The Adventure of Opening an Account in Cuba in MLC (Hard Currency)

Waiting in line. A daily fact of life in Cuba.

14ymedio biggerElías Amor Bravo, Economist, July 26, 2020 – Imagine that you’re going to your bank to open an account. One of the simplest operations in any country in the world.

You really could save yourself the trouble, if you want, because online banks offer a way to do that. In Cuba, it’s more complicated, although this option also exists.

On the Island, it’s normal to have to visit the bank, and in addition, to hurry, because there are only three places where you can open the account, and you will probably have to wait in long lines. Specifically, you can open the account in the Bank of Credit and Commerce (BANDEC), the Metropolitan Bank (BM) and the Peoples’ Savings Bank (BPA), all of them State controlled.

After waiting for hours, you address the employee and tell him you want to open an account in freely convertible money (MLC — moneda libremente convertible) so you can buy goods and services in the MLC shops, which are usually better supplied than the regular State stores. Your goal is to get the debit card associated with the MLC account, so you can buy everything.

The first thing the employee clarifies is that the MLC shops are accepting U.S. dollars and euros. You can forget about using any money from Cuba’s commercial friends, like Venezuela, China and even Russia. They also accept, with a certain reluctance, Canadian dollars, British pounds and Swiss francs. And other currencies, like the Mexican peso, the Japanese yen, the Danish crown, the Norwegian crown and the Swedish crown, but they tell you that the account will be denominated in U.S. dollars, in accordance with the official exchange rates.

You’ve come well prepared, with your identity card (for example, your drivers’ license won’t work, but it’s okay, irregularities are thereby avoided), and you’re surprised when the employee informs you that you don’t need money to open the account. What’s more, don’t worry because the account can be opened with a zero balance. You don’t understand anything, and the wad of bills you have in your pocket is worrisome, because the employee is blunt when he tells you that the account has to be supplied with transfers made from the exterior – from abroad – whether through a bank or by Fincimex (the financial arm of CIMEX, a State entity) with remittances.

With a certain resignation you sign the first pile of papers, and stamps and other administrative elements are added. In the conversation with the employee, he suggests that you use the AIS USD card, which Fincimex offers the population, and he even promotes your request from overseas; in other words, the possibility exists that remittances from the exterior can be requested in the country where you are located. The employee can’t avoid commenting that my card might take a long time, we don’t do well with plastic here so it’s better to get the card outside, you would be able to make purchases sooner.

While the employee introduces the information into a computer, which crashes several times (the network is slow and the employee complains), he comments that BANDEC (a credit bank) offers anyone the possibility through the Transfermóvil application to request an MLC card without having to come in person to the bank branch (the online option). You think it’s a pity you didn’t know this before. You could have saved a lot of lost time, but in Cuba now it’s understood. And besides, you want to go with your card in hand to teach your friends and family how to use it.

But then comes the critical moment. When it seems that everything is ready and that the card is now within reach, the best part arrives. The employee tells you that the card won’t be there for 7 to 10 days, and it could be longer, and he asks for your phone number so he can call you when it arrives. Resignation. It’s not possible to leave the bank with the card.

Then you remember a similar transaction performed by a relative in a bank in Hialeah some months before, and how he left triumphant with the card, with assurance, with a policy of credit and several gifts from the bank. A different system. Once more, the employee whispers, to avoid being heard, deficiencies exist in the deliveries, and we’re continuing to work on this.

The fact is that when Monday comes you still don’t have the card, and when you consult with friends from work you realize that some have spent two weeks waiting, without news. The shops are open, but people can’t buy with cards that were issued by the banks. The lines shown on Cuban television are due to the fact that many buyers have other cards that can be used the same way.

In effect, in addition to the cards from BANDEC, BM and BPA, there are the AIS USD cards of Fincimex, which function in these shops and also in the other electronic payment channels of the Cuban banking system. You thought about the Visa card that was brought back from one of your trips to Miami, which you couldn’t find anywhere.

The employee has you sign several papers, while he gives final instructions. With this account and debit card you can go to another shop, not only to the USD one, and use it the same way. You also can access ATM machines and withdraw money, but be careful, you won’t get dollars or euros, only Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs), at the same exchange rate that the bank has right now for the U.S. dollar.

Then, you dare to formulate a question, only one. Are you sure that the tax on the dollar has been eliminated? The employee smiles and informs you that it was eliminated on Monday, July 20, in accordance with the measures approved recently by the Cuban Government. Before, if you came to the bank with North American dollars in cash, a 10% discount would apply. For example, if you brought 100 dollars they would deposit 90 in your account. Now that doesn’t happen. And he goes back to insist, again, that the account is now open and you don’t need to deposit cash right now.

However, he reminds you again about the three ways to have funds on the MLC cards. He recommends a bank transfer from the exterior and also by way of remittances through Fincimex.

The second can be through a transfer you receive from another USD account, between individuals.

The third is cash, and it can be in North American dollars or other currencies.

At this point, you wonder why they rejected your cash deposit and whether you understood anything at all.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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