Cuba ‘Studying Cryptocurrency’ To Dodge US Sanctions, Says Gov’t (#GotBitcoin)
Cuba is the latest country to consider using cryptocurrency to skirt U.S. sanctions, Reuters reported quoting a government source on July 3. Cuba ‘Studying Cryptocurrency’ To Dodge US Sanctions, Says Gov’t (#GotBitcoin)
In a public address on local television, the country’s president, Migual Diaz-Canel, said the plan would raise capital for around one quarter of the population, helping to pay for reforms.
Cuba has felt a severe knock-on effect from the crisis in Venezuela, which was previously a major source of aid.
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“We are studying the potential use of cryptocurrency… in our national and international commercial transactions, and we are working on that together with academics,” Reuters quoted economy minister Alejandro Gil Fernandez as saying.
As Cointelegraph reported, Venezuela itself rolled out its own state-run cryptocurrency, Petro, last year. Also designed to dodge sanctions, its use has so far remained limited due to a lack of international interest.
Other states are considering following suit, such as Iran, which is facing an ever more hostile U.S. reception.
It remains unclear whether Cuba is looking at creating its own cryptocurrency token or seeking to use an existing public one, such as bitcoin (BTC).
According to Gil Fernandez, the cryptocurrency-sponsored reforms are much needed, and would allow some form of decentralization in an economy still largely operated under soviet principles.
There are also plans to allow companies operating in Cuba’s Mariel Special Economic Zone to receive a portion of sales in hard currency.
Cubans Are Turning To Bitcoin To Access Global Economy
Bitcoin (BTC) trading is opening new avenues for citizens in communist-run Cuba, which has been financially isolated for years under a United States trade embargo.
A Sept. 12 report from U.S. News claims that, with the recent advent of mobile internet in the country, Cubans are increasingly using cryptocurrencies to make online purchases, as well as to invest and trade.
“Opening New Doors” In Retail
Without access to debit or credit cards for international use, cryptocurrency-enabled purchases are a welcome opportunity for consumers. In an interview with U.S. News, local resident Jason Sanchez said cryptocurrencies were “opening new doors” for Cubans.
The 35-year-old said that he was now able to purchase spare parts for his cellphone repair shop in Havana from an online Chinese store because of BTC.
Alex Sobrino — the founder of Telegram channel CubaCripto — estimated that roughly 1,000 Cubans were using cryptocurrencies, adding:
“We are using cryptocurrencies to top up our cellphones, to make purchases online, and there are even people reserving hotel rooms.”
With credit cards uncommon, many local crypto users reportedly need to ask relatives abroad to help them to enter the cryptocurrency markets or turn to social media channels such as CubaCripto.
Exchanges where cash is swapped for Bitcoin in person — using a mobile or laptop to carry out the transaction — are another option, the report notes.
A Solution To Financial Exclusion
About 1,300 users are currently using Fusyona, which claims to be Cuba’s first cryptocurrency exchange. The platform allows people abroad to send remittances to the country, or to invest in nine different cryptocurrencies via a larger exchange — with services charged at a fee of up to 10%. Fusyona founder Adrian C. Leon told U.S. News:
“For foreigners, cryptocurrencies is just another option. But for Cubans, it is a necessity and can be a solution to their exclusion from the global financial community.”
Sobrino noted that uncertainty and fear remain over how the government might react to the fledgling cryptocurrency trend. Fusyona is registered in Brazil but has started talks with central bank officials to investigate whether the platform could seal formal approval.
“We worry the government will restrict us, prohibit things, start to say this is illicit enrichment,” he said.
The central bank reportedly revealed earlier this week that it was exploring the benefits and risks of digital currencies.
In July, Cuba’s economy minister Alejandro Gil Fernandez said the government was consulting with academics to study the potential use of cryptocurrency for its national and international commercial transactions.
Inside Cuba’s Bitcoin Revolution
As political demonstrations show the world that Cubans are tired of dictatorship, Bitcoin is providing an option to peacefully protest and opt out of a broken system.
1/ My essay “Inside Cuba’s Bitcoin Revolution” is now live.
Mired in their worst economic crisis since the early 90s, Cubans face tyranny, shortages, blackouts, the embargo, and a collapsing peso.
A growing number are finding hope through Bitcoin ????
— Alex Gladstein ???? (@gladstein) August 11, 2021
Lucia is a 30-year-old medical worker and Bitcoin user living in Matanzas, a city of about 150,000 people sitting about 50 miles east of Havana on Cuba’s northern coast. Named after an aboriginal rebellion against Spanish colonizers, the word “matanzas” literally translates to “slaughter.” The settlement later turned into a 19th-century epicenter of slavery and sugar plantations. Today, like all Cuban cities, it is ground zero for a financial and human crisis.
The Cuban people are suffering their worst economic struggle since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the regime lost its main lifeline. At the time, longtime dictator Fidel Castro told citizens they needed to unite together to get through a “Special Period.” The era was marked by food shortages, blackouts, thousands fleeing to Florida on risky rafts and a spectacular devaluation of the Soviet ruble-pegged peso. Between 1991 and 1994 the Cuban economy contracted by 35% and quality of life deteriorated dramatically.
Tensions peaked in the summer of 1994, when an anti-government protest known as the Maleconazo uprising broke out in Havana. Without its Soviet subsidy, the state ration system was failing to support the population, and important goods were all of a sudden only available for purchase with dollars, which were increasingly expensive for Cubans to obtain with their peso wages and pensions.
In a desperate move, the regime violated its founding collectivist philosophy and imposed a series of unprecedented taxes on the population. In response, tens of thousands of protestors gathered at the Malecon waterfront, calling for an end to the government.
The internet did not exist, so the regime was able to quell the movement through police brutality while ensuring that most Cubans barely knew anything had happened. State television and radio made a brief mention of a small gathering of delinquents and troublemakers. But in reality, the Maleconazo was a staggering display of dissent, the biggest on the island since the revolution.
When the money system breaks, it can threaten a regime’s survival.
I. Monetary Purification
Today, Lucia and other Cubans talk of a new Special Period. As a result of currency reform and social frustration from decades of repression and bureaucracy, there are again shortages, blackouts, extreme inflation and protests.
The big difference is that today, with widespread mobile phones and internet access, everyone knows what’s going on. Last month, on July 11, the biggest anti-government protest since the 1959 revolution broke out, not just in Havana but in cities all across Cuba.
With a firsthand view into the medical system, Lucia told me that the human support network in Cuba is collapsing. The pandemic has overwhelmed hospitals in Matanzas, she said, and dead bodies pile up on the streets. It is incredibly hot and Cubans go many hours a day without electricity. Food — especially beef, fish, chicken and eggs — is scarce or even impossible to find. New American regulations, passed by President Trump right before he left office, have cut Cubans off financially from their families in the U.S.
“It’s hard to get food, it’s hard to get medicine, it’s hard to get bathroom supplies, the power grid is broken, the pandemic is peaking, tons of elderly people are passing away, the healthcare system is collapsing, we have no oxygen or fans,” Lucia said. “This was too much. This is what put people out on the streets.”
Lucia told me that at the very root of the state’s failures and the unprecedented citizen uprising is a crisis of money.
In January the Communist Party of Cuba conducted what it described as a “monetary purification.” Since 1994, the government issued two kinds of currencies: the CUP, or Cuban peso — pegged to the dollar at 24:1 — and the CUC, or Cuban convertible peso — pegged to the dollar at 1:1.
Public sector salaries and pensions were always paid out in pesos, but for years, citizens needed to obtain CUCs to buy key items like medicine, any food beyond the basics, clothing, cleaning supplies and electronics. The regime designed the system to suck value out of the population, selling CUCs for 25 pesos at state-run money exchanges called cadecas while only buying them back for 24 pesos.
The regime knew it would have to keep printing and inflating pesos for the staffing of its centrally-planned economy, even as its agricultural and industrial sectors collapsed. The dual-currency system gave it life support, propping up purchasing power for the elite and well-connected.
Lucia described the system’s output as creating a reality where she could buy a cup of coffee, a bus ride or even a small meal for an incredibly cheap price in pesos, but a pair of shoes or a phone plan, priced in CUC, could cost an entire month’s salary. This put state workers — including teachers, police officers and medical workers like her — at a severe economic disadvantage compared to anyone exposed to the tourist industry, like waiters or taxi drivers.
In tragic irony, unskilled workers were often far better off financially than highly-educated ones, and many of the latter dropped out of their careers to clean tables or pick people up from the airport to get access to the CUC economy. The dual currency system institutionalized inequality, creating clear classes of haves and have nots. For many people like Lucia, this as much as anything else showed that the revolution was a sham.
More than 1.5 million Cubans have fled their home since Fidel Castro and his troops captured Havana in 1959, and many ended up in the United States. In the 1960s, Castro and his cronies triggered the human and capital flight by enforcing a planned, communist economy in Cuba, nationalizing businesses, confiscating land and reducing the role of the private sector practically to zero.
