14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 18 October 2021 — The long line to enter the central La Época store was barely moving this Saturday at noon on Calle San Nicolás y Concordia, in Centro Habana. Since nine in the morning, only 30 people had entered, because of the lack of a connection with the banks to approve payments with magnetic cards in freely convertible currency (MLC).
Very early, an employee announced at the top of his voice what everyone feared: “The system is down.” Along with the shouts of discomfort, some laughter broke out at the double meaning of the message. Then the hours passed. When noon arrived, discomfort grew in the line, in which pregnant women and elderly people were waiting; aware of the store’s frequent problems they had brought their own stools to sit and wait.
“There is no connection,” the line organizer repeated to everyone who asked her, as she held a large number of ID cards in her hand. Her clarification did not prevent protests from arising again and again from the crowd. “Again?” Said a young man aloud. “How many times is the connection going to go down today?” he questioned before the widespread support of the crowd.
“If you pay in foreign currency, the service should be better,” said a young woman who had gone to buy a few kilograms of chicken breast with money that her sister had sent her by bank transfer. “You can tolerate this in a store in Cuban pesos, but I don’t understand it in foreign currency.”
The authorities have repeated ad nauseam about the Cuban economy’s need for fresh foreign exchange to enter the country. With this objective in mind, in the middle of last year they began selling food and cleaning products in MLC, which has generated a great popular anger among those who do not have access to remittances or payments in foreign currency.
To prevent the circulation of cash, the Government requires that customers pay in these businesses with magnetic cards issued by national banks, or Visa, Mastercard or UnionPay cards issued by foreign institutions, with the exception of the United States. But this requirement often runs into an obstacle: the fluctuations of connectivity between the terminals that read the card and the bank that must authorize the transaction.
Just a few blocks from La Época, at the Roseland store, the problem was also repeated this Saturday. Sales were stopped and people were very upset outside because the communication system with the bank is intermittent. “There is a connection for five minutes and then it’s down for half an hour. I am at the entrance from early and it is two in the afternoon, how is it possible that they do not have something of quality with the amount of money they make with these stores,” commented a woman .
Like a carbon copy, the scene was similar at Capricho and La Filosofía stores. Already in the department of electrical appliances in Plaza Carlos III, people sat on the floor and long faces were observed all over the place. The cashier swiped the card over and over, until a strip of paper came out indicating that the operation failed.
A call to the customer service numbers of the Metropolitan Bank that operates in the Cuban capital offers few details about the technical reasons for so many ups and downs in the connection. “That depends, it could be congestion problems on the lines,” explains an operator when asked by 14ymedio. “But it may also be that we are doing some maintenance, although in that case it is always announced in advance.”
Another employee, from the Banco de Crédito y Comercio in Havana, attributes the problem to the state telecommunications monopoly. “Most of the time the connectivity problems results from Etecsa failures, but of course, people point to the bank. The worst happens with those who have foreign cards, because not only must the store communicate with our branch, but we have to communicate with the bank outside the country.”
“I can only swipe it three times in a row, then I have to try another one,” explained the vendor in the Plaza de Carlos III to the troubled customers. Everyone was waiting to buy the electric rice cookers that they had just put up for sale after several days without showing up.
A young woman came forward and handed him her card: “Try this one.” This time it took a long time for the paper to come out and the girl was encouraged: “Now if it’s going to happen, I know from experience, when it takes time for the paper to come out, it works.” The clerk looked at her and smiled. “You are already an expert, you are right, you qualified!” The young woman looks at the ceiling with her hands outstretched as the receipt comes out of the device, like someone who has just won the lottery.
It didn’t take long for an uproar to form in the place when it was learned that it wasn’t her turn to buy yet, but the lucky customer had already walked away with her pot in her hands.
Outside, word spread that the system “has worked again,” but a few minutes later an employee poked her head out the door and asked for understanding because the connection with the bank had been lost for the umpteenth time.
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