The money Gretter receives in Cuba from her husband in the United States went on a strange journey: the money order, sent in bitcoins, turned into Cuban currency before arriving by bicycle, at her home. A trick to get around the US embargo.
Valuable daily support for many families, the "remesas" – money sent from Cubans abroad to their relatives back home – were estimated in 2017 by economist Carlos Mesa-Lago at $ 3.5 billion per year … or as much as tourism.
But the Washington embargo, in effect since 1962, grows harsher every day, complicating money transfers to Cuba. More and more banks are refusing any transaction with the island, for fear of sanctions, which have recently targeted Cuban companies handling remesas shipments.
And the border closure since March 24, due to the coronavirus pandemic, prevents these remesas from arriving in travelers' luggage, as was often the case before.
Example of the famous Cuban resourcefulness, Erich Garcia, a 33-year-old computer programmer and youtuber, seems to have found the miracle solution: bitcoin.
"We found this alternative of using cryptocurrency, because then no bank is needed," he explains, after launching the bitremesas.com platform a few weeks ago.
14 kilometers by bike
"Anyone who wants to send money to Cuba has to buy bitcoins and send them through the automated system of bitremesas.com, and that sum (converted into Cuban currency, note) gets to the recipient in Cuba," Erich explains.
Born in 2009, bitcoin is a virtual currency whose distribution and value have exploded over the years: it was worth a dollar in 2011, today over $ 11,500.
Gretter's husband wanted to send her $ 100. First step, buy the equivalent, i.e. 0.0087 bitcoin, online via a virtual wallet
In Cuba, Erich is warning the bitcoin "enthusiast" community of the arrival of this new transaction. As it is difficult to acquire this currency easily on the island, they are willing to pay more.
Then comes the second step: an auction is organized, via Whatsapp or Telegram, to determine who wants to give the most bitcoins in this operation to win it (typically around 25% of the value of the transaction).
This time it's Adalberto Orta, a 33-year-old programmer, who wins. Before getting his bitcoins, instruct him to give Gretter the equivalent of $ 100 in one of the two local currencies, CUC or CUP.
If she had a bank account, he could make a simple transfer to her. But he doesn't, so he gets on his bicycle and, despite the tropical heat, he rides 14 kilometers to hand over the money.
In just a few hours, the operation went from the most advanced technology to the most traditional mode of transport.
"It was my husband who discovered the platform via Youtube and he decided to give it a try," said Gretter, 28, who just received a call from him to confirm that everything worked.
From one end of the chain to the other, everyone wins: the sender and the recipient have no commissions to pay, whoever wins the auction gets bitcoins and bitremesas recovers the surplus paid by him- this.
Many "Cubans receive money from the United States, and it is more and more difficult, on official sites there is the risk of a very high fine" for violating the embargo, explains Adalberto.
He uses his bitcoins to save and buy video games or movies on demand online, where it is impossible to pay with a Cuban bank card.
According to Erich, an estimated 10,000 Cubans are already using bitcoins. But in a discreet way: the AFP contacted a pizzeria and a taxi driver who accept this currency, but they did not want to testify
For Adalberto, "this fear must be overcome and this is done by learning technologies".
"We do not have access to payment platforms, Visa, Mastercard, Paypal (…). What technology allows us to dream? Bitcoin, ”Erich adds.