Many Cuban-Americans still have family on the island and find ways to send them dollars. It is estimated that as much as $3 billion is remitted into Cuba each year. To convert dollars to CUC, one had to pay a fee of 10%, at a minimum, to the state. The system was designed to suck in hard foreign currency and provide Cubans with “fake dollars” or even worse, pesos.
Fidel Castro ceded control to his brother Raúl in 2006, and since then, the regime has made a series of half-hearted economic reforms to stay alive.
As Anthony DePalma wrote in his modern history book, “The Cubans,” the communist government toyed with capitalism “the way a tiger plays with its prey: tapping it lightly one minute, squeezing the life out of it the next. Socialist officials urged would-be Cuban capitalists to go ahead and open their small businesses, then they erected layers of burdensome regulations to limit profit and handicap success. Their real goal was not to lift millions out of poverty. It was to prevent anyone from making millions.”
Starting in 2011, Raúl spoke openly of the need for monetary unification, but he ruled for another seven years without taking any action. The Cuban economic disaster he presided over can be summed up in one statistic: As of 2015, Cuba’s GDP per capita was roughly the same as it was in 1985, despite having much higher economic potential with 13% more citizens.
In 2018, longtime communist bureaucrat Miguel Díaz-Canel took over the Cuban presidency, ending nearly 60 years of Castro family tyranny. Like Raúl, Díaz-Canel presided over changes to the planned economy — like mass layoffs of state workers and permitting tiny businesses to operate privately — but continued to parrot Fidel’s rallying cry in his speeches: “ﬞ¡Patrio o muerte! ¡Socialismo o muerte! ¡Venceremos!” (“Homeland or death! Socialism or death! We will be victorious!”)
As DePalma wrote, “Fidel and Che are dead. Raúl’s tomb already has his name on it, and the new president is as unrecognizable around the world as the leader of any small country. The mythology of the revolution means very little to Cuban youth, who, with their tattoos, smartphones, and seething nihilism, see the old men of the Sierra as impossibly out of touch with their own reality.
The foreign aid Cuba relied on for so long — first from the former Soviet Union, then from Venezuela, and additionally from sympathetic nations around the world — has dried up, and, to quote Margaret Thatcher, Cuba has run out of other people’s money. At the bottom of every prescription it now prints the line: healthcare in Cuba is free, but it costs money.”
Lucia agrees, and said the revolution has run out of steam. Díaz-Canel is no Fidel, and cannot put protests down with personal charisma or a secret police operating in a world with no internet. He was forced to act, and the “monetary purification” is one of those actions.
As of January 1, 2021, the CUC was officially phased out. Cubans were given six months to exchange their CUCs for pesos at the official exchange rate. This constitutes a massive time theft, considering Cubans worked hard for those CUCs, and are now being liquidated out of dollar positions into tiny amounts of rapidly-depreciating currency. Even before January, CUCs were traded at a 15% discount to the dollar.
Over the past eight months, the monetary reform has caused a massive devaluation in the peso. Cubans have lost nearly two-thirds of their purchasing power since the end of 2020, as the price of $1 has gone from the official rate of 24 pesos to costing as much as 70 pesos on the black market.
The official Cuban annual median salary in 2018 was approximately 9,300 pesos, or around $372. Lucia told me that a pound of rice last year cost her 6 or 7 pesos, but today, it runs more than 50 pesos. Two kilos of chicken once cost 60 pesos, but now cost more than 500. Economists often say inflation is not a problem as long as wages rise at the same time, but wages have barely budged, or have even declined in dollar terms.
The government has extended the window for Cubans to redeem CUCs for a few more months, but use has evaporated, as the currency has essentially been replaced by the MLC, which stands for moneda libremente convertible or “freely convertible currency.”
Introduced by the regime in 2019 as the future monetary system of the island, the MLC functions like a reusable gift card. There is a plastic MLC card that one can pick up from a bank, and two different apps that one can download on a mobile phone. There are no MLC banknotes, coins or ways to earn interest. Functionality is pointed at citizens giving their account information to contacts abroad, who send hard currency, which the regime seizes and replaces with MLC credit for Cubans to spend at government-run stores.
In a comically-cruel twist, Cubans — who largely remain paid or pensioned in pesos — cannot buy MLC with pesos. The only way to officially “top up” your MLC account is with foreign hard currency. You must have family or contacts abroad send funds to your account. Initially, this could be done with dollars, but after the Trump administration cracked down on remittances to Cuba in the wake of a scandal in which American diplomats fell ill after apparently being exposed to sonic weapons, that option is gone, so MLC is now mainly generated through pounds, euros and Canadian dollars.
In an evolution of the trend started 25 years ago with better goods only being available in dollar stores, today’s MLC stores are basically the only place to buy good food, medicine, cleaning supplies, appliances and other essentials. The peso stores face constant shortages, and have very few and very low quality goods. Cubans who have family abroad are able to get MLC top ups and buy things to keep their lives going, but Cubans who do not must take their pesos and buy MLC in the black market. As of publication, the real exchange rate is around 65 pesos for one MLC.
Through the MLC system, the Cuban regime is essentially able to print pesos to obtain hard currency. It is a giant rug pull on the Cuban population, and a major reason for today’s historic protests.
Lucia said that the government’s official line is that the MLC system is necessary for the state to attract hard currency so that it can buy things on the international market to keep the system going and feed the people — a stunning admission of the revolution’s failure.
II. Finding Freedom Through Bitcoin
I met Lucia on Telegram, through a mutual friend who runs a Latin America Bitcoin chat group. Eighteen months ago she started buying bitcoin with her state salary. She uses Telegram groups to find people willing to sell her bitcoin in exchange for MLC or pesos. She does transactions in person — at a café, for example — where she sends MLC from her mobile account to the seller’s, or hands over peso banknotes stamped with the faces of revolutionary figures like Che Guevara in exchange for a transfer of bitcoin to the Blockstream Green wallet on her phone.
Since Lucia started “stacking sats” (as bitcoin saving is commonly called), the fruits of her labor have grown significantly and her purchasing power has increased dramatically. Since the spring of 2020, bitcoin has risen from below $5,000 to more than $40,000. If Lucia had kept her savings in pesos, she would have lost almost everything. Bitcoin has changed, and saved, her life.
Lucia told me that she is not a technologically-savvy person. At first, she did not think Bitcoin would be relevant for her (“I don’t like math,” she said) but in early 2020, she started watching RT for a few hours every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Since it is trusted Russian propaganda, the Cuban regime broadcasts RT (formerly “Russia Today”) on state television.
One show on RT, however, is called the “Keiser Report” (produced by Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert) and evangelizes Bitcoin use. Likely permitted to air because its tone is very critical of U.S. foreign policy, the show has acted like a Trojan horse of sorts, reaching a large number of Cubans and Venezuelans through state programming and onboarding them into the new Bitcoin economy. Ironically for Lucia, it was socialist state propaganda that showed her how to obtain personal freedom, not the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. has spent on democracy promotion in Cuba since the 1990s.
Captivated by what she heard on “Keiser Report” about a new form of digital money, Lucia started researching Bitcoin. She eventually joined a Telegram group, first in English and then in Spanish, filled with other Latin Americans who follow the show. These communities gave her a full education in how to use Bitcoin.
“They taught me how I could be my own bank,” Lucia said.
Through conversation one day, Lucia discovered that one of her friends was also into Bitcoin, and they started talking about it on a regular basis. Lucia also joined several Cuba-focused Bitcoin groups on Telegram, continuing to expand her knowledge.
She bought and then sent $10 of bitcoin to a friend abroad, and the two marveled together at how they did not have to use a bank, provide any identification, or use the official system in any way. Even the currency itself, they realized, was not produced by a state or corporation, but by an online community. They did not even know who created Bitcoin, and it did not seem to matter.
“This is groundbreaking,” she told me. “What papers did I have to fill out? None at all.”
Lucia told me that many people receive Bitcoin from abroad and then convert it to MLC or pesos to buy food or supplies. In her case, she uses it to invest for her future. She calls it her “personal reserve” and best option for saving money.
She said that the U.S. embargo is still very painful for Cubans.
“A lot of people will deny this reality,” she said, “but we can no longer buy MLC in dollars. We do not have access to American financial apps. Our families in the U.S. have a very hard time sending us dollars.”
“Bitcoin,” she said, “helps ease the pain.”
Lucia looks to Bitcoin as an alternative to the dollar system.
“If we are free from the dollar,” she told me, “then we have freedom.”
Several Cubans that I spoke to for this story demonstrated a similar lingering patriotism, despite the betrayal of the revolution.
“The embargo puts our government against a wall,” Lucia said, arguing that Bitcoin can give independence not just for people like her at an individual level, but for the Cuban society as a whole.
She credits curiosity for her new Bitcoin life.
