The Nexus of Digital Platforms and Cryptocurrency: Remittances to Cuba During the Covid-19 Pandemic

˙ Cuba

REMITTANCE FLOWS TO CUBA

During the Covid-19 crisis, Mexico and the Dominican Republic have experienced an unexpected increase in remittance transactions [1]; however, most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean saw a sharp decline in remittance flows in April before beginning to rebound in June. In Cuba, the volume of remittances has been decreasing this year, and it is expected to continue to drop.

Florida is home to the largest community of Cuban migrants living abroad. Based on the US Census estimates for 2019, nearly one million Cubans live in Miami-Dade County [2]. In July, Florida became the new world epicenter of the Covid–19 pandemic. South Florida, home to two-thirds of the Cuban population living in the United States, was notably impacted by this context. Much of Florida’s economy is underpinned by tourism, gastronomy, and entertainment industries, which have been severely affected by measures to contain the virus. Consequently, many immigrants in that area became unemployed with the closure of economic activities [3]. Increasing unemployment has directly affected the Cuban community living there, and, therefore, it is to be expected that the volume of remittances sent to Cuba would decrease considerably.

The size of remittance flows has also been affected by the Trump administration’s restrictions on remittances to the island. These restrictions rolled back President Obama’s Cuba policy, which allowed unlimited remittances to be sent to Cuba, and, instead, limited immediate family members in the US from sending more than USD $1,000 per calendar quarter to their relatives. Consequently, the decrease in remittances that can be sent to Cuba during the Covid-19 crisis will not only have a detrimental impact on the Cuban economy generally, but on the survival strategies of individual families as well as the ability of private enterprises to continue operating.

Second, reduced remittance flows are aggravated by two factors affecting travel to the island: 1) travel restrictions to Cuba imposed by the Trump administration, which were designed to cut off funds to the Cuban government and its agencies, and 2) steps taken by the Cuban government to limit international flights to Cuba as a measure for controlling the spread of the pandemic. A significant part of remittances —be it money or products— enters Cuba through informal channels.

While this latter measure protects Cubans living on the island from being infected by visitors, it also decreases the flow of remittances that usually enter through informal channels or the so-called mulas —people who bring money and goods to the island. Generally, private agencies abroad hire mulas to provide Cubans with cash remittances and products that support basic needs, as well as to supply small businesses with essential products.

DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND REMITTANCES

A source from Cuba reports that since flights have been limited, he finds it challenging to access some essential goods he used to buy from mulas. However, he notes that his use of cryptocurrencies to pay for services has increased. During the quarantine, he has been listening to music on Spotify, watching movies and shows on Netflix, and playing Dota online through Steam, all of which he pays for using cryptocurrency. With cryptocurrencies, he tops-up his cell phone service and pays for internet access through Nauta, the internet provider in Cuba.

To carry out the transaction he uses Bitrefill, a platform that provides products and services and accepts cryptocurrency as payment. Using the Bitrefill platform, he buys gift cards to pay his bills for the entertainment providers mentioned above. All this is possible because he can purchase cryptocurrencies, using a digital wallet —also known as e-wallet— to carry out transactions. One of the most significant advantages of the e-wallet is that the transactions are peer-to-peer, so there is no bank intermediary: “just you and the other person, either to pay or to receive,” he explains.

The author’s source in Cuba stresses that “anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the internet, some cryptocurrencies, and an e-wallet can access those sites and pay for all those things.” However, most Cubans are not familiar with the use of cryptocurrency as the cryptosystem is still emerging. Also, buying cryptocurrencies is expensive for Cubans on the island, who receive an average monthly salary of around 879 CUP (Cuban Pesos), equivalent to USD $36 [4]. Nonetheless, the crypto world is attractive, especially to a considerable group of Cuban young people; it has provided entertainment during quarantine in the form of movies, music, and video games, and has even enabled them to invest online.

Alex Sobrino, the founder of CubaCripto [5], which has been operating since 2018, says that “new ways of sending remittances to the island have emerged.” Sobrino, who is also a Cuban entrepreneur and freelancer, claims that CubaCripto is the first crypto-finance community on the island. He emphasizes that it offers a new way of sending remittances. In his view, it has become trendy among Cubans living abroad to send cryptocurrencies to a trusted contact in Cuba. The contact in Cuba delivers the equivalent in local currency —Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC) or Cuban Pesos (CUP) — through cash or bank transfers to the recipient’s Cuban bank account.

