Greased Lightning! / Miriam Celaya

It is Sunday, July 7th, and in Centro Habana, only the Belascoaín and Zanja Bank ATM is working.  The line is long and wide. The other two ATMs facing Zanja are empty of funds and the Banco Metropolitano, of course, is closed today.

The line is two and three people deep, and they are chatting among themselves.  It is made up of several dozen people wishing to withdraw funds.  They had trekked, without success, through several ATMs in the city to finally end up at the only functioning one, at least in many blocks around.  People cannot understand what is happening.

A young girl comments that she has been at the ATMs at Galiano and Monte and they are out of commission; a middle-aged gentleman came from Calzada Infanta, where he found two ATM’s were also out of commission.  Another person is sure that the one at Monte and Infanta is out of funds. The one at Carlos III, corner of Marqués González is not working.  In fact, the same ATM (CADECA) at this location and the one at Infanta and Estrella have been closed for the past few weeks. Not just a “bump” that occurred today, but something that is happening regularly. It is rumored that some CADECA’s have been “shut down permanently”, though nobody knows why, so –as usual, in the absence of official information- speculation is running wild.

And, since everything that is “is shot out” here ends up as nonsense and, since every bit of  nonsense is possible in Cuba, each person has his own theory on the subject, and those who are “informed” are never far, the ones with a friend or relative working in banking or finance, so they know more than the rest of us mere mortals. So the word out on the street is that “they are going to unify both currencies, so they are reducing the circulating currency”; that “there is a lot of counterfeit money, so the government wants to detect it and take it out of circulation by closing down the ATMs (?); that there is “no liquidity”; that the network is down”; that “the armored trucks broke down”; that “they discovered a chain (another one) of corruption on the part of many employees and bank executives, so they have ‘frozen’ all the ATMs” and a whole lot of  other rumors that would be funny if it not were for all the obstacles against the rights of people to their own financial property.

“Efficiency” is the general-president’s vocabulary word. However, the use of banking digital technology in Cuba has never resulted in monetary transactions that are efficient, simple or optimal in the service that should be expected, theoretically.  It is just like applying technology all at once in the Paleolithic era. So in stores that accept only foreign currency, the procedure to pay with a card issued by the National Bank is that a person goes through the hassle of simultaneously handing over his identification, writing down his name, address and “customer’s” card number on a form, and signing a receipt that will be carefully filed under the cash register. That, as long as the rare and happy event that the “network is not offline”, while people line up behind the owner of the card to transact their payment. And, paradoxically, the public gets upset and impatient at the customer who pays with the card or with the cashier who has to go through the steps of the complicated procedure.

But back to the line at Belascoaín this Sunday, a 70-something grandmother finally showed up with her hypothesis: “perhaps last night’s thunderstorm affected the functioning of ATMs. Maybe a lightning bolt; these things run on electricity… who knows!” To which a wise old man, with an expression of mischievous complicity, quickly replied: “Yes, ma’am, it was probably lightning, but not one that struck last night. This one struck in 1959 and the truth is that it ruined everything!”

Translated by Norma Whiting

12 July 2013