“Curiosity is what moves people. That’s what motivated me to become a medical worker,” she said. “It animates all human beings.”
This curiosity is now driving her to learn about Bitcoin and spread it to others.
“People have so many questions,” she said. “Who makes it? How does it work? Where do you get it? It’s good to take advantage of these teachable moments.”
She told me that she is now personally teaching others in Matanzas and in her wider circles about how to use Bitcoin.
But learning is tough. Because of desperation, she said, a lot of Cubans have fallen into MLMs and pyramid schemes. The state, she said, conflates Bitcoin with the schemes, so people are in general fearful of getting involved. Bitcoin is hard to learn about, she said. It is unlike anything that people have ever seen before. Its abilities are hard to believe. Using it properly takes time and research.
“Adoption is happening,” she said, “but it will take time.”
Lucia concluded our conversation by telling me how important it is for Cuban women to use Bitcoin, saying that it is “vital that women learn to assert their financial freedom.” Even though Cuban society might be relatively advanced in the area of women’s rights, she said, there is still a broader culture of machismo and misogyny. Even in this context, most men do not even understand financial independence, she said, “so imagine how hard it is for women.”
“Bitcoin allows you to control your money, your spending, and by extension, your life. As a woman,” she said, “my future is finally in my own hands.”
III. Cuba’s History Of Economic Misery
By the end of the 1950s, Cuba was one of the richest countries in Latin America. As currency researcher Boaz Sobrado wrote, “Cuba had more in common with U.S. states like Louisiana and Florida than Hispanic countries like Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Cuban income per capita exceeded Mexico’s by 70% and the Dominican Republic’s by 300%. Its income per capita was even greater than that of ex-colonial powers Spain and Portugal.”
Sobrado pointed to the Havana Hilton as a “symbol of Cuba’s mid-century opulence.” It was Latin America’s tallest and largest hotel, boasting 630 guest rooms, 42 suites, a casino, six restaurants and bars, an arcade, an outdoor pool and an expansive underground garage system. At first glance, then, Cuba seemed like an unlikely place for a socialist revolution. But behind the glamor of old Havana was a deeply broken society.
Dictator Fulgencio Batista ruled the island with an iron fist, and with strong support from the U.S. government and private sector. Cuba’s annual income was an impressive $353 per capita in 1958, but most rural workers earned less than $100, and had very few public services and very weak infrastructure. Foreign governments and corporations controlled the economy, owning around 75% of the arable land, 90% of essential services and 40% of the sugar production.
During the 1950s, Fidel Castro led a socialist movement that challenged the Batista regime. By the end of the decade, his guerrilla tactics, directed from mountainous and rural areas, had drained a huge amount of funds and energy from the capital. In 1958, the U.S. government placed an arms embargo on Cuba, as Batista began to lose all foreign support. On January 1, 1959, Castro’s forces captured Havana.
“El Comandante” promised a people’s revolution, but his rule quickly descended into tyranny, complete with concentration camps, thousands of arbitrary executions, secret police, a surveillance state on par with Eastern Germany or North Korea and political prisons. The Cuban gulags were especially cruel. Their horrors, once hidden, were eventually brought to light by testimonies of survivors in books like Armando Valladares’s “Against All Hope.”
As Anthony DePalma wrote, “Cubans who dared to think differently feared more than anything else their ever-present neighborhood CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). The president of each local CDR was the person to whom neighborhood snitches reported. They kept track of who had not attended a May Day parade, who listened to the baseball game while Fidel was speaking on the radio, who had an illegal satellite dish hidden under a barrel on the roof, and passed along the information to Fidel’s feared Stasi- and KGB-trained Interior Ministry.
The CDR president had what some called the power of fusilamiento del dedo, literally, ‘to execute with a finger’ by pointing out and denouncing anyone suspected of counterrevolutionary activities. Simply allowing someone to use your telephone to call a relative in Miami could trigger a denunciation and ruin a life.
The surveillance network was so pervasive that Cubans grew fearful of voicing any complaint. Even in their own homes, they refrained from mentioning the name Fidel, in case anyone was listening. Instead, they stroked an imaginary beard when they dared to criticize el comandante.”
Beyond being brutally repressive and invasive, the new government was also completely inexperienced when it came to actually running an economy. They followed the Soviet example of a planned financial system, and quickly became dependent on the USSR as an export market.
Economists were replaced by loyalists, regardless of their background or proficiency. It is said that when Castro chose Che Guevara as head of the Cuban central bank, it is because Guevara rose his hand after Castro asked if anyone was an economist, thinking Fidel asked if anyone was a communist.
In the early 1960s, in a back and forth series of retaliations, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations placed trade restrictions and eventually a total blockade on Cuba, while Castro and his troops nationalized hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. property and businesses.
The revolution was disastrous for Cubans’ personal savings. As president of the central bank, Guevara switched the peso peg from the dollar to the ruble, devaluing extant pesos by 75%. Then, pre-revolutionary banknotes were demonetized. If the new authorities declined to accept your old money, you lost everything.
Various American plans and attempts to oust Castro failed, and the regime persisted. It became structurally dependent on the Soviets for oil, loans, weapons, technical training and as a market to sell their main export of sugar, which Moscow purchased at a subsidized price above market rates.
Over the next few decades Cuba’s economy grew, in large part due to the relationship with the Soviets. But even during communist Cuba’s most prosperous times, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, making ends meet was still difficult, and thousands tried to leave. In 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans fled to the U.S. on around 1,700 vessels and rafts in an event known as the Mariel boatlift.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s, the Castro regime lost as much as $5 billion in annual subsidies, and Cuba’s sugar exports crashed by 80%. The peso suffered a devaluation from 5 per dollar to 150 per dollar. Castro asked the Cuban people to make a collective sacrifice to get through the Special Period, not unlike the way Kim Jong Il asked the North Korean people to stay strong and committed during the “Arduous March” in the late 1990s when millions perished.
During the Special Period, many Cubans could only afford or find enough food to eat once per day. Their libreta (ration book) promised things like beef and chicken, but these items disappeared. Fidel had promised that everyone would be able to have a glass of milk each day, but even that went missing.
According to DePalma, Cubans “flattened and tenderized grapefruit rinds and fried them as if they were steaks. Banana peels ground up and mixed with spices became another pale substitute for meat.” Each family received around nine eggs per month. The food shortages were accompanied by blackouts “so routine and long lasting that lightless nights became the norm, as Cubans celebrated the brief periods when the lights came back on as fleeting phenomena that they excitedly called alumbrones.”
Industry collapsed. For example, by the end of the ’90s, fishing fleets all but disappeared. Today, Cubans consume just 25% of the seafood that they did in the late 1980s. In a nation where one is never more than 60 miles from the water, Cubans joke about being an “island without fish.” A country that once produced 80% of its food now imported 80% of it. Sobrado wrote that Cuba’s domestic consumption has “never recovered to pre-1990 levels,” a tragic summary of a starving state.
Times were so grim that in 1993, Castro was forced to make the enemy dollar legal tender to attract hard currency. Cubans began to make dollar deposits at banks with remittances from abroad. Thier’s law was in full effect, as good money drove out the bad. Sobrado estimated that as many as half of all day-to-day transactions were done with dollars, a rate similar to present-day Venezuela. To stop this trend and prevent full dollarization, the regime rolled out the CUC, which they said was backed by an equal amount of dollars in the Cuban central bank.
Out of desperation Castro also allowed family restaurants or “paladares” to operate as small private businesses. This was part of a wider opening process that included allowing European companies to operate Cuban hotels, permitting some citizens to run independent farms, and restoring Christmas as a national holiday — a move seen as a quid pro quo for the eventual visit of Pope John Paul II. The combination of small reforms and increased foreign investment led to a relative recovery out of the Special Period.
In the early 2000s, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez began to support the Cuban state with some of his new oil profits, providing a new lifeline. But while the government was bailed out, times for the average citizen continued to be extremely difficult. Sobrado wrote about a Cuban expression: dice que hay pollo (they say there is chicken), which the crowd in the streets would shout when chicken became available at stores. Libretas, he said, used to have a provision for fish, but that ran out and was substituted with chicken — pollo por pescado — and in the past few years, the chicken ran out, too.
In November 2004, facing another economic collapse, the Cuban government withdrew U.S. dollars from circulation. State-run stores, enterprises and banking moved entirely to the CUC system. Dollars had to be converted into CUC upon arrival in Cuba, allowing the regime to seize the hard currency, tax it and replace it with something they could print unbacked. The big picture effect was that dollars once held by citizens were now held by the communist central bank.
In the CUC era, the dual currencies allowed the government to provide a very basic level of some cheap goods and services, but created a system where one needed CUCs for anything beyond the bottom-rung tier of items. For example, one might be able to purchase a low-quality loaf of bread for 1 peso at a state-run bakery — if there was any left — but for 1 CUC, you could get a much nicer loaf at a fancier store. Tourists in recent decades only used CUCs, and shopped at the fancy stores with the much higher prices, and thus always poured a lot of hard currency into the regime’s coffers.