This method favors not only families that receive remittances, but also entrepreneurs and cryptocurrency enthusiasts in Cuba who access these currencies regularly. Generally, cryptocurrency owners initiate their offers through the instant messaging applications Telegram or WhatsApp and wait for interested purchasers to contact them. Once in communication, both parties proceed to agree on the price, quantity, type of currency, and method of payment. To carry out the transaction, the person interested in buying the cryptocurrencies must have an e-wallet to receive the digital currencies. The buyer then pays the seller in the local currency through traditional channels. Once the seller verifies that he or she has received the agreed upon amount, the cryptocurrencies are sent to the user’s e-wallet, closing the deal.

Online platforms have also been used during the Covid-19 pandemic to send remittances to family members in other parts of the Latin American and the Caribbean region. According to experts Orozco, Klaas and Ledesma (2020), digital remittances, or transactions provided through online financial technology and payment vehicles, show a growing trend and represent at least 20% of remittance market share [6]. They often are carried out as online transfers deposited into the home country relative’s bank account. The impact of this modernization is relevant, as the digital payment system is becoming popular among the entire immigrant population in the US, providing them with more financial tools to access.

DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY AND FINANCIAL EDUCATION

Remitly, RIA, WorldRemit, and Xoom are online international money transfer providers that offer their services to immigrants living in the United States to send remittances to their acquittances in Latin America and the Caribbean. Through the online money transfer services, they have been able to send remittances faster and at lower fees, as compared to fees for sending cash remittances. In the Latin American region, digital remittances are now frequently used to pay bills for services such as electricity, water, gas, the home phone line, and monthly rent. Therefore, by sending digital remittances, family members living abroad directly contribute to paying for the essential services the families back home need.

The crypto world and the use of digital remittances are still incipient in Cuba, but digital transactions are widely used, for example, to top-up their friends and families’ cell phone plans. Even cryptocurrencies have been useful for doing so [7]. It is notable that electronic payment systems are growing even in countries with poor internet infrastructure and international financial limitations, such as Cuba. The development of digital technology in sending remittances could play a crucial role in helping family members soften the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis in their economy and support the emerging private sector.

However, the development of digital technology must go hand in hand with training in digital and financial education. This turns out to be an important and beneficial side effect of the increasing use of these platforms for remittances because it requires both the sender and receiver to acquire critical new knowledge. Moreover, people who receive financial education are more likely to develop their savings capacity and become more resilient during crises [8].

Being able to save is also essential to facing the challenges posed by the unexpected economic crisis and health situation and the accumulation of capital for investment in a national economy. Having a well-developed digital platform to send remittances to Cuba would help Cubans living abroad keep supporting their families during this challenging time and fund businesses that foment development.

Denisse Delgado is a Ph.D candidate in Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston whose research focuses on remittance flows to Cuba and their impact on the island’s economy. Her interest in digital remittance channels stems from her experience as an intern with the Migration, Remittance, and Development program. This article can also be read at Colombia Law School’s Cuba Capacity Building Project, Horizonte Cubano.

References

[1] Noe-Bustamante, Luis (2020). “Amid COVID-19, remittances to some Latin American nations fell sharply in April, then rebounded.” Pew Research Center.

[2] US Census (2019). “Hispanic or Latino Origin by Specific Origin.” 2018: American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.” 

[3] Vidal, Pavel. (2020). “El Reflejo del Gran Confinamiento sobre la Economía Cubana.” Horizonte Cubano, Columbia Law School. 

[4] Figueredo, Oscar, Izquierdo, Lisset., & Carmona, Edilberto. (2020). “Cuba en Datos: De bolsillos y billeteras, hablemos del salario.” Cubadebate.

[5] CubaCripto

[6] Orozco, Manuel; Klaas, Kathryn & Nicole Ledesma (2020). “The Remittance Marketplace in 2019. The Growing Role of Digital Payments.” Research Report. DC: The Inter-American Dialogue.

[7] Delgado, Denisse (2020). “The Cuban Diaspora’s Increasing Role in the Context of Changes on the Island. Cuban Horizon. Cuba Capacity Building Project.” Columbia Law School.

[8] Orozco, Manuel; Klaas, Kathryn & Nicole Ledesma (2020). “The Remittance Marketplace in 2019. The Growing Role of Digital Payments.” Research Report. DC: The Inter-American Dialogue.

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