The precarity of the island has made it necessary for Cubans to find alternative ways to get access to foreign currency, creating an "informal" market.  
cuban remittances
Remittances keep Havana communities like this one, flowing. File Photo: Karen Vierbuchen

Remittances have played a very important role in the Cuban economy since the 90s, when the collapse of the Socialist Bloc forced the island to integrate itself into the international market and there was a massive need for foreign currency. The Cuban state at this time depenalized the dollar and created a series of entities to collect it, a process that began the piecemeal recuperation of the country in one of the most critical moments of its economic history.

Since then, remittances have constituted, above all, support for many Cuban families for whom the buying power of their salaries doesn’t meet even their monthly needs. Additionally, they’ve also been very useful in invigorating the private economic sector, which has experienced a takeoff in recent years and has felt the need to participate more in the foreign exchange market.

Foreign currency has been the object of political conflicts between the U.S. and Cuban governments, which have undermined their regular course. Nevertheless, the precarity of the island has made it necessary to find alternatives for the entry of foreign currency in all contexts and around it has been established, consequently, an informal market.  

Remittances of All Kinds

Ana and her mother live alone in Cuba, in the province of Mayabeque, with the rest of their family abroad. They were receiving remittances through Western Union until – the end of 2019 when the Trump administration canceled operations in the country. From that moment began the odyssey of trying different ways of accessing remittances that for the next year would bring more than a few  obstacles.

cuban remittances
Western Union in Cuba, like this one, have been shut down.

At the beginning, they received them from people who came from abroad, but that alternative was frustrated when the coronavirus pandemic caused the closure of all airports beginning in March of 2020. Then they chose to use Correos de Cuba, a state-owned international messenger service.

“We received [remittances] for a good time from there, they operated like Western Union. They didn’t send us money from the United States, it had to come from Spain”, remembers Ana of that time, “when there was still CUC[1]”.

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Afterwards, they went back to receiving remittances from travelers when the flight restrictions were lifted, and they tried other options. Ana’s mother acquired an AIS card[2], through which she continues receiving a monthly remittance of 100 dollars, transferred also via the platform TocoPay.

Through this formula, family members abroad buy products that are in demand on the island and Ana later sells them to access remittances…

Nevertheless, the shortages in the country and the enormous inflation[3] has forced them to find additional methods to access remittances. That was how, several months ago, they tried Bazar Regalo, an online buying platform through which many national enterprises sell their products in USD and deliver them to the homes of the beneficiaries or dispense them through a network of local offices.

cuban remittances
A man smokes a Cigar in a tourist area, pre-pandemic, in Habana Vieja. Photo: David Rotbard

Through this formula, family members abroad buy products that are in demand on the island and Ana later sells them to access remittances, whether in dollars, moneda nacional or in MLC (moneda libremente convertible). “My cousin buys me a pressure cooker, for example, and then I take that pressure cooker later and I sell it and then I have the money to buy food, because food in the stores is really expensive,” she explains. “There are tons of people doing this kind of thing.”

Other forms of entry of remittances to the country have been international recharges of mobile balance promoted by la Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA)…

Bazar Regalo isn’t the only market of this kind. Towards the end of 2020, Katapulk[4] became an option for sales in USD of products in the national market, hiring one hundred private transport personnel for home deliveries. And other platforms like these have emerged with identical or at least similar functions, being providers of remittances independent of the current context.

Making an Opportunity From Remittances

Another of the important aspects of remittances has been their support to the private economic sector. Daniel, who works in software reparations of electronics in the capital, uses the greatest amount possible of remittance routes to make the payments he needs to unblock cellphones. “I use them all,” he shares: “the most used is remesadoras travelers who bring remittances. If they want to send you 100 USD, they have to deposit 130 USD, so that afterwards the 100 in cash reaches you at home. The other way is through Zelle, this method is usually used to travel. They deposit 100 USD in the account and here you receive 5,500 in moneda nacional. They use it when they’re going to emigrate: they get money out of objects and properties, and it’s the easiest way to make it reach a bank account to cover expenses in the destination country.”

travelers bring cuban remittances
Travelers often bring remittances with them. Photo: Karen Vierbuchen

For his business, Daniel uses PayPal—laughing at the restrictions of this platform for Cuba— paying the 5,500 Cuban pesos[5] in exchange for a transfer of 100 USD to his account. He assures me that, like his, many other businesses guarantee their participation in services not available in Cuba in this manner.

