This week, the first documented Bitcoin transaction in Cuba was put in the history books. Although people have been visiting Cuba since the advent of Bitcoin, this is the first public transaction, considered significant in large part because of recent changes that swept the tiny island nation off the U.S. coast.
Washington D.C. and Cuba have opened up relations in recent months after the formal restoration of diplomacy. Five decades long the United States and Cuba spent devoid of the benefits of working together. The Obama Administration liberalized economic life for Cubans on the island, and Cuban-Americans, with many recent reforms, and Congress will likely be asked to lift the trade embargo and end its travel restrictions for the island.
“It’s about showing Cubans and the Bitcoin community that it is now possible to receive Bitcoin through Nauta, the Cuban state-run public Wi-Fi,” Fernando Villar, BitcoinCuba founder, told CCN. “This will hopefully open everyone’s eyes on the possibilities and finally put Cuba on the Bitcoin map.” The idea came about spontaneously.
“I was taking a personal trip to Cuba to visit family and friends on the island,” Villar told CCN. “I asked [CoinStructive CEO] Chris Groshong a few days before my trip, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could send me some Bitcoin from the U.S. to Cuba through the new public Wi-Fi networks?’”. The rest is history.
I didn’t know if it would truly work, but I had my camera handy when it did. I was not only able to receive the Bitcoin but also send some back.
BitcoinCuba believes there is big potential for Bitcoin in Cuba, but Villar remains cautious of the historical hurdles the island nation will have to overcome.
“The future for Bitcoin in Cuba is promising, but it’s going to take some time and effort,” Villar said. “Cubans are only now being connected through public Wi-Fi, which is somewhat cost prohibitive at $2 an hour, with the average Cuban salary about $20 a month.” To be certain, the Wi-Fi parks are incredible to see, Villar says.
“Cubans bring their smartphones, laptops and tablets to these parks to get connected to friends and family, as well as to learn about the world outside the island,” Villar tells CCN. “It’s only a matter of time before they also start receiving money through those networks.” Of all the things the Castro regime suppresses, technology and innovation are not among them, according to Villar. Due to capital controls in the nation, Bitcoin could make life easier for many people.
“Right now Cubans deal with a dual currency system that makes it prohibitive for Cubans to compete in a global market. There aren’t many currency exchanges in which people are buying up Cuban pesos or convertible pesos, so their currency is essentially worthless outside of the island,” informs Villar.
“We strongly feel that even a minimal adoption to Bitcoin will start to help Cuban entrepreneurs sell their goods or service globally in a simple and efficient way,” he says. “These entrepreneurs are going to be the ones that are going to elevate the economy in the near future.”
— BitcoinCuba (@BitcoinCuba) July 18, 2015
Villar used the Airbitz wallet, as seen in the video, for the transaction. The wallet won first place in the start-up competition this year in New York City at the Inside Bitcoins Conference. Known for it’s easy-to-use design, Airbitz also integrates a detailed Bitcoin merchant directory, so mobile users can locate a store and spend bitcoins on the same application. Airbitz’s decentralized infrastructure has made it one of the most popular Bitcoin wallets on the market.
“The beauty of this occurrence is that as a company, Airbitz had nothing to do with it!” Paul Puey, CEO of Airbitz, told CCN. “We simply build the best product we can, and both the sender and recipient in Cuba felt that the best option was Airbitz.”
I’d like to think we did some cool, creative PR stunt, but it was the organic growth of people deciding to use Airbitz.
The Airbitz team understands the importance of BitcoinCuba’s work on the island.
“From what we have heard, Bitcoin is still barely understood or heard of in Cuba. Knowledge is the biggest issue and we’re happy to see organizations such as bitcoincuba.org make a strong effort to empower their citizens with knowledge about Bitcoin,” Puey said.
For now, Cuba remains an outwardly centrally planned economy. Many anticipate it will take a long time for the country to promote private enterprise and allow political reforms. Some believe Cuban authorities could tighten state controls in the short-term. Cubans remain divided on the issues. Does the island encourage foreign investment and private enterprises or does it stick to its socialist paradigm, which offers – as some experts believe – better education and health care than is available to most Latin Americans? Whatever the path they choose, Bitcoin has not waited.
“With a country so steeped in the chains of capital controls, restricted trade, and even limited access to digital information, Cuban citizens will quickly find amazing benefits from the financial freedom that Bitcoin can,” Puey said. “The possibility to bring them free trade, easily purchased Internet access, and the ability to send and receive money globally will be greatly appreciated by Cubans.”
For once we have a currency that knows no boundaries and it turns the borders we draw between countries from imaginary to non-existent.
Villar became involved in Bitcoin in late 2013 after reading articles about the currency on Reddit. In February 2015, he founded BitcoinCuba.org because he believed Bitcoin and the block chain could massively help the lives of Cubans. Being of Cuban descent, Villar has friends and family that send remittances to Cuba. “There isn’t a better, cheaper and faster way to send remittances than through Bitcoin,” he told CCN.
According to Villar, there isn’t quite yet a Bitcoin scene, per se, in Cuba – namely, in Havana. And so, CoinStructive, where Villar is a senior consultant, and BitcoinCuba, have partnered to circulate Bitcoin and Blockchain educational materials including videos in Spanish to create awareness about the digital currency.
“We hope that sometime soon we will be able to run a Bitcoin and Blockchain workshop in Havana to promote the currency and technology,” he says.
Featured image from Shutterstock.