Large Remittances Deplete the Cash at Western Union

A long line of customers stretches outside a Western Union office in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 31 January 2018 — Carmen Moya puts on her most comfortable shoes, those that her son sent from New Jersey with a warning “only for special occasions.” Now she uses them to go from one  Western Union to another in search of the money the young man sends her, but the lack of cash tests her patience and the quality of her shoes.

This Tuesday “with only a sip of coffee in my stomach,” Moya made the rounds of eight locations of the US money transfer company in the Cuban capital. “I visited three municipalities: Cerro, Plaza de la Revolución and Centro Habana in order to collect less than 100 CUC,” laments the retired woman, who for a decade has been receiving this aid on time. The long lines that have characterized the remittance collection points for years now have added a new problem.

“We have less cash because more and more customers come to collect large sums,” says an employee of Western Union in the Vedado neighborhood who preferred anonymity. A few days ago a man collected two remittances of almost 5,000 CUC each to buy a house,” he says.

Currently, for every $100 sent, 89.90 CUC are received in Cuba and for $200 it is 179.80 CUC. Since 2010 there is no limit to the amount of money that can be sent to the Island as family assistance and inheritances.

“I have been working at Western Union almost since its inception in Cuba and I have never seen so many people collecting large sums, because at the beginning what we processed was remittances that did not exceed three digits,” he adds. “Now, the payments are coming in for everything from the Airbnb landlords, money from the sale of art works abroad, business investments and cash to buy cars or homes.”

The employee regrets that this increase in the amount of remittances and the total volume of shipments has not been accompanied by “a better organization” for the Central Bank to deliver cash.

“After walking all morning and part of the afternoon,” Moya was only able to collect at the Western Union at Plaza de Carlos III .

She arrived a little after noon, with sore feet and a grimace of annoyance on her face. She asked who was last in line and was afraid to step away even to “go to the bathroom” for fear of losing her turn. More than three hours later, many of those ahead of her were gone because the office had no cash and “the money truck” had not arrived.

The clerk at the office, stressed by the continuous demands of customers who complained after having gone around to several branches without success, at around four o’clock in the afternoon shouted out, “I have only received 900 CUC and I will distribute it until it runs out, after that I can not do anything else because there is no money.”

The service provided by Western Union, which has been operating on the island since 1990, was praised by its customers for the seriousness and punctuality in deliveries. However, over the years there are frequent failures in their computer system and a lack of cash affecting its 490 offices, distributed across 16 provinces and 168 municipalities.

Most of the people who stood in line yesterday in the Plaza de Carlos III were elderly, retired people who can not make ends meet with their meager pensions — about 20 CUC in many cases — and supplement it with the help of their relatives abroad.

Despite her years and fatigue, the shout of the employee triggered an agitation that resulted in shoves, elbows, shouts and fights of those demanding that no one sneak in and that the line be organized so that there would be money for everyone.

The small quarrel gained intensity as the notes slipped from the hand of the cashier to the lucky few who managed to get cash. Over the heads of those who were shouting or demanding that a Western Union representative come to explain what was happening, a sign glowed with the phrase “Your Money Instantly.”

In mid-2016 the island’s regular Western Union clients believed that the situation would improve when the Barack Obama administration’s authorized the company to make money transfers to Cuba from any country, something that the United States had banned until then.

“I thought I was going to put on my boots because my daughter lives in Panama,” says Rosendo, 75, who was in the Western Union line at Plaza de Carlos III on Tuesday. The first transfer after the lifting of the ban was made from that country. The retiree’s dreams were at their peak.

Soon after, Rosendo began to deal with the difficulties of collecting cash. “This is a headache and I have to spend at least two days to get paid,” he explains to this newspaper. “When I finish, I have paid for so many taxis, snacks and sodas to complete the journey that I have already spent part of the money in advance.”

Rosendo was one of those who was left without being able to collect his money this Tuesday. Before turning his back on Western Union’s small cubicle in the capital’s largest shopping center, he said: “I’m going to ask my daughter to send it to me through ‘mules’ because I can’t take it anymore.”

Many private shipping agencies from the US and other countries with a large presence of Cubans use travelers to transport goods, medicines and money to the island. “With us your money will arrive in the hands of your family in a few hours,” says one of the hundreds of ads that offer these services on websites and classified sites.

“We’re done,” shouted the employee loud enough to be heard along one of the corridors of the Plaza de Carlos III before closing the office. Most of those in the line had not been able to get a single cent and the chances of getting their money that day evaporated. “This is already like the lines to get tickets to travel to the provinces or at the pharmacies, you have to arrive at dawn,” shouts an old man who says he was only going to collect 50 CUC.

The multinational cannot separate itself from the problems that bedevil the island’s banking and financial system. “The Cadecas (government currency exchanges) have the same problem, they get very little cash each day,” the Vedado district Western Union employee told 14ymedio.

“We are getting very little money and the number of customers has grown a lot in recent years,” says the clerk. “The worst days are Mondays, although we also have serious problems when festivities are approaching, New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, which is just around the corner.”

In 2016, the number of remittances sent to the island marked a historical milestone of 3.45 billion dollars, according to a study conducted by The Havana Consulting Group (THCG), based in Miami. Experts estimate that remittances were around 4 billion in 2017.

The increase in emigration, especially in 2015 and 2016, has also contributed to the growth of shipments, as has aid and investments from the US to open private businesses, following the flexibilizations of private enterprise and self-employment on the Island.

Carmen Moya, who received the shoes sent by her son, feels lucky for the moment. “There are others who would like to have this problem because they don’t receive a penny from outside,” she says. She leaves Plaza de Carlos III with particular haste “I have to get home quickly to rest, go to the bathroom, drink water and take off these shoes, which I’ve walked a long way in.”


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