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For others, this context has also been an opportunity to increase their savings. This is the case of Maria, a resident of Havana, who sent money she didn’t need in Cuba to the United States. She then began to charge for deposits in her account abroad in exchange for delivering remittances here: “Here I deliver MLC by transfer or USD in cash. I could also deliver moneda nacional, but I usually don’t do that,” she says. 

This movement of money has led her to return part of the cash that she had sent to the United States in order to continue to affect these transfers. She began these operations just over two months ago.

An Employment Opportunity as Well

Just as most remittances have been delivered through personal exchanges with family members or via online buying platforms or businesses, informal agencies – of which little is known  – but that employ many people throughout the country have also formed.

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Alberto is one of these employees who works as a courier in about three municipalities in the western province of Artemisa. He works for an agency that was established before the new economic order inaugurated in 2021:

“A man brings the money to my house, 50,000 pesos in moneda nacional and 50,000 American dollars, for example. There they count the amount of money. Then they call me on the phone and give me the information of whom I should deliver the money to, where they live and how much I should take. When the money is almost out, I call that man and he brings it to my house again”, that’s how the routine works for this lucrative business. 

Nonetheless, without a legal rule to protect it, the profit made by this work is sometimes non-existent. Alberto’s wages of 25 Cuban pesos per delivery: “and today, for example, I should make 50 pesos for two deliveries to Guanajay, but I’m in Havana now, and my travel expenses roundtrip are almost 300 pesos. In the end, I don’t gain anything, I lose”. Despite this, during the worst periods of the pandemic, this was an important source of income for him. He doesn’t have any choice except to completely resign himself to his work.  

The Neverending Path

Other forms of entry of remittances to the country have been international recharges of mobile balance promoted by la Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA) and those linked to cryptocurrency. Concerning the latter, which little by little has been expanding in Cuba through different methods, has also started to be used for shipments to family members on the island. 

The payment platform QvaPay, created by Cuban entrepreneurs, has provided the possibility of – facilitating the sending of remittances to Cuba—including cryptocurrency— from anywhere  in the world, and being able to make transfers to the MLC cards.

cuba mlc store
Government MLC stores in Cuba, like this one accept US Dollars. Photo: Mario Gonzalez

However, some specialists draw attention to these cryptoactive systems and the scarce interest manifested by the Banco Central de Cuba in guaranteeing the security of these services and in exploiting the common areas, among which is found the reception of remittances.

Finally, it’s important to mention- that for many years different actors in Cuban civil society have demanded the transfer of the management of remittances to civil institutions like el Banco Central, changing the route that numerous businesses subordinate to the Grupo de Administración Económica (GAESA)[6] traverse. The determination of this change considerably favored the normalization of the influx of remittances to Cuba, reducing its informal market and guaranteeing a greater positive impact on the economic reality of the country.

[1] Convertible Cuban peso, eliminated this year after the implementation of the new monetary order of the country.

[2] American International Service (AIS) is a Cuban business located in Panama that sends remittances to Cuba. In August of 2020 it launched a card for the transfer of MLC remittances with which one could buy in the new stores created specifically to collect foreign currency. The service, however, has had various problems and no longer produces cards, though they kept making transfers until November 18 of this year, the date on which the AIS platform entered into maintenance and recommended making transfers exclusively through TocoPay.

[3] In October 2021, the country’s administrative authorities recognized that the inflation rate had reached the scandalous level of 6 900% in the informal market.

[4] What’s unique about this business is that it’s American, owned by Hugo Cancio, Cuban-American empresario, who  a few months ago became the first businessman of this ethnicity with the authorization to open a branch of his business on the island.  Its operations were authorized by the OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control), an institution of the American government that regulates restrictions under the embargo/bloqueo against Cuba.

[5] Remember that payments made in moneda nacional are also the balance delivered as family remittances from whomever deposits the 100 dollars abroad.[6] Empresarial group that pertains to the Armed Forces, and causes the many restrictions that the United States government imposes on Cuba.

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Hamed Toledo is a writer and promoter of various sociocultural projects and publications. He is also an activist in anti-authoritative and solidarity initiatives, and holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Havana. He was born and lives in Guanabacoa, a magic place on the outskirts of the Cuban capital. He prefers poetry by Eliseo Diego, Radiohead and starry nights.

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