In Cuba, Tourists Distrust Prepaid Hard Currency Cards and Prefer to Pay in Cash

Prepaid cards in hard currency can be purchased at airports, hotels and currency exchanges (Cadecas). (5 de Septiembre)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 8 November 2023 — With seven years in the United States and a butcher’s trade, Yoandy returned to Cuba this October to spend a few days with his family. In addition to their embrace, this 46-year-old from Villa Clara encountered serious problems when it came to paying for products and services. The worst part of the experience was the lack of prepaid cards with low hard currency denominations.

“I stayed a couple of nights at my family’s house in Havana, but my wife preferred to go to a hotel in El Vedado,” Yoandy tells 14ymedio. The accommodation, managed by a foreign company, is one of those used by American tourists and Cuban-Americans who travel to the Island to avoid paying at the ones that the U.S. Treasury Department has blacklisted for their ties to the military.

“The third night I went to the hotel with my wife and every day we had a different problem, eating at the hotel restaurant or having a few drinks at the bar, because you can’t pay in dollars in cash; they are forbidden to charge in cash,” he recalls. “All expenses have to be paid with magnetic cards, but in Cuba those issued by the U.S. banks don’t work.”

“Everything looks very beautiful in the advertising for these cards, but in practice they are more of a stumbling block”

To circumvent that restriction, the Cuban authorities began to market, from June 2021, prepaid cards in freely convertible currency (MLC) that can be purchased at airports, hotels and Cadecas (exchange houses) throughout the Island. They can be used to pay for hotel reservations, excursions, plane fare, in stores, to rent a car and to eat in restaurants.

Tourists pay for the cards in dollars, euros, yen or pounds sterling and then can recharge them by adding more currency, but when returning to their country they will not be able to recover the foreign currency that remains on the card. They can only extract Cuban pesos from ATMs – at the official rate of 120 CUP per dollar – or transfer the amount in MLC to the account of a relative or friend on the Island.

“Everything looks very beautiful in the advertising for these cards, but in practice they are more of a stumbling block,” Yoandy reasons. Without the owner’s name embedded in them and with a validity of two years, the banking authorities assure that the buyer can keep the card to use on another trip to the Island, but Yoandy thinks those are advantages that he will not use. “This is the first time I’ve returned in seven years,” he says.

At first, the lowest denomination of the prepayment cards was 200 MLC, but then the 50 and 100 MLC cards were put into circulation. “It was much better to have these, because tourists don’t want to take a risk and buy one of 500 or 1,000 the first time, because they don’t know how much they’re going to spend. Some come with all-inclusive packages and you only use the card for dinner at a paladar (private restaurant),” acknowledges an Infotur employee in Old Havana.

“They definitely lose money because they’re not flexible. The worst thing is that as soon as the tourists learn about the twisted mechanism they have created, they have already experienced several annoyances

“What we noticed when they came to ask us about the cards is that most preferred to buy 50 or 100 MLC and then recharge them to the extent that they needed to have more funds,” the state worker explains to this newspaper. “But to achieve that you have to always make the entire range of cards available. If someone wants to be cautious, buy the 50, and if someone wants to take a risk, buy the 1,000.”

But, the employee concludes, “the 50’s and the 100’s are always in demand.” The lack of them brings countless losses to the hotels, in the words of the Cuban-American Yoandy: “We got frustrated in the hotel  because they only had cards of 500 and up, so we went out, walked around the block and ate at a paladar that accepted dollars in cash.”

In several calls to two hotels in El Vedado and another three in Old Havana, this editorial office confirmed that now the cards for sale are “the ones with more than 200 MLC.” An employee said that they were waiting for the cards with denominations “between 50 and 100” for this week.

Yoandy finds it difficult to understand that what arose to solve a problem for the tourist has ended up hindering the service at the official hotels and restaurants. “They definitely lose money, because they’re not flexible. The worst thing is that when the tourists learn about the twisted mechanism they have created, they have already experienced several annoyances.”

His wife, of American origin, “can’t believe what she saw,” the man points out. “She couldn’t understand that the hotel restaurant had food, was full of waiters, the bar full of bottles, and we couldn’t be taken care of because we couldn’t pay in dollars and refused to buy an MLC card for 500 bucks.”

Prepaid cards cannot be requested by Cuban nationals or permanent residents in Cuba. Since the cards aren’t registered to a particular person, “I also didn’t want to risk buying one at a higher price and leaving it to my mother so that she could spend the MLC when I left,” he says. “Because in foreign exchange stores they ask people for their identity card or passport to verify that the owner of the card does not live in Cuba.”

In his case, as in the case of so many others who face the same difficulty, the solution to having dinner or a few drinks has been to go to private businesses. “Dollars, euros, Cuban pesos and MLC, here we accept all those currencies,” insistently repeats the employee, who this Wednesday appealed to potential customers at the doors of a paladar near the Bay of Havana.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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