14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 15 March 2018 — The last weeks have been like a heart attack for Luis, the employee who guards the door at the Metropolitan Bank (Banmet) on Galiano Street, in Havana. The flood of customers doesn’t give him a minute’s rest because “people are going nuts changing and saving money” out of fear that monetary unification is coming, he says.
Long lines in front of the bank branches are part of the Havana landscape, a city with more than two million inhabitants which receives thousands of tourists every day, who are forced to change their currency into Cuban pesos (CUP) or convertible pesos (CUC). But the demand seems to have increased in the last month.
“A lot of people come who have money saved in CUC,” says Luis, who organizes the line into several parts from early on. “The businesses are over here,” he says pointing to those who have gathered outside the branch. “Those who have come to get cash I put on this side here, and those who have personal paperwork to do with the bank on the other side,” he explains.
Most of the line is in the area for those who are going to do some operation in their bank account. “I have come to deposit about 500 CUC because I have been told that the money that is in the bank will be respected,” explains a lady who is third in line.
Last year the authorities warned in an official statement that the process of monetary unification will respect “the principle of the trust of the people who have kept their savings in Cuban banks in CUC, other international currencies and CUP remains intact.”
Julio César Reyes, general director of Banmet’s Electronic Banking, acknowledged in statements to the official press that since the beginning of this year there has been “a gradual increase in transactions” in its branches and ATMs, but the number of the latter is still insufficient to meet the demand.
Last December, during a session of the Parliament, Raúl Castro insisted on pointing out that addressing the problem of monetary duality can not be “delayed any longer.” After those words, speculations about an immediate unification of the two currencies on the Island were unleashed, after a quarter century of the dual monetary system.
As April 19 approaches, the date a new president is expected to assume office, uncertainty grows on the streets. Among the signs are private sellers that do not accept CUC for fear of devaluation, and published classified ads that display prices in dollars.
Elías Amor, a Cuban economist based in Spain, does not think it is likely that Raúl Castro will be able to carry out the unification process before he leaves power. In his opinion, the authorities know that the process is not as simple as establishing one of the two as the only official currency. It will be necessary to attend to “the mechanisms of price formation, the salary levels of the population, the purchasing power of wages,” among other factors
At the beginning of the revolutionary process, the banking entities suffered successive nationalizations, and forced and traumatic currency exchanges, which generated a particular distrust towards banks among Cubans. However, now many believe that the money circulating will be worth less after the devaluation that is expected to accompany the unification.
Another factor is that all the banks in the country are managed by the State and in the past numerous clients with significant savings were also branded as “pots” (new rich or hoarders) and legally prosecuted. An antecedent that those with more memory recall when they consider the dilemma of keeping their money in the banks or leaving it at home.
The urgency has touched the pockets of many. “I have no choice but to believe that having the money in the bank will be the best because I can’t go around buying dollars to keep under the mattress,” Yuraimy González, one of the Banmet customers on Galiano street waiting to deposit money this Wednesday, tells this newspaper.
“What I do not want to happen is that they carry out the unification, and I’m left with cash in chavitos (CUCs) and that money loses value,” explains this 38-year-old from Havana. She is a self-employed worker in a hairdressing salon, with husband who has emigrated and sends her remittances, and she is committed to “putting everything in the bank and waiting to see what happens.”
The economist Pedro Monreal believes that the unification of exchange rates in Cuba, and especially the accompanying devaluation, “should be conceived as part of a broader set of measures.” The specialist believes that if unification and devaluation were “disconnected” events with respect to other measures, “it is likely that they will not work well.”
Depositing CUCs in a bank account can only be done through a teller’s window at a bank, because in the entire capital there are only seven ATMs where cash can be deposited in Cuban pesos (CUP) and none that do that function in convertible pesos.
“Banks are overburdened because there has also been a significant reduction in the number of currency exchanges (Cadecas) in this area of Centro Habana,” laments Luis, the guard at Galiano Street. The Cadecas, where a CUC is exchanged for 24 CUP, have decreased in number and opening hours in recent years.
In mid-2017, 26 branches of the 93 Metropolitan Banks in the capital extended their service hours to cope with an increase in operations. The traditional schedule of Monday to Friday, and alternate Saturdays, from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm, was extended to 7:30 pm in at least one branch per municipality.
However, in a tour of several branches, this newspaper confirmed that the closing time is seldom respected. Electricity cuts, closures for fumigation or for priority attention to customers from state companies significantly reduce the time allocated to private users.
“The end of the month has not yet arrived, which is when branches become busier because pensions start to be paid to retirees,” warns the administrator of another local Metropolitan Bank located on Belascoaín Street, who preferred anonymity. “We’ve had weeks when at closing time there are still many people outside who have not been able to do their transactions,” he says.
“The largest number of operations we are doing are deposits, the exchange of foreign currency and the sale of stamps for legal procedures, but many people simply ask if we know the date of the unification, but we do not have an answer,” adds the worker.
“If this is the case now, at the end of the month we will have to ask for reinforcements to organize the lines and to serve the public, because we can not cope.”
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