The dual currencies also allowed for accounting alchemy that benefitted state-run enterprises. For example, as Sobrado noted, a well-connected elite could buy a ticket to fly out of Cuba paying a few hundred pesos, instead of a few hundred CUCs or dollars. This also meant that some state enterprises could buy imports at the “peso” price, while selling at the dollar price. There was a chronic exaggeration of assets and underestimation of liabilities. These financial tricks were done at the expense of the peso and the average worker.
Many Cubans have another gig beyond their state job, which might give them access to CUCs (or today, MLC) and earn them enough to survive. One can often make more than their entire monthly state salary or pension in one day on the black market. Sobrado said that some even have what he calls negative salaries: “People sometimes bribe their boss so that they do not have to show up. This way they can work at their income earning hustle all day.”
Depalma wrote that “almost every Cuban — whether an entrepreneur with a small business or a parent searching for dinner — became a criminal in one way or another. Inventando (the Spanish verb for ‘inventing’) largely replaced the word ‘stealing’ in Cuban vernacular, and the rules of civil society changed so that stealing was condoned, so long as what was being stolen came from the state and not from a neighbor or a friend. In the new Cuba, inventando was a way of leveling the playing field and making up for the miserable dollar-a-day salaries that the state workers received.”
The cumulative decay of Cuba’s economy is hard to imagine, but the fact that the 2018 sugar harvest yielded just one million tons, the same as the harvest in 1894, helps paint the picture. Once the largest sugar exporter on the planet, Cuba has been forced to import from France.
“Historic” reforms of the system announced by Raúl and Diaz-Canel ended up being small tweaks. Entrepreneurship does not grow well in a climate with no wholesale market, with strict limits on the number of employees one can hire, where licenses are expensive, taxes hefty and credit scarce.
By 2017, despite many much-hyped reforms, a pair of jeans still cost a month of state income, and rations ran out after only a few days. The vaunted healthcare system allowed a cholera outbreak, and was tilted toward special care for elites. Education remained propaganda. In 2014 and 2015, the Obama administration opened up American restrictions, boosting local enterprise with a wave of new tourists. But Obama also ended the wet-foot, dry-foot immigration policy, and a few years later Trump reversed the opening.
According to DePalma, the small economic reforms that the government offered Cubans over the past 15 years were not “freedom to better themselves, but permission to eke out a level of survival the government could no longer provide. On top of the limitations it slapped onto their entrepreneurial vision and capacity to amass wealth, the government required would-be capitalists to buy their licenses for relatively hefty fees and pay heavy taxes. The goal, as outlined by the government, was to make Cuba a rich country without rich people.”
IV. Cuba’s Human Rights Crisis
As part of my research for this essay, I spoke to a human rights defender with a background in accounting and finance, living in Havana. She did not wish to be named (“I want to keep a low profile,” she said) but spoke openly about a variety of sensitive topics in our video chat. We will call her Verita.
Her concern is understandable. Cuba remains a one-party communist state. Diaz-Canel’s regime continues the climate of fear built by the Castros. Other political parties are illegal, dissent is suppressed and civil liberties are severely restricted. According to the rights watchdog Freedom House, “the regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite new leadership in 2018 and a process of diplomatic normalization with Washington, which has stalled in recent years.”
Cuba earns just 13 out of a possible 100 points on the Freedom House 2021 democracy report, with only 1 out of 40 points on political rights, and 12 out of 60 on civil liberties. The constitution forbids independent media, and “the country’s independent press operates outside the law, its publications are considered ‘enemy propaganda,’ and its journalists are routinely harassed, detained, interrogated, threatened, defamed in the official press, and prohibited from traveling abroad.”
Cubans are banned from posting content on foreign servers, including social media platforms, and in general cannot share anything “contrary to the social interest, morals, good customs, and integrity of the people.” Private universities and schools have been illegal since the 1960s, and teachers are promoted based on ideological loyalty, not academic performance.
Independent labor unions are outlawed, and Cuban workers cannot strike, protest or collectively bargain. A popular revolutionary saying goes, “Dentro de la revolución, todo. Contra la revolución, nada” — “Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.”
Verita is part of Cuba’s community of human rights defenders. Born largely in the 1990s in the wake of the Special Period, they live under constant attack. In 2003, at just around the same time as the regime was forced to modify the currency system to keep society afloat, it launched the “Black Spring” crackdown, rounding up dozens of poets, authors and journalists. To this day, the sisters, wives and daughters of these political prisoners march in Havana every Sunday for their freedom, and are known as the Damas de Blanco — the Ladies in White.
Independent outlets like 14ymedio, founded by blogger and philologist Yoani Sánchez, and Diario de Cuba continue to report, but work remains difficult. One of Cuba’s leading human rights advocates, Oswaldo Payá, died in a car crash in 2013, an incident widely believed to be state murder. Going onto the street and protesting continues to carry huge risk, as hundreds of disappearances and lengthy prison sentences for protestors last month demonstrate.
In 2018, an Afro-Cuban group of academics, artists and journalists known as the San Isidro Movement, formed to protest Decree 349, a communist law requiring artistic activity to be pre-authorized by the government. In November 2020, the group launched a protest in support of one of their members, the rapper Denis Solis, who had been convicted of “contempt for authority.” State police raided the protest, but the regime was forced to promise more rights for artists, and the seeds were sown for last month’s uprising.
Black Cuban communities have been at the center of these protests. It is estimated that up to 90% of White Cuban families have relatives abroad as a remittance stream, but only 30% to 40% of Black Cuban families have the same option. Guillermo “El Coco” Fariñas, a well-known Black dissident, calls the situation a “powder keg about to explode.”
At first, Verita, who is also Afro-Cuban, was extremely formal, literally reading from a speech that she had prepared for the first part of our conversation, where we talked about the economy. She kept repeating the government line that “devaluation does not impact inflation” and that the peso to dollar exchange rate remains 24 to 1. Later in our chat though, she opened up, and told me that in reality, the exchange rate is as much as 70 to 1. It was clear that Big Brother is very much still alive in her mind.
Verita explained that the MLC system was a government strategy to stockpile hard foreign currency and avoid the flight of dollars and euros. It was also, she said, a way for the government to tax the informal sector which had been leaking huge amounts of value out of Cuba.
For example, a few years ago, if you wanted to buy an air conditioner, you would likely hire someone (sometimes known as a “mule”) in a place like Panama, and they would bring it to you and you would pay them in dollars, which would permanently leave the Cuban economy, without the regime getting a chance to take a cut.
With the MLC system, the regime stocks stores with appliances like air conditioners, so that it is actually easier for citizens to buy them there as opposed to with a mule. This way, instead of leaking hard currency out, the regime actually accumulates it, as citizens ask family, friends, and colleagues to top up their MLC accounts so they can buy the air conditioner.
As a result, Verita said, the peso is in the process of demonetizing. Out of the three main functions of money, it has essentially lost the functions of store of value and unit of account — which have now leaked to the MLC or dollar — and really only lives on as a medium of exchange for individuals when interacting with the government, or when buying things on the street.
When I asked her if the government had a plan to stop the peso inflation, she gave me a look that I will never forget: She turned her head, smiled slightly and looked at me in disbelief.
“Plan?” she asked. “No. There is no plan.”
In her estimation, the Cuban economy would need to grow 5% per year for the next 12 years to recover from its current trauma. But, she said, it actually contracted by 11% in 2020 and will shrink even more in 2021. It will be, in her words, “a disaster.”
V. The Embargo’s Ongoing Impact
To learn more about the impact of the American embargo on Cubans, I spoke to Ricardo Herrero, a son of Cuban exiles and the executive director of the Cuba Study Group. He explained that today, because of U.S. sanctions, Cubans cannot access a wide range of popular American products like PayPal, Stripe, Cash App, Zelle, Coinbase, GitHub, Adobe, Dropbox, Lyft, Uber or Amazon. He called the embargo “the most rigid and expansive sanctions regime towards any society on the planet.”
Herrero works to help push the U.S. government to relax some of these restrictions. He said his job is difficult, especially because of the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts, which were passed in the 1990s, formalizing restrictions on American trade, business and travel to Cuba in order to destabilize the Castro regime at a time of weakness and promote democratic opposition.
Unlike previous Cuba policy between the Kennedy and Clinton years, in the new era since 1996 when Helms Burton was passed, the embargo has been codified into law and cannot be lifted by executive order. Centered on American claims of business and property considered stolen by the Castro regime during the revolution, Helms Burton expanded extant restrictions on U.S. companies and tries to prevent any company in the world from doing business in Cuba. It threatens, for example, to prevent a corporation from entering or doing business with the U.S. if it chooses to do business with Cuba.
