tweets. But what about engineers or employers considering code contributions (or even lines of code) as an NFT asset, therefore tracking and compensating workers based on how their code performs in the context of overall software? These mind blowing possibilities would emphasize a more meritocratic economy and drive efficiencies up exponentially. It has the potential to accelerate the already happening change in the way we recruit and employ talent. 

When you really start thinking about the shift that is possible, it’s nuts. Ok: Back to my story…

First A Quick Recap: What Are NFTs?

Taking a step back: NFT stands for non-fungible token. Not to be confused with a “fungible token” such as bitcoin, the “non” part means that it cannot be traded for another NFT. If I have a bitcoin and you have a bitcoin, we can technically trade bitcoins. When you hold an NFT, there is no other NFT like it and therefore it can’t be traded at all. 

You can sell your NFT but you can’t trade it for another. It is… “non-fungible.”

What does this all mean for Cuba?

The overall discussion of where cryptocurrencies fit into our quickly becoming borderless world is complicated. And, if you’re a super power like the United States, it has strategic implications that require a new way of thinking if you want to retain your control. Gone could be your ability to claim strength via your currency when blockchain circumvents your borders and you don’t have your army to keep it (i.e. the dollar) strong. 

Related Post: Bitcoin in Cuba: How Cubans Are Navigating Crypto

If you’re Cuba though, it is potentially even more problematic: Cuban artists are selling NFTs. And, they’re getting paid for them. So where does the money go?

Idania del Rio cuba nft
Clandestina’s Idania del Rio made the NFT that the author bought. Photo: Ali Campbell

I had a chance to chat with Jauretsi Saizarbitoria (a.k.a. just “Jauretsi”) about the early stages of NFTs in Cuba. Jauretsi is not only one of the single-most-looped-into-everything-Cuba-and-then-some people I know, but she’s also hosted a number of Cuban NFT conversations on Clubhouse. Having listened and led the conversation multiple times, she helped me better understand the initial impact they’re having. 

Jauretsi Saizarbitoria cuban nft
Jauretsi is the single-most-looped-into-everything-Cuba-and-then-some person the author knows. Photo: Startup Cuba

Here are my three key takeaways on how NFTs could potentially impact Cuba:

  1. They Circumvent Borders – NFTs, which at the moment are mostly being sold as “art,” allow art collectors to buy art without traveling to Cuba. At the same time, it allows artists to make sales anywhere in the world, digitally. Artists who would otherwise depend on tourists visiting their galleries are able to bring their digital galleries to the tourists (so to speak) and earn a living. This is particularly helpful when a contracting economic period meets a pandemic as is currently the case in Cuba.
  2. American Citizens can support Cuban artists – Despite the 60 year old US embargo, and limitations imposed by that, when you send money to a Cuban artist for their NFT, you’re not technically sending money to Cuba. Instead you’re sending cryptocurrency and you’re putting it out there, into the universe. Don’t take my word for it, I’m not a lawyer but if you really want to do something in “support of the Cuban people,” here’s your chance.
  3. NFT Creators can earn significant money – Since NFTs give artists the ability to sell their creations to markets outside of Cuba, beyond the Cuban economy, they’re theoretically able to earn significantly higher prices for their work, giving them more economic freedom.

Other benefits include the elimination of shipping costs and complex paperwork when taking art out of Cuba. And of course, not having to explain to the Cuban government every time you’re paid for art and a wad of cash winds up in your bank account. 

cuban NFT artists
NFTs have the potential to improve the quality of life of Cuban artists. Photo: Chris Vázquez

Of course, complexities come with this too. For instance, how are Cubans going to use their newly earned cryptocurrencies? It’s not like they can use it to buy food and pay for electricity. There’s been talk about the Cuban government adopting cryptocurrencies as a way to stimulate the economy. However, to say that that’s up-in-the-air would be generous and imply that it was even really first on the ground to begin with.

And remember, art is just the beginning.

One thing Jauretsi brought to my attention that I found particularly interesting was that for the first time with something “new” in Cuba, the blockchain knows who the first person was to sell an NFT. With previous works and/or projects in Cuba, “everybody” is first. Like when we did our story on El Paquete Semanal, every person we met said that they created El Paquete. Currently, it looks like artist Gabriel Guerra Bianchini is the frontrunner when it comes to NFTs. He’s everywhere. After the headlines shake out though and the initial bubble settles a bit, we’ll actually be able to tell because there’s literally a timestamp out there.  

Related Post: Samuel Riera’s Art Brut Cuba Gives Outsider Artists a Platform

So should you buy an NFT right now? Is it a good investment? “I’m a fan of being a first mover. Everyone sort of invests what they can handle only. But, I believe in it. I believe in owning the first of something,” Jauretsi tells me. And, I agree with her. But, frankly, I bought my first Cuban NFT to support Idania. It would be cool if it were worth something one day but I’m not in it for that.

What’s next?

Honestly, I have not a clue in a guava donut hole. So much is happening and it’s happening so fast that it’s beyond my processing power. I do know though that if you look back on this period in ten years, the nascent NFT space will look like child’s play compared to what potential is ahead for Cuban artists, the Cuban economy and the world in general.  

And remember, art is just the beginning.

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Ken Deckinger is the co-founder and CEO of Startup Cuba and the executive producer and host of its namesake docuseries. A native of South Florida, Ken has been an entrepreneur for his entire professional career. Previously he was co-founder and CEO of HurryDate, pioneering the global concept of speed dating to 45 cities throughout the US, UK and Canada. HurryDate eventually evolved into online dating and was acquired by Spark Networks, the parent company of ChristianMingle.com and JDate.com. Ken is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Florida, where he was honored with the University’s Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Under 40 award and sits on the Board for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He actively advises entrepreneurs and is a two-time protagonist of a Harvard Business School case study. Ken’s filmmaking and journalistic journey is inspired by a love of travel and authentic connections with other cultures. He believes that the more we know about each other, through stories, the closer we can become — thus the mission of Startup Cuba: to amplify the voices of the people sharing stories in the Latinx space. After living in New York City for 15 years, he encouraged his wife to move their family to Miami to get back to his South Florida roots. Needless to say, it was a short discussion and he and his family now call Boston, where his wife grew up, their home.

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