The Ordeal of Automated Teller Machines
ROSA LOPEZ, La Habana | Febrero 24, 2015
The line reached the corner and was moving with agonizing slowness. They
were not selling eggs or potatoes. It wasn’t even a line for seeking a
visa. Those who waited just wanted access to the automatic teller, the
only one working last Saturday afternoon near Havana’s Central Park.
A few days before MasterCard can be used in Cuba, many are asking how
the Cuban bank network will deal with the increased demand for money if
it can barely keep its service afloat for domestic users and tourists.
The congestion in front of the machines grows even though only 1.3
million magnetic cards have been issued in the country, and for the
moment only retirees, customers with accounts in convertible pesos,
businesses that have contracts with the bank, self-employed workers and
international collaborators can get them. The rest of society continues
to depend exclusively on paper currency.
“When the subject is money, people fume,” says a young man whose
Saturday night hangs by a thread because of the congested ATM. Even
though this weekend the temperature dropped in the city, no one seemed
ready to leave before getting their cash.
The scene is repeated at most of the 550 ATMs (Automated Teller Machines
or automatic tellers) of Chinese manufacture, of which 398 are in
Havana. In 2013 200 new units were purchased in China, but the majority
were to replace defective terminals and did not solve the serious
deficit of tellers. Cash payment is still the most common method in Cuba
for acquiring products and services.
The scarcity of terminals combines with the deficient functioning of the
system, affected by electrical outages, frequent connection failures
between the ATM and the bank and lack of cash
Almost all the self-employed workers offer their services for cash
payment. The use of point of sale terminals (TPVs) for card scanning and
payment, also known as POS, is only available in private businesses with
great resources and obvious official backing.
In state business networks, the landscape is different but not very
promising either. Although there exist POS terminals in most big
department stores and hard currency shops, their service is unstable and
slow. “When a client comes to pay with a card, the line stops for
minutes because sometimes the communication with the bank is down and
you have to try it several times,” explains a cashier from the busy
market at 70 th Street and 3 rd in Miramar.
In the provincial cities and above all in the townships, where they are
practically non-existent, the ATM and POS situation is even worse.
Tourists who travel deep into Cuba must carry cash with them, increasing
the risk of theft and loss in addition to the demand for liquidity.
The problem hits natives and foreigners. “Why do they pay me on the card
if in the end I have to go get the money at the bank because I can make
purchases almost nowhere with this?” complains Marilin Ruiz, a former
elementary school teacher who also was waiting in line on Saturday for
the ATM near Central Park. The delay was so long that she wound sharing
recipes for making flan without milk and knitting suggestions with
Between the 4th and 6th of each month, Cuban retirees go to ATMs to
collect their pensions. “I have a pension of less than 200 pesos (about
$8 US) and I spend up to two hours in line at the teller to collect it,”
explained Asuncion, an old woman of close to eighty years of age.
Meanwhile, some kids scamper from one side to the other. They are the
children of a couple waiting at the end of the line without much hope of
getting money before nightfall.
“We are late for everything; when the world has spent decades using
plastic, now it is that we are trying it,” laments Asuncion. The first
ATMs, of French manufacture, were installed in Cuba in 1997, but after
2004 only Chinese terminals arrived.
Asuncion keeps in her wallet a Visa card that her son sent her from
Madrid. “I use this only every three months when he puts a little on it
for my expenses.” There are no public statistics about how many of the
country’s residents might be making frequent use of debit or credit
cards associated with a foreign bank account of an emigrated relative,
but the phenomenon has grown in the last decade.
In the line several Chinese student also put their Asian patience to the
test with the red and blue cards in hand from the Chinese banking
conglomerate UnionPay. More than 3000 citizens of that country study or
work on the Island, and they receive their family remittances through
that channel. Also, in 2013 alone some 22,000 Chinese tourists visited Cuba.
“We Cubans and Chinese are good at waiting, but let the gringos arrive
in great numbers, they are more desperate, they want everything fast,”
says Lazaro, a teen with tight clothes, to a friend with whom he waits
in the line.
The alternative to the ATM, which might be the window of the bank
branch, is not recommended. In Havana there are 90 branches of the Banco
Metropolitano, but at the end of 2014 at least twelve offices were
partially or completely closed because of problems ranging from leaks,
sewer network blockages, danger of building collapse or other
infrastructure issues. Insufficient attention and lack of trust in the
banking system make many continue to prefer hiding money “under the
The limited work schedule of banks and the scarcity of offices open on
weekends cause long lines on weekends in front of ATMs. The more
optimistic, however, manage to profit from the wait. Marilin managed to
achieve everything by renting a room in her house to the Chinese
students who must, of course, pay in cash.
Asuncion could not stand the pain in her legs and left without her
money, while the couple at the end of the line had to buy some ice cream
to pacify their restless children. Lazaro was luckier, and in addition
to exchanging phone numbers with a French woman whom he met in the
crowd, he managed to extract twenty convertible pesos from the ATM to
spend that same night. At least this time the blue screen did not appear
with the “out of service” announcement, nor was there a power outage
and, yes, the machine had cash.
Translated by MLK
Source: The Ordeal of Automated Teller Machines –