14ymedio, Madrid, 3 June 2023 — Code names and emoticons instead of faces. The photo of the first meeting of Cuban bitcoiners, held on May 28 at the PaZillo bar in Havana, has gone viral in the world of cryptocurrencies. Surviving in a precarious economic environment like that of the Island, avoiding the surveillance of the regime and betting on the future of digital money has turned Cubans into heroes before their international colleagues.
Joe Hall, a specialist in cryptocurrencies and journalist for the British media Cointelegraph, is one of the few uncovered faces in the photo at the PaZillo bar. He traveled to Cuba to participate in the meeting of the “community,” and now, speaking from Madrid, he talks with 14ymedio about the enthusiasm of young Cubans for digital currencies.
“What moved me the most was to note that even under a regime as hostile as the Cuban one, where there seems to be no future, suddenly there is an economic hope – bitcoin – that does not allow itself to be crushed by the Government,” says Hall, who appears on Twitter as Joe Nakamoto: a tribute to the anonymous creator of bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto.
The trip to the Island, he says, was almost an expedition of discovery, to learn about the environment of digital money and how Cubans were dealing with it. “I went to Cuba to investigate,” he says, summarizing a trip that took him to several towns on the outskirts of Havana and to the capital itself, where bitcoiners develop their businesses.
There was a lot of talk at the PaZillo bar, Hall explains. “I decided to go after hearing Alex Gladstein’s opinion in 2021 about the introduction of cryptocurrencies in Cuba. He wrote a report about the bitcoin ’revolution’ on the Island. I wanted to go and see it with my own eyes.”
Camera in hand and with the intention of making a future documentary, Hall was fully introduced to the Havana world of cryptocurrencies, and, with the help of three organizers who prepared the meeting after a long organizing by Telegram, more than 60 Cubans were able to talk with him about digital money.
They were people of all ages and occupations, men and women, business owners and amateurs, or simply Cubans – “very intelligent and educated,” says Hall – who are interested in doing business in bitcoin.
“The goal was to educate the community on how to better use bitcoin, how to accept it and trade with it or pay in establishments and bars such as PaZillo, which are open to this type of currency,” says Hall, who admits that, with the exception of Havana and Matanzas, the other Cuban provinces have a long way to go in the matter.
To boost the use of bitcoin, the organizers sold sweaters with the bitcoin logo at 100 satoshis each, the equivalent of a dollar, “with a view to everyone being able to buy them,” he explains.
“Throughout the meeting, I tried to understand how Cubans use bitcoin,” says Hall, who also reflected on the limitations and difficulties of using digital money in the Cuban environment.
In an article published on May 31, he presented his conclusions: “Cuba’s foray into Bitcoin signifies a departure from the centralized economic model that has shaped Cuba’s economy for decades. Despite limited internet access, financial constraints and a socialist-styled government, the meetup underscored that Cubans are increasingly turning to crypto as a means of financial freedom and an ’exit’ from the local economy.”
What’s disturbing, however, is the attention that the Government has placed on that world and the concern with which they followed the announcement of the meeting in Havana. “One of the State Security spies began to follow me in a market and I had to play the role of ’dumb gringo’. However, he never questioned me,” he says.
Despite the economic precariousness of the country, Hall perceives a glimmer of hope in the relationship of young Cubans with alternatives such as bitcoin. He was in Cuba in 2019 and, despite the fact that it was a few months before the connection from mobile phones had begun, the most effective thing was to look for a Wi-Fi spot in the central square of the towns and cities.
The change came with the Internet, despite the connection difficulties. “Cubans are very intelligent. They learned to use VPNs and have found many ways to dodge government surveillance. It is true that the country has deteriorated, but the Internet is everywhere, and bitcoin, by nature, is the money of the Internet. That has made me optimistic, despite the fact that the regime’s first reaction to any eventuality is to cut the connection,” he reasons.
Another benefit of using cryptocurrencies faced with an economy like the Cuban one is that, as the country cannot guarantee stability, bitcoin becomes a good option for saving: “In Cuba you can’t really save in dollars or euros, much less in pesos. But in that context, questions also arise: “To what extent will the Government stand idly by?”
For people, on the other hand, it can be a viable economic solution in the face of the “horrible” situation that is being experienced. As for the regime, “it can’t touch bitcoin,” Hall summarizes, and that is the security of this currency: “It can’t be confiscated.”
Translated by Regina Anavy
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