U.S. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama waived part of the act, so some foreign entities have been able to do business with Cuba, with mixed results. As Sobrado dryly noted, the Havana Hilton, which was renamed the Habana Libre during the revolution, was eventually handed over to Spanish hotel chain Meliá Hotels International. As of last year, the famed hotel stood empty.
Last year, President Trump designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism and introduced 243 new measures to strengthen the embargo. President Biden has yet to rescind them. Herrero said that Helms Burton is the deterrent that explains why you do not see Starbucks, Zara or McDonalds in Cuba. It is why Cuba does not receive loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank.
It is why the Juragua Nuclear Power Plant was never finished. During the Obama opening in 2015 and 2016, some American payment companies tried to explore establishing payment services between the U.S. and Cuba, but once Trump won the election, it was clear the opening would be rolled back, and plans were put on hold.
The embargo, Herrero said, gives “political oxygen” to the Cuban government’s revolutionary narrative.
“It’s the big bogeyman,” he said. “Without it, the regime would suffer an ideological collapse.”
The embargo mixed with an inept, repressive government is an especially tragic combination. This was illustrated recently when a diabetic British citizen was unable to find insulin in Havana, due to the medical shortages. His wife tried to ship him some from London, but DHL returned the package, scrawling “US sanctions on Cuba” on the label. He died in a hospital soon after.
“The combination of the American sanctions on Cuba, Cuba’s mismanagement of scarce resources, and the Covid-19 pandemic is a lethal brew,” his wife said.
Herrero still places most of the blame for the suffering of the Cuban people squarely on the regime’s shoulders, and said that they play a duplicitous game. The regime blames the embargo for all or most of the crises in Cuba, but they have “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to lift it.”
It continues to use the embargo as a scapegoat, and as a tool to draw international sympathy for their cause.
“They paint themselves,” Herrero said, “as a David against the imperialist Goliath.”
Under the Obama opening, U.S. companies flew in to strike deals, but the Cubans allowed very few to get signed. Herrero explained that this was partly because of their Soviet mentality: “The bureaucrats were trained to be enemies with the yankees, and to oppose capitalism.”
They were, when presented with the opportunity to connect Cuba with the world, unable to seize it. For the past decade, the Cuban regime has talked about private enterprise and decentralization of the economy, but in reality, it has been all talk, no action.
Anthony DePalma explained that the regime constantly reminds Cubans “of the imperialist peril from the north, yet it also demands that the empire drop its embargo so that Cuba can do more business with America and its allies. The regime has used the perpetual threat of American intervention as a cover for every misstep, failed program, food shortage, or power blackout over the last six decades, but it also depends on the billions of American dollars that exiles send back in remittances to keep Cuba afloat.
State-run media presents the United States as a hellhole of drug addiction, mass murder and runaway consumerism, while portraying Cuba as an egalitarian paradise run by a government that can do no wrong. And yet, when Cubans compare their own lives with what they hear from relatives in Miami or with what they see on the internet, they know it isn’t so.”
Nearly everything the regime promotes about its economy is a veil of ideology covering up exploitation. As of 2018, Cuba’s top source of revenue was shockingly not the tourism industry, but rather the export of more than 50,000 healthcare workers each year to more than 60 countries. Cuba’s educational system is designed to produce a surplus of doctors, nurses and technicians — an “army of white coats” — who are sent abroad in a PR scheme.
Herrero said the program is a way to “weave the revolution” into a solution, where the government proudly announces that we will send brigades around the world to save the downtrodden, who have been ignored by imperialist powers. In reality, the state confiscates 75% of the salaries of these workers, raking in more than $11 billion per year, making a form of indentured servitude Cuba’s biggest export.
Meanwhile, Cubans abroad find it hard to simply send money to their families. Herrero said one way was to make a bank wire to someone in Panama who would “duffel bag” cash to Havana. Another way would be to rely on a hawala-type system. One could give $100 to someone in Miami, and they would call their business partner in Havana and have them deliver $100 minus a cut to one’s family.
Western Union transactions from the U.S. to Cuba were also an option until last November when the Trump Administration shut them down. The company closed 407 locations across the island, which seems staggering, but Herrero said that most Cubans already found the service too expensive.
As an example, Herrero detailed a Western Union transaction from last year, where someone sent $1,030 to a family member in Cuba. The fee was $77.25, so the total paid by the sender was $1,107.25. The amount that was delivered to the recipient in Cuba was $1,000. The double-digit fee was split up with 1.5% staying in the U.S. as a clearance fee, 4% going to Western Union, 1.5% going to Fincimex (the now-sanctioned Cuban state payment processor), and 3% burned by the “exchange rate” conversation, which the government pockets.
Even if the U.S. opens up Western Union again, recipients would only receive $1,000 at the “official rate” of 24 pesos to $1. So the receiver would get 25,000 pesos, even though the real value of the remittance is 70,000 pesos. The regime would keep the difference.
Americans, Herrero said, could actually top up MLC accounts directly with dollars until last summer. But the Trump administration’s new sanctions closed this channel. Combined with flight closures and reduced tourism, Herrero said this was a “double whammy” that caused a dramatic reduction in dollar flows to Cuba. This, he said, is right when Bitcoin started taking off.
“There is no currency,” he told me, “that would have helped you navigate the oscillations of U.S.-Cuba policy over the last five years better than Bitcoin.”
“It’s hard for anything to grow in Cuba,” he added, “but if you’ve been investing in bitcoin over the past few years, you have been growing.”
VI. Bitcoin As A “Cheat Code” For The Cuban System
Herrero told me about Erich García Cruz, a popular Cuban Bitcoin personality. He called Cruz a “one man CNET,” as he often appears as a guest on state TV, and runs his own popular YouTube channel reviewing different kinds of technology and payment systems. I reached out to Cruz to learn more.
“I’ve lived in Havana since the day I was born,” Cruz told me. He was comfortable using his name for this interview, as he said he is already a “very popular, very known” person.
Cruz said the recent protests have been triggered by a lack of food, a lack of medication, by people suffering from hunger, trying to survive in brutal conditions, during a pandemic, with government bureaucracy, and with high inflation.
“The Cuban people are tired,” he said. “They want a better life.”
“The system isn’t working,” Cruz said, “so people are turning to Bitcoin to escape.”
Cruz’s business, Bitremesas, is a solution to the giant problem that people have when trying to send remittances from the U.S. to Cuba. Again, because of the embargo, U.S. banks cannot wire dollars to Cuban accounts. There is no Transferwise, no PayPal, no Revolut, not even Western Union anymore.
The mule method still works, of wiring money to someone who will physically go into Cuba and give cash to your family, but this is expensive and time consuming. Cruz said one can also make a transfer to a bank in Spain, for example, where then the remittance can be sent directly to someone’s MLC account. But again, expensive and time-consuming.
The better option, Cruz said, is to use Bitcoin.
“It has become a way to connect to the outside world,” he said. “The number of Cubans using Bitcoin is exploding.”
Cruz estimates that at least 300,000 Cubans have used bitcoin or cryptocurrency at least once, and that maybe 100,000 use it on a regular basis. This is 2.5% of the island’s population, precisely in line with global estimates that 200 million of the world’s 7.8 billion people have used Bitcoin.
Cruz said that any Cuban businesses not using Bitcoin today to interact with the international financial system will learn the hard way, and adapt and adopt.
“All externally-facing companies will be forced to use Bitcoin,” he said. “We have a saying in Cuba: You have to get in the bus, because the bus is leaving the town.”
He thinks Bitcoin adoption is already greater per capita in Cuba than in Europe or Canada, but told me that he was not always a Bitcoin believer. In fact, until March 2020, he thought it was a scam. There were always friends and colleagues, he said, trying to introduce him to cryptocurrency, but they were trying to get him to do it so that he could then send the BTC to pyramid schemes like Arbistar or Trust Investing.
“I was very skeptical,” he said.
In March 2020, Cruz made a popular video where he exposed Trust Investing, and showed how it was a pyramid scheme. As part of the reaction to the video, people encouraged him to look at other investing options. One was bitcoin. He pledged to himself to try and become an expert on the topic.
In April and June 2020, he went “down the rabbit hole” and “discovered the holy grail.” Through the lens of Bitcoin, he told me, “you start seeing the actual limitations that Cubans have and the freedom that Bitcoin provides. You see the world from a different perspective.”
“We can’t access the traditional payment solutions. We’re stuck. Well, if that’s the case,” he said, “then I will make my own payment provider using Bitcoin, and we’ll develop a business around this opportunity.”
On September 1, 2020, Cruz launched Bitremesas so that Cuban families can transact easier between the U..S and Cuba. The process is simple: someone in the U.S. sends bitcoin to a wallet managed by Bitremesas (he told me it is a two-of-three multisig, for additional security) — then the company sells the bitcoin for MLC or pesos, and delivers it to the recipient.
