14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 10 May 2020 — In these days of confinement to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, the lines in Havana are not limited to the purchase of food and toiletries. Also the lack of cash in many ATMs causes endless waiting to get convertible pesos (CUC).
“This is the third ATM I’ve tried and it has no chavitos (Cuban convertible pesos, or CUCs), a retired woman lamented this Saturday as she tried to get some money to do some shopping at a store in Cayo Hueso in Havana. The area where the woman resides is under a strict quarantine and residents are not allowed to leave a perimeter marked with yellow ribbons and police cordons.
Finally, after visiting several bank branches, the retiree got money from an ATM on Calle Infanta near the corner with San Rafael, but she had to stand in line for four hours to do so. “I only had five CUC bills and shortly after I left the money ran out and those who were waiting were left empty-handed,” she tells 14ymedio.
Paying in cash is still a very widespread practice on the Island where, as of the end of 2019, 6.2 million magnetic cards were in circulation, but using them in commercial networks is usually a cumbersome task. Many small state stores do not even have a point-of-sale machine, and others suffer constant crashes in communication between devices and banks.
Wearing their masks and trying to keep the distance of one yard, more than fifty people are waiting to withdraw money at a cashier on Calle San Lázaro. Some had marked their place in line shortly before dawn and by mid-morning several official “line organizers” arrived to try to bring order to what was already turning into a riot.
“People are very sensitive in these queues because it is about the money,” says Yasmari Río, a neighbor in the neighborhood who has marked the line since six in the morning. “I have a Fincimex card that my sister recharges me from abroad and I take out the convertible pesos here,” he details. “But I haven’t been able to withdraw a penny for three days because there is no cash at the ATMs in this area.”
“Here you have to pay almost everything with hard cash,” says Carmelo, a vendor at a fruit and vegetable stall located in an agricultural market near Calzada del Cerro. “For all agricultural products, cash is needed, so people have to line up at the cashier to come here to buy,” he explains.
“We had not accepted chavitos for several months, but with all this epidemic, you have to take what you get,” adds Carmelo. “There are people who have come here almost crying because they have money on the card but there is no cash at the ATM and they cannot buy food. They have even offered me a watch to give them something, but I have not accepted.”
Although Cubans have been losing confidence in the convertible peso (CUC) in the last year, due to fears the government is going to end the dual currency system and eliminate the CUC, the crisis unleashed by the coronavirus seems to have produced a truce. Last February, the Ministry of Internal Commerce announced that food service establishments under state management could only use the national peso (CUP), and that further triggered the uncertainty, but right now a good part of those businesses are closed.
“Go to the ATM at the Ministry of Transportation to see if you are luckier,” explained a security guard from the bank on Estancia and Conill to a customer this Friday; someone who claimed to have already gone to three different ATMs without any success. “They are serving us a little money and we are running out very fast, so people are lining up early to catch up.”
The alternative to the ATM, which could be the bank branch window, is not recommended at this time either. In Havana there are 90 branches of Banco Metropolitano, but with the arrival of the pandemic in Cuba, their service and hours have been reduced. On weekends most of these banks are closed, which causes more lines in front of the ATMs.
In the informal market, vendors have long accepted the use of the US dollar in their transactions. The US currency is now trading above 1.15 CUC and may even reach 1.20. The rise in the dollar is also due to the closing of the official exchange houses (Cadeca), where the price has not moved for years from 0.87 dollar to 1 CUC because it is a market controlled by the State. The Cadecas pay out $0.87 USD for 1 CUC.
Other businesses accept payment with foreign magnetic cards to purchase home dinners and special combos for Mother’s Day. But they are the few and daily life continues to function “with money at the forefront, without so much technology,” acknowledges Luis, a young messenger who until a few weeks ago made a living by collecting pensions for various elderly people who cannot travel to the ATMs.
“My business is on hold right now because in most of the ATMs are regulated so that nothing else can be done with a card, so as not to delay the line or to run out of cash,” he explains. “The pandemic has already reached our pockets and that is a bad sign, because without money nothing works.”
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