Proof that Bitcoin can empower the minority, independent of political will or regulatory circumstance, is coming to light in 2015 – in Cuba.
In an exclusive interview with Cointelegraph, members of the Club Anarcocapitalista de Cuba (Cuban Anarchocapitalist Club; CAC) were able to go on record to describe their mission to bring the social and economic freedom engendered by Bitcoin to their local community.
Changing international relations with Cuba have made international headlines in recent months. Trade embargoes with the US are under review, and in their absence a Cuba could emerge which would swiftly become unrecognizable from the mysterious country with the foreboding government of the past 50 years.
The CAC proves first and foremost however that the freedoms afforded to ordinary Cubans are as restricted as before at present, and that the process of increasing awareness of Bitcoin is both laborious and dangerous.
“We believe that Bitcoin has an essential role to play within the context of renewed relations between Cuba and the USA,” CAC co-founder Joisy Garcia said. “This currency would not be punished like the dollar is today; the dictatorship makes holding dollars a burden, but the introduction of Bitcoin would allow us to potentially dodge this problem.”
CAC was originally founded as a branch of the Mises Institute of Cuba, whose website takes the form of a blog featuring articles critiquing the country’s regime and discussing potential outcomes of change. CAC, which this week celebrates its first anniversary, is itself still very small, operated by co-founders Garcia Martinez and Nelson Rodríguez Chartrand with the support of a handful of others at home and in the US. It is likely this offshore support that allowed the group to begin accepting Bitcoin donations in February, a move which caught the attention of mainstream media: it was, of course, the first organization in the country to have any formal ties with the digital currency.
“We are immersed in educating new entrepreneurs and the general public, Bitcoin is brand new both for us and for Cubans in general, and with it come new and fascinating experiences,” Garcia explained.
In his interview with PanAm Post last month, Garcia held back from explaining exactly how the group uses Bitcoin to boost its activity with regard to converting funds to Cuban pesos. He is still bound to secrecy, but hinted at the underlying aims being facilitated by these early exercises in careful accounting.
“We can't reveal much about the issues surrounding conversion, but we can tell you that Bitcoin will help our club bear fruit – later we will be able to unveil some projects we have, which are ongoing as part of the distribution of the Ludwig von Mises [Institute] digital library,” he said.
Garcia is understandably discreet in his discussions, yet there is also a palpable optimism from all the club’s members, something which has no doubt not come about in haste. With regard to the future, however, in a Cuba becoming ever more dynamic thanks to the influx of international attention, there remains an understated yet equally palpable sense of doubt.
“The Internet, whether the dictatorship likes it or not, is gaining ground in Cuba, so we are optimistic in thinking that Bitcoin is a viable alternative for new Cuban entrepreneurs; tourists could travel from Europe USA and so on,” Garcia added, while simply concluding, “The government is not concerned about the cryptocurrency phenomenon yet, because we are one of the least connected countries in the world.”
Cointelegraph was also fortunate to be able to reach out to US-based Fernando Villar, a supporter of the CAC’s projects who first introduced Garcia to Bitcoin. Villar is spearheading an initiative to spread awareness of Bitcoin in Cuba, with plans to capitalize on the changing scene to provide for the country the empowering financial services currently being witnessed elsewhere, notably in Kenya.
His website, BitcoinCuba, has even received attention from Roger Ver, who voiced his support for Villar’s non-profit scheme. Villar spoke further about the background to Bitcoin coming to Cuba through the efforts of both organizations, and the current atmosphere in the current, highly changeable diplomatic environment.
Cointelegraph: International relations with Cuba are now back in the limelight after renewed cooperation with the US. How do you think this will help Bitcoin in Cuba?
Fernando Villar: I believe with news of new diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba now is the time that Bitcoin can begin to flourish in Cuba. Part of these new negations are allowing U.S. telecommunications companies to set up equipment and other infrastructure projects needed to improve phone and Internet services on the island. Right now less than 5% of Cubans have access to the Internet which is still censored by the Castro regime and very expensive for the average citizen to afford.
Although there are other ways that Bitcoin can be traded offline through SMS or paper vouchers, in order for Bitcoin to catch on it is essential that Cubans receive the same type of broadband access we enjoy in the US. How else can Cubans pay for services like Netflix when most don’t have credit or debit cards?
CT: Do you see more opportunities to become active in the Bitcoin space now, or do the same dangers remain?
FV: Although the future of Bitcoin in Cuba may be bright, at the present time it is somewhat bleak. We are talking about a country in which the vast majority of Cuban families use a government issued ration book “Libreta de Abastecimiento” for food and basic necessities. Most families rely on the black market and families around the world sending remittances for daily survival. Although these are the present issues that face most Cubans, I believe there will come a time in the next few years when their own economic freedom will become a main issue. The path to economic liberty in the 21st century is through cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
CT: What are your plans for using Bitcoin? Will it be aimed at group funding or wider promotion and education etc.?
FV: The way in which people can learn about the powerful effects of cryptocurrency is first done through sheer education. BitcoinCuba.org was founded with the intent to educate Cuban civil society on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Cubans are highly educated and will be able to grasp the inner workings of Bitcoin but beyond the technical aspects and understanding the blockchain, this is the time for Cubans to understand the economic freedom that bitcoins bring. Once they understand concepts like not needing a bank account, getting their full remittances from families without being heavily taxed and trading their goods or services freely without governmental interference, the idea will spread like wildfire.
Our mission is to connect with groups on the island and discover ways they can start using Bitcoin now on a small scale with the limited infrastructure they currently have.
CT: How are you dealing with currency conversion problems?
FV: The conversion problem is the biggest test right now. The Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) are both legal tender on the island but they are not convertible in foreign markets. CUC is pegged to the dollar and most goods are valued in that currency, but most workers in Cuba are paid in CUP. The current rates right now are 26:1. The exchanges are in the hands of the regime at this time. It’s a problem that needs to be resolved, possibly through a tertiary market were goods and services can be bought and sold exclusively through bitcoins without reliance on exchange to a Peso. These are the some of the problems BitcoinCuba has noted and are looking to find ways to resolve.
CT: How would you describe the Bitcoin scene in Cuba? Is there awareness or even casual use? Has the government reacted in any particular way to the cryptocurrency phenomenon?
FV: here isn’t much of a Bitcoin scene in Cuba. We found out about a sole Bitcoin miner on the island and there are some people and groups who are learning about cryptocurrencies through their own research or foreign influence but it isn’t widely known. When I contacted Joisy and the Mises Cuba club about donations, I was surprised that he had his Bitcoin wallet set up but he really didn’t understand how it worked or know the true power of Bitcoins. As I spoke to him about it, he lit up with excitement and understood the true potential.
More Cubans will understand this power of Bitcoin but they need to have the educational tools at their disposal. BitcoinCuba is working on putting together some educational material to start sharing with groups in Cuba that share the spirit of economic freedom. BitcoinCuba isn’t funded by any group or governmental organization.
We want to engage the Bitcoin community for support and donations to help us spread the message of Bitcoin in Cuba. As one of our supporters Roger Ver has said, Bitcoin will have more of a positive impact to the Cuban civil society than any diplomatic negotiation between the U.S. & Cuba.
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