He describes a “negative bid” system, where his company will advertise a newly-received $100 remittance of bitcoin in a local network: One trader will offer $95, another $94. Bitremesas will sell to the lowest bidder and take the spread as their profit. The trader will deliver the money to the recipient. The big improvement this holds over other ways of sending money to Cuba, he said, is that the receiver gets close to the real exchange rate. Going through the official system, he said, results in being stuck with the 24 peso to $1 rate.
He said the Cuban people are “smart and intelligent” and are storing value in bitcoin because they trust it more than the peso.
“If you can buy satoshis with pesos and can wait three years, you’re growing your purchasing power in a huge way,” he said.
“I don’t like to speak about politics or the government or whether they have the right or wrong policies,” Cruz said. “I’m just trying to teach my fellow Cubans how to live with Bitcoin and cryptocurrency.”
He credits Satoshi Nakamoto for his new life and new business.
Cruz said he has no special political information, but said the government is researching cryptocurrency as part of its current five-year plan, and could eventually adopt a Bitcoin strategy. For example, it could start accepting bitcoin at MLC stores, or allow citizens to use bitcoin to top up MLC accounts, or to sell tourist offerings or even exports for bitcoin.
“This would be a smart move, a good way to accumulate the hardest currency” he said. “But we are talking about the Cuban government, so I don’t know.”
Cruz remains very critical of the U.S. embargo, which prevents him from accessing a variety of services otherwise available to people living just a few hundred miles away in Miami.
“But fighting the embargo,” he said, “is a fight you cannot win.”
“In Cuba, there are two options,” he added. “You can leave Cuba and escape the Matrix, or you can stay and play the game. Bitcoin is a cheat code to play the game. Now, I choose to stay.”
VII. Building A Bitcoin Economy In Havana
Jorge works for a Bitcoin company in Havana. He discovered Bitcoin in March 2018, when he took advantage of Cuba’s expanded internet access to start trading and “stacking sats” online for various tasks. For much of Jorge’s life, however, connecting to the outside world had been close to impossible. The web had been heavily restricted, and information could only get to Cuba in quiet ways.
As an intern at the Human Rights Foundation, I helped participate in a 2007 program where we would send foreign books and films into Cuba’s pre-internet “underground library” system. From an office in New York, I would burn copies of subtitled films like “V For Vendetta” and “Braveheart” onto DVDs, which were disguised as music CDs, and sent to Cuba with Latin American citizens who would head to the island through Mexico.
They would drop off the samizdat content — along with medical supplies and other technology — with our contacts, who would run private screenings in their homes on portable DVD players with three or four other people at a time, and host discussion groups afterwards.
For many years, this — along with picking up radio signals from Florida — is how Cubans accessed outside information. A few years later, “paquete” was born: a system where some Cubans would use illegal satellite equipment to download foreign content and upload it to harddrives, which were then disseminated through communities where people would pay per item to transfer what they wanted to their own USB sticks to watch or read at home.
In 2014 and 2015, WiFi started to pop up across Cuba at hotels and public access points. Paquete grew dramatically at this point, with some people getting paid to simply stand around and download content all day. In 2017 and 2018, data was introduced to mobile phones. Internet access has increased dramatically in recent years, but is still censored and slow and surveilled.
“There’s no great firewall,” Jorge said, “but our experience is not as smooth and shiny as the open web.”
When we spoke, he used a VPN.
The power of the internet in Cuba was on full display last month, when a July 10 Facebook post in the small town of San Antonio de los Banos helped ignite national protests the next day.
“Tired of having no electricity?” the post asked. “Fed up of having to listen to the impudence of a government that doesn’t care about you? It’s time to go out and to make demands. Don’t criticize at home: let’s make them listen to us.”
Jorge could not have predicted this summer’s July 11 movement, but either way, he was thrilled to connect to the world online. Bitcoin’s new form of digital money was one of the most interesting things he found on the web, but he did not know how to actually “give use” to the new digital currency beyond saving. That is when he found Bitrefill.
Through this online service, he started to top up his phone using bitcoin. On the platform, Cubans can buy mobile phone vouchers — along with other things like app store and gaming coupons — directly with bitcoin that they earn, buy or receive from abroad via platforms like Bitremesas.
In Jorge’s case, he’ll store his bitcoin on the Muun or Blue Wallet apps on his phone. He said these two are his favorite: Both apps are free, open-source, Lightning-enabled and available to Cubans in Spanish language formats directly from the Google Play store. From there, it’s just one step to buying things with Bitrefill.
Through the platform, some Cubans have found arbitrage opportunities in an otherwise extortionate financial system. For example, in order to lure hard currency, state-run telecoms company ETECSA will sometimes provide extra credit if one tops up their mobile phone with euros or pounds. The promotions are so good that some Cubans will pay middlemen to top up their phones from abroad. But a Cuban can sit at home, earn or buy bitcoin and then top up anyone’s phone from the Bitrefill service, making a tidy profit.
Jorge said that today he even taps into an informal market for meal delivery using Bitcoin. He places an order via a peer-to-peer service, and the prepared food shows up at his doorstep. He pays in bitcoin, a cypherpunk Cuban version of Uber Eats. He said that between his business, his meals and other various items, he buys almost everything he needs today with bitcoin. For Jorge, living in a Bitcoin economy is not a future dream, it is the present day.
Using Bitcoin so comprehensively to live is not widespread, Jorge said, and he admits he is one of the very early adopters. But, he said, either way it is very easy for him to exchange bitcoin for MLC or pesos and buy whatever he needs.
When asked if Bitcoin was a fad, or something that he might stop using at some point, he said “I’m not going back. I can’t imagine my life right now without Bitcoin.”
He pointed to friends who are doctors or lawyers, whose savings was getting eaten by inflation before finding Bitcoin, or others who are entrepreneurs and are building their entire lives around Bitcoin right now, just like him.
When I spoke to Sobrado, the currency researcher whose work informed much of this essay, he told me about a business he ran in Cuba before the pandemic. He built a team that would service, for example, taxi drivers and apartment owners, to make it easier for them to accept foreign payments.
Sobrado’s company would allow foreigners to pay for their Havana airport pickup online. Sobrado would receive their euros into a foreign account, and then he would sell those euros for bitcoin, which could be sent to his team in Cuba in minutes, and sold there for CUC or pesos. His team would then drop off the cash with the drivers.
Sobrado provided a similar service with Cubans using booking.com or Airbnb, which have special OFAC permission to operate on the island.
“Let’s say you are a Cuban apartment owner,” he told me. “You get a license to do business, and you rent out your place online and the first guest comes. The way your guest pays AirBnB is through a remittance company called Va Cuba. On the Cuban end, what this means is that some dude shows up on your doorstep and asks around for you and if you happen to be home, he will hand you an envelope of cash. This dude would often be late, he would give the official exchange rate, it was a mess. So instead, what we would do is pay you directly and immediately, at the real price, using Bitcoin as a rail.”
If Bitcoin didn’t exist, Sobrado said these businesses wouldn’t have worked. He would have had to raise prices by at least 5%, and the profit margins would have disappeared. Sobrado said the best months in terms of overall revenue were late 2019 and early 2020. During the pandemic, he said, “the whole thing died,” but it is yet another example of how creative minds are using Bitcoin to improve lives, make things more efficient, and earn money even in a dreary police state.
In writing about Cuba’s internet adoption in 2017, the author Antonio Garcia Martinez said that an important word to know is resolver: “While literally meaning ‘to resolve,’ in practice it’s closer to Silicon Valley’s notion of ‘life hacking,’ but without the humblebraggy lifestyle posturing.”
“Need to navigate the endless hurdles involved in getting a small business license? Resolver,” he wrote. “Cubans are the kings and queens of resolver. It’s the only thing that kept them afloat since the Special Period.”
However, Martinez wrote, “arrayed against the forces of resourceful resolver lies another important word: complicado.”
“Want to talk to the dissident journalists who scoff at Cuban censorship and are routinely harassed and jailed? Es complicado,” he wrote. “Want to get a passport and visa to travel abroad? Es complicado.”
According to Jorge, Bitcoin is the embodiment of resolver. It is a workaround, a way to defeat complicado.
As Martinez wrote, resolver “almost always” beats complicado, “especially when there is real money to be made.”
Even though Martinez made this observation in Cuba’s pre-Bitcoin days, it could not be more true today, when citizens are turning to bitcoin over pesos in search of “real money.”
Jorge told me that Bitcoin is no magic solution to all of Cuba’s problems, and notes that people are facing an incredibly difficult time for a variety of reasons. He looks to El Salvador’s national Bitcoin adoption and said that services used there like Strike (which connect Bitcoin to the local banking system) are not available in Cuba, and likely will not be because of the embargo.
But, Jorge said, people today are learning more about Bitcoin, getting enthusiastic and saving up. After so many years of the government rug pulling citizens with the CUC and MLC systems, today, Bitcoin users are rug pulling the government by exchanging pesos or MLC for bitcoin, a superior form of money that has appreciated dramatically over the last decade. Maybe, Jorge said, the people will finally get the last laugh.
