Reports from Cuba: Digital payments and the odyssey to withdraw cash in Cuba

Lorenzo Martin writes in Havana Times:

Digital Payments and the Odyssey to Withdraw Cash in Cuba

On Monday, it was my day to go line up at the bank to cash in my mother’s pension. I used to do this at the ATM on 42nd 29th Streets, which is relatively close to me, but given the National Bank’s liquidity crunch at the moment, finding an ATM with cash has become nothing more than a miracle, so I find myself forced to line up to get into the bank and cash in the cheque with the cashier. Thank God my mother gave me a power of attorney years ago so I can do this for her.

After almost two hours in the line and finding out a million intimate things about the people waiting in line with me, a bank employee comes out and announces: “There isn’t any more national currency available, we’re waiting for the money truck to come, and it won’t be getting here until 1 PM.  A bucket of cold water fell on top of my head.

To tell you the truth, I should be used to these kinds of things happening to me, because even the most basic task becomes an odyssey, I’m not sure if it’s the same for other people. I believe there are people who, instead of being born with a guiding star, are born broken and if something can go wrong for us, it will: this happens to me at the doctor’s, at work, on public transport… even in love I think.

In short, with no other plan at the time, I called my mother to tell her that I’d have to cash it in another time and I changed my plans for the day. Luckily, I still have some back-up money at home to sort out the most urgent things. Given the fact I had nothing else to do that day, I decided to go to Hilda’s house. Hilda is the mother of my friend Ileana, she lives in Cojimar and I’d promised her a visit a long time ago and hadn’t been.

As soon as I make up my mind and stop on the corner to think which route and what form of transport to take, a No. 16 minibus shows up. One of those that has air conditioning… even more luck! A passenger gets off in front of me and I get on without thinking twice. It’s not normal for me to be so lucky, which made me think that I’ll stumble across some obstacle along the way, so I called Hilda to make sure she hadn’t left the house and that I wasn’t on my way in vain.

Luckily, she was at home and she got very happy when I told her that I was going to visit her. She told me she was going to make a special lunch and everything. She is a very sweet lady who is very lonely because her daughter lives in Spain and she has some problems that prevent her from coming back to Cuba. Apart from her, Hilda doesn’t have any other relatives here, so some of us friends go and visit her from time to time, and this is like a breath of fresh air that she enjoys to the max. Seeing her, I’ve understood just how sad it can be to reach old age all alone, without the warmth of children and family.

Even though the minibus left me on the outskirts of Cojimar and I had to walk almost two kilometers to get to her house, I thought the journey was very good: I didn’t have to wait for transport, air conditioning is always a blessing in this scorching hot summer that is roasting us and I was there in less than half an hour.

I don’t know where Hilda gets so much energy from, or how she manages to be so hard-working, but by the time I’d gotten there, she’d already made some delicious torrejas (French toast) to eat for breakfast with me.  I devoured those torrejas with great joy. It’d been a long time since I’d had them and I’d even forgotten that they existed or what they tasted like.

But careful, torrejas have gone from being a casual snack and very common in Cuban kitchens, to being nothing but luxury because of the ingredients needed to make them: stale bread (we normally used old baguettes, but it’s almost impossible to get today and even more difficult for it to get stale before we eat it all), evaporated milk (milk is pretty much banned in Cuba, so just imagine evaporated milk, it’s crazy!), eggs (victims of the Currency Reform and the current crisis), sugar (another thing missing recently), cooking oil (which we measure by drop for the same reason and torrejas need a lot), dry wine (something that we’ve nearly forgotten the use for) and vanilla, star anise or cinnamon as a flavoring (which I have no idea where you find now).

In the meantime, we caught up on her’s and her daughter’s lives. To tell you the truth, I keep in touch with her daughter quite often, but she enjoys talking to me about her and I enjoy seeing her happy, the phone rang and her face lit up. Hanging up, she turned to me:

“Ay, hijo, something has come up…”

“What’s up?” I asked worried.

“Nothing bad. Martica, a friend, just told me that money has arrived at the bank in Villa Panamericana and she’s getting me a place in line. I can’t let this opportunity slip because I’ve spent a week going every day to try and cash in my pension, but there wasn’t any money at the bank or at the ATM. I don’t know how much worse things are going to get, luckily my daughter sends me my things and I can get by with this, but that pension money is my money, that I earned working hard all those years and I’m not going to give it to those SOBs.”

She is normally a very polite and educated person, cautious with her words, but when she feels she’s in safe company, she often uses the rudest words possible when talking about the Government. Maybe this is due to the amount of hate rallies she was victim to because her daughter dared to stand up to the regime.

I personally couldn’t believe how much luck I was having, as I normally don’t as you know. I got ready to join her and try and get a place in that line too.

“Don’t worry, madre, I was also trying to do that this morning and I couldn’t cash it in because there wasn’t any money, so I’ll come with you and if your friend is so kind, I can cash in my mother’s cheque too. Leave things as they are, don’t wash anything up and I’ll help you when we come back.”

“Of course, mi hijito, she is a very good person and always takes a place for a few of us. Let’s go.”

We left for the bank, at the pace her age let’s her walk at, and we were already in the line in less than 10 years. Her friend was in fact there, and she’d taken ten spots in line. In just half an hour, we were walking into the bank and a friendly cashier saw me.

She kindly explained that she couldn’t cash in the cheque and that I’d have to go to the bank where my mother’s pension is registered. It had never happened to me before as I always take money out at the ATM and I wondered what an old person outside of their province or just spending a few days at their child’s house in a different municipality to the one they normally cash in their cheque has to do.

To make the most of the opportunity, I decided to withdraw the meager sum I have kept away for an emergency, just 15,000 pesos, but with the trust crisis the bank is suffering, more than the cash crisis, I’d prefer to have them stored away under my mattress or in a drawer.

When I asked to withdraw 5000 pesos (The equivalent of just over 20 USD), the maximum limit for cash withdrawals now, I banged my head against another wall. I already knew that so much good luck was a joke, it was more like a taunt.

She said, “The money that came in is only to pay pensioners. To withdraw money from your savings account, you need to go to the branch where you opened up the account and take out the money at teller, when it’s available.” 

Finalizing this conversation, she changed her friendly demeanor and asked for the next pensioner to step forward.

All of this chaos to cash in a pension or withdraw cash began ever since some leader had the idea to “digitalize” cash, a measure that involves forcing private businesses to work with card payments, limit cash withdrawals and even limit the amount of cash you can legally possess.

Although if we do the math, these measures were implemented because of the Bank’s liquidity crunch. Also, the cash that leaves the bank will never come back because it continues to circulate given the expensive prices of products with private vendors and the State’s shortage of goods and services. As a result, finding an ATM with cash to withdraw has been a miracle now for a few months. 

Giving up, I went back to Hilda’s house. Lunch and our chat suddenly made me forget the bad part of the day. This is a resource I always use when the storm comes: I shift my focus, I try to forget the bad or tough things and concentrate on the good and pleasurable, although to tell you the truth, it’s very hard to find pleasure in things here, but talking to her is always a kind of panacea, thank God.

After ripping the regime to shreds, talking rubbish about every leader, and telling each other of our lives and those closest to us, I went back to Old Havana on a packed P8 bus. I was ready to face life again thanks to the injection of optimism that Hilda with her 84 years and thousands of dreams she holds onto, always gives me.