14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 24 November 2020 — Four, three, two … A countdown marks the closing time of the Western Union office in Cuba this Monday. When the clock strikes six in the evening, a long era of remittances through the US company will be over, an end resulting from the sanctions imposed by Washington on its Cuban counterpart Fincimex.
If someone expected an avalanche of clients with long faces crowding the company’s offices, this Monday most of its stores in Havana have been practically empty. Only a few last-minute remittance recipients have come to the deserted hallways and been greeted by employees with a gesture of saying goodbye.
The deadline to collect the money sent from the United States expires this afternoon when the 407 branches that the company has on the Island will close after the Donald Trump administration included the Cuban company Fincimex on a blacklist, because it is controlled by the Cuban Armed Forces. Despite the efforts of the remittance giant, the Cuban side did not authorize another, non-military, partner to work with Western Union.
“Señora, the transfer number is mis-written, so we can’t pay you,” a Western Union worker explained to a woman who arrived at the office located on Belascoaín street in Centro Habana after noon. With last-minute nervousness, the woman mis-wrote the unique 10-digit transaction number her daughter dictated over the phone to receive the money.
“And now what am I going to do?” Asked the anguished woman who calculated she would not have time to call her daughter, who was in the middle of her workday in Miami, receive the correct number and collect the remittance. A problem that until yesterday would not have cost her any sleep, a a regular customer who received “Money in Minutes,” the motto that she learned by heart from reading so much of the company’s advertising.
Others just passed by one of the branches to take a look and see if it was true that the yellow and black colors that represent the company are now just the symbol of something past. “I was born with my grandmother saying that she was going to come down from the house for a moment to collect the money her brother sent her,” recalls Marco Ángel Suárez, a young man of 22
“This was like a member of the family because every now and then it came out in a conversation that I had to go through Western Union or that until the money arrived, I couldn’t buy tennis shoes or a new backpack,” he adds. “In addition, it is very close to our house because we live around the corner from the Plaza de Carlos III where there is an office.”
A few days ago, Suárez received a letter signed by the president of the company through a WhatsApp message chain. “We have been working hard on all possible alternatives to keep our service between the United States and Cuba open while we reorganize this vital channel for our clients. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find a solution in this limited timeframe,” the text added, Khalid Fellahi then explained.
“My soul fell to the ground,” acknowledges the young man. “Although there are other ways and I am sure that my great-uncle will continue to send the money, it is not the same. Western Union gave us security, seriousness and immediacy. With other companies we do not know because many are not even legally recognized here.”
In the midst of fears, there are always those who see the company’s leaving as temporary. “This is pure spectacle, but I don’t think we’ll get to July 2021 without Western Union,” says Dunia, a 47-year-old from Havana who believes that “Joe Biden’s victory will reverse all these measures.”
“It is better that they do not even remove the Western Union sign from these offices because soon we will see them open again,” Dunia insisted this Monday at noon outside the office on Obispo Street in Old Havana. Inside, the empty room was already a preview of a “see you later” that nobody knows how long it will last.
“They will find another way, money is like water, it always finds a way to enter,” predicted a newspaper vendor who makes a profit every day with the lines outside the branch. “I have never received a penny in this way but I know many people who eat thanks to this line,” he detailed to this newspaper. “When they wait to enter they buy peanuts, newspapers and sweets; but when they leave with the money they buy more.”
At a safe distance, a young man hands out a business card from a Miami-based company for sending remittances to Cuba. He offers discretion and brings the money “to the door of the house.” Nobody knows if small companies like these will be able to take on the enormous flow of cash that until today passed through Western Union.
Some 41% of the 3.7 billion dollars of remittances that arrived in Cuba in 2019 did so through companies with contracts with Fincimex, according to Emilio Morales, president of the advisory firm The Havana Consulting Group. According to the economist, the remittances sent to Cuba between 1993 to 2019 totaled 46.8 billion dollars.
At the moment, not a penny more will come through Western Union. Now, its customers do a new countdown: they are calculating the days until the company returns.
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