I asked Jorge about the many Western critics of Bitcoin, who say it is just for criminals and that it has no social value. He laughed in disbelief. Many people’s lives “have been improved dramatically” through Bitcoin, he said.
“This technology goes around blockades and government restrictions, it allows you to move value without trusting anyone, it connects you to the world, and it allows you to empower yourself and do things that are otherwise impossible,” he said. “It has created hope for those who want change.”
VIII. A New Cuba Is Coming
Much like other closed regimes like North Korea and the Soviet Union, technology and outside information is having a massive impact on Cuba.
There is no way a protest movement like July 11 could have scaled nationwide without people being able to digitally organize and connect with one another.
When I spoke to Antonio García Martinez recently, he told me that “the internet is going to nuke 62 years of Cuban communism.”
On the island, he said, “the internet is a machine for destroying the consensus elites, who depend on a monopoly of information.”
“If the internet stays on,” he said, “the Cuban government will eventually fall.”
But after nearly 20 years of economic reforms, and a half-decade of a connected population, the Cuban communist party still holds onto power.
Even the advent of the internet has not been enough to shake its grip. Its stubborn, conservative nature has sadly worked, and kept it alive for many decades. While Bitcoin might be a good way for it to accumulate the hardest currency on earth, the dinosaurs in charge may not think this is a risk worth taking.
On the U.S. side, the Biden administration has ordered a “review” on remittances to Cuba, trying to determine how those in the U.S. can best send money to their family on the island without supporting the regime. The answer, of course, is Bitcoin, but given Treasury Secretary Yellen’s animosity for the new currency, it is unlikely they will be willing to admit this and begin operationalizing it in their foreign policy.
While speaking to Cubans during the tumultuous last few weeks, one thing is clear: a growing number are not going to wait for their government to unroll some new reform, or for the Biden administration to soften its sanctions. They are seizing their own financial destiny through Bitcoin.
More than 100 years ago, the great Cuban poet José Marti wrote that “rights are to be taken, not requested; seized, not begged for.” This could be the motto of Cuba’s new Bitcoin movement.
Perhaps the current political protests will be enough to show the world that Cubans are tired of living under dictatorship, but not enough to end the regime. Over the decades, many predicted the fall of the Castro tyranny, only to be proven wrong.
In the meantime, Cubans will continue to peacefully protest by opting out of the exploitative peso and MLC system, and into Bitcoin. After six decades of economic misery, there is finally a way out.
Whether it is through individuals like Lucia in Matanzas, stacking sats quietly every day, or Erich or Jorge in Havana, who keep innovating and onboarding the masses, Bitcoin is now a thoroughly Cuban movement, a resolver that seems unlikely to be stopped.
Cuba’s Central Bank Suspends US Dollar Deposits Nationwide – Officials Cite Embargo ‘Obstacles’
The Republic of Cuba is suspending the use of U.S. dollars due to embargo restrictions with U.S. and foreign banks. The central bank of Cuba’s restrictions stems from the “obstacles that the U.S. embargo creates for the national bank system.”
Cuba Bans USD Deposits, BCC Tells Tourists to ‘Arrive With a Currency Other Than the Dollar’
Cuba, the island country located where the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean meet, said this week U.S. dollars will be suspended in the country. The mandate comes from the country’s central bank and foreign tourists have been told to leave U.S. dollars at home when visiting. The announcement was invoked at a roundtable discussion that was aired on state-sponsored Cuban television.
“In view of the obstacles that the U.S. embargo creates for the national bank system to deposit abroad the U.S. dollars that are collected in the country, a decision was made to temporarily suspend deposits in U.S. banknotes in Cuba’s bank and financial system,” the Central Bank of Cuba (Banco Central de Cuba, BCC) members said.
Yamilé Berra Cires, the vice president of the BCC, explained during the roundtable discussion that at the beginning of the Trump administration’s leadership, the U.S. tightened the embargo’s grip. The United States has had an embargo with Cuba since 1958 and the U.S. has had numerous issues with Cuba during the Eisenhower presidency and Kennedy presidency as well. After the 2008 crisis, the U.S. and Cuba seemed to gravitate toward friendlier terms during the Obama presidency.
However, BCC vice president Berra Cires claims issues have gotten worse since Trump and said 24 foreign banks stopped dealing with Cuba. Berra Cires also said during the roundtable discussion that 95 foreign financial institutions reported on the transgressions of Cuban national banks doing business with counterparties. “It is ever more difficult for Cuba to find international banking or financing institutions willing to receive, convert or process U.S. currency in cash,” Berra Cires further remarked.
“People who will be coming into the country during this time will have to arrive with a currency other than the dollar,” Francisco Mayobre Lence the BCC’s first vice president said.
BCC Minister-President: ‘There Is No Other Option’
Of course, after hearing about the USD ban in Cuba, members of the cryptocurrency community wanted Cuba to adopt digital currencies like El Salvador recently did with bitcoin. “It’s like [a] 50-year embargo. It’s really depressing,” one individual wrote about the Cuba situation with America on Reddit. “Will they take crypto now?” another Redditor asked in the r/cryptocurrency thread. Another crypto enthusiast responded to the question and said:
I doubt they want to be the last Latin American country to do so.
Minister-president of the Cuban central bank, Marta Sabina Wilson González explained during the roundtable discussion that Cuba had no choice but to make the decision. “We had no choice but to take this measure, which we are explaining at the Round Table, as we always do when it is a measure that affects the people, who will understand that there is no other option,” the minister detailed.
Cuba’s Black Communities Bear The Brunt Of Regime’s Crackdown
Communist officials say the instigators of recent protests are criminals from the island’s underworld.
Recent antigovernment protests in Cuba were the biggest in more than six decades. But they were historic, too, because many of the protesters were Black Cubans, a group that is increasingly breaking with the country’s Communist government.
The protests, which were repressed by police and organized government supporters, included Cubans of all ages, races and classes. But Afro-Cubans were at the forefront of many of the nationwide demonstrations, according to protesters and Cuba experts.
The most intense protests and violence, including the lone death acknowledged by the government, happened in impoverished and largely Black neighborhoods, Cuba’s government and dissidents say. And many, if not a majority, of those arrested in a subsequent crackdown are Black, their relatives and activists say.
“This is a fundamental break between Afro descendants and the government,” says Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a Black Cuban civil-rights activist. “The government saw delinquents where there are only angry people fed up with the lack of social mobility, lack of freedom and structural racism.”
The growing defiance of Afro-Cubans, who make up more than a third of the island’s 11 million people, is a turnaround for a group often seen as natural allies of a government that 62 years ago overthrew a dictatorship and prohibited racial discrimination. But in the past three decades, many Black Cubans, like many other Cubans, have become disillusioned with government policies that have widened racial and income disparities. The pandemic and a steep economic contraction have added to the pain.
While the government has long painted a picture of racial equality in Cuba, experts say Blacks in Cuba still have a harder time getting ahead than whites. Blacks are the poorest Cubans, have fewer people sending them dollar remittances from abroad and struggle to get jobs in either top government posts or the key tourism industry, according to surveys, Cuba analysts and interviews with Cuban Black activists.
The exact number and racial profile of people arrested and injured during the protests is difficult to determine because the government won’t disclose that information. Cuban civil-rights groups estimate that nearly 800 people have been detained since a wave of protests on July 11.
About 100 people face more serious criminal charges such as destroying government property or attacking police officers. A majority of those facing criminal charges are Cubans of African descent, according to a person familiar with the trials.
In recent weeks, scores of young Afro Cuban protesters have undergone summary trials behind closed doors, nearly all for minor offenses like inciting public disorder. Judges are handing out prison sentences of nine to 12 months in prison or house arrest, according to relatives of those arrested and activists.
Senior Cuban officials deny that the government’s response to the protests has been racially tinged. “Everyone knows that if there’s a government that has done a lot for racial equality and eliminating the vestiges of racism, it’s Cuba,” said a government spokesman.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said the protests aren’t the result of social turmoil but due to U.S. interference and the work of “criminals from down-and-out barrios.” These are code words frequently used by the government to refer to Black Cubans from poor neighborhoods, Black activists say.
A senior Cuban official in charge of criminal investigations at the Interior Ministry, Col. Moraima Bravet, said many of the protesters came from “lowlife families” and she singled out a protest in a largely Black neighborhood known as La Güinera.
“Instigators can be, as we saw in the case of La Güinera, people on motorcycles chanting ‘Patria y Vida.’ That is stirring up disorder,” she said on television, referring to the title “Fatherland and Life,” a confrontational rap song composed by Black Cuban artists that became the anthem of the protests.
Some residents of La Güinera tell a different story. “They demonstrated peacefully, demanding freedom,” said Caridad Besú, a longtime La Güinera resident. Odet, her daughter, a hairstylist, and her son-in-law were detained in mid-July and face public-disorder charges after Odet posted a video of peaceful protests on Facebook.
Across Cuba, there are stories of young Black people who protested and were thrown into jail, according to Anamely Ramos, a member of the San Isidro Movement, a group of mostly Black Cuban artists and dissidents at the forefront of recent demonstrations. She has compiled a list using posts on Facebook and through interviews with relatives of the detained.
They include people like Virgilio Mantilla, arrested following the July 11 protests for shouting “down with the dictatorship” from his house. He has since started a hunger strike after receiving a nine-month prison sentence for contempt last month, Ms. Ramos said.
A 2019 survey of 1,049 Cubans carried out by the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, a Hamburg-based nonprofit, found that 95% of Black Cubans were on the bottom rung of Cuban society in terms of income.
Because a majority of the Cubans who fled after the 1959 revolution were white, nearly 8 in 10 Cubans who get dollar remittances from relatives abroad are also white, the survey found. Because that cash allowed many in Cuba to open a small business, white Cubans own 98% of the restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts that typically cater to the tourism trade, the survey found.
Access to dollars or euros makes a big difference in Cuba’s two-tier economy. Retail stores that sell products in the local currency, usually at subsidized prices, have little to sell. But another set of stores where the shelves are well stocked only accept foreign currency with prices out of reach for most Black Cubans.
Black Cubans have also been largely cut out of jobs in hotels and restaurants by operators who have favored lighter-skinned Cubans, says Alejandro de la Fuente, a Harvard University expert on Cuba who has done field research on Black participation in the tourist industry.
“Blacks live close to the tourist-dollar economy, but are excluded from it,” he said. “They are the losers of the dollar economy installed in Cuba in the 1990s.”
Black Cubans are also largely absent from senior government positions, says Javier Corrales, a Cuba expert at Amherst College. Black Cubans are well represented in the National Assembly, a largely powerless legislative body that meets to rubber stamp legislation twice a year, Mr. Corrales says. But it’s the president, his cabinet and close advisers who wield real power. The vast majority of these are and have always been white, he says.
A review of the website of the current 34-person Council of Ministers, the government’s top executive body, shows it has only three, or perhaps, four Black members. Cuba also has a Black vice president.
Some Black Cubans live on the fringe, slipping in and out of Havana’s underworld of black-market deals, prostitution, petty crime and police abuse. Maykel Castillo, one of the authors of “Patria y Vida,” spent 16 years in prison before music changed his life, said Eliexer Márquez, his hip-hop partner and childhood friend.
Mr. Castillo was detained by the police in May, and is now in a high-security prison awaiting trial on charges of resisting arrest and disobedience, which could keep him locked up for years. Friends say he remains defiant.
At a previous protest in November, Osvaldo Navarro, a Black activist, said Cuban police officers hurled a commonly used racist expression at him.
“You ungrateful Black, the revolution gave you everything,” the policeman shouted at him, says Mr. Navarro. He retorted: “The revolution gave me nothing.” Many other Black Cuban activists said they had suffered similar verbal abuse.
In mid-July, the U.S. group Black Lives Matter praised Cuba’s government, and didn’t mention repression after the protests. Cuba “has historically demonstrated solidarity with oppressed peoples of African descent,” the organization said.
That got a stinging response from Black Cuban rapper Roberto Álvarez, who goes by the name Robe L. Ninho.
“Find out if Black rights are being respected, if there is racism here or not,” Mr. Álvarez retorted in a video.
Black Lives Matter didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Cuba To Recognize And Regulate Crypto On The Island
Cuba’s government said Thursday it will recognize — and regulate — cryptocurrencies for payments on the island.
A resolution published in the Official Gazette said the Central Bank will set rules for such currencies and determine how to license providers of related services within Cuba.
The popularity of such currencies has grown among a technologically savvy group in Cuba as it has become harder to use dollars, in part because of toughened embargo rules imposed under former President Donald Trump.
The Central American nation of El Salvador recently announced it would recognize use of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as a way to encourage remittances from its citizens living abroad.
The currencies, which can wobbly wildly up and down in value, are usually independent of any central bank and use widely distributed blockchain computer codes to keep track of transfers.
Because they can be used for long-distance transactions that are supposedly anonymous, they are often popular with people attempting to evade government regulations — presumably including U.S. restrictions on sending money to places such as Cuba.
The resolution says the Central Bank can authorize use of cryptocurrencies “for reasons of socioeconomic interest” but with the state assuring that their operations are controlled. It also explicitly noted that operations could not involve illegal activities.
A local cryptocurrency expert, programmer Erich García, said some Cubans are already using such devices, often via gift cards, for online purchases.
Cuba Regulates The Use Of Virtual Assets For Commercial Transactions
In a resolution, the country’s central bank also stipulated rules for granting licenses to institutions handling cryptocurrencies.
The Central Bank of Cuba issued a resolution establishing rules to regulate the use of virtual assets in commercial transactions and licensing of service providers in that sector.
In the resolution published Thursday, the central bank, which is known as the BCC, said it may authorize, for reasons of socioeconomic interest, the use of certain virtual assets in commercial transactions and license virtual asset service providers to allow them to conduct certain financial activities, such as collecting payments.
“Financial institutions and other legal entities may only use virtual assets among themselves and with natural persons to carry out monetary and mercantile operations, and exchange and swap transactions, as well as to satisfy pecuniary obligations,” the bank said.
The central bank detailed that a virtual asset is understood as “the digital representation of value that can be traded or transferred digitally and used for payments or investments.”
The BCC also clarified that “persons assume the civil and criminal risks and liabilities derived from operating with virtual assets and service providers that operate outside the banking and financial system, even though transactions with virtual assets between these persons are not prohibited.”
On the other hand, the resolution stipulated that government agencies must refrain from using virtual assets in transactions, except in cases authorized by the Central Bank of Cuba.
According to the BCC, even when such virtual assets and the providers of such services operate outside of the banking and financial system, their management implies risks for monetary policy and financial stability because of the volatility that characterizes digital currencies and their use in data networks in cyberspace.
The BCC also said that cryptocurrencies carry the risks of being used to finance criminal activities because of their anonymous nature.
Cuba Set To Recognize And Regulate Cryptocurrency
The country had to temporarily stop accepting cash bank deposits in United States dollars due to tighter restrictions set by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Cuban government is reportedly planning to recognize and regulate cryptocurrencies for payments.
According to Aljazeera, the Caribbean nation’s central bank will establish rules for mainstreaming cryptocurrency transactions. Cuban authorities are also expected to distribute relevant licenses to businesses based on the crypto-related services they provide.
Some sources claim that the move to allow cryptocurrency as a legal tender has been well received by Cuba’s tech-savvy population as the country had to temporarily stop accepting cash bank deposits in United States dollars, given tighter restrictions set by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Struggling economies, such as El Salvador, have also started mainstreaming Bitcoin (BTC) adoption. On Monday, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele announced the construction of country-wide infrastructure to support the adoption of Bitcoin.
El Salvador’s Bitcoin adoption policy can reduce overall remittance costs and potentially transform the remittance landscape across Central America, according to the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).
Dante Mossi, executive president of CABEI, believes that El Salvador’s “out of this world experiment” could result in greater financial inclusion, and thus, it is in CABEI’s best interest to help El Salvador create a technical framework for Bitcoin adoption.
Cuba’s Cryptocurrency Regulations Take Effect
Crypto is now a legal method of payment for commercial transactions in the Island nation.
Resolution 215 of 2021 issued by the Banco Central de Cuba (BCC) — the country’s central bank — recognizing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC) is now in effect.
According to Cuba’s official state news agency Prensa Latina, the order became official on Wednesday.
With crypto legally recognized by the BCC, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can now be used for commercial transactions and investments in Cuba.
As previously reported by Cointelegraph, the central bank first announced plans to recognize and regulate crypto back in late August.
Indeed, Resolution 215 of 2021 contains provisions for a licensing regime for crypto exchanges and other virtual asset service providers operating in Cuba.
Despite legalizing the use of crypto assets in Cuba, the BCC has warned of the risks associated with cryptocurrencies.
According to the BCC, while crypto operates outside of the nation’s banking system, the use of virtual currencies poses significant monetary policy risks and financial stability concerns.
Cuba’s central bank also warned of the potential for bad actors to take advantage of the perceived anonymous nature of crypto transactions for illicit transactions.
By recognizing crypto, Cubans may begin to enjoy easier remittance flows from overseas despite the United States embargo. Global money transfer services like Western Union have largely exited the country under increasing pressure from Washington.
Indeed, the country is towing a similar line to El Salvador in embracing Bitcoin amid crippling U.S. sanctions and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. El Salvador recently became the first country to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender.
Crypto interest in Cuba has been high over the last few years with virtual currencies associated with the possibility of financial freedom for many in the country.
The recognition of crypto by the BCC could be a major step in transforming Cuba’s cryptocurrency industry as a formal sector of the island nation’s struggling economy.
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