Cold Cash in Cuba

Tess McNamara, MEM & M.Arch ’18

The US Embassy in Havana, Cuba sits along the Malecón; its gridded, brutalist-facade a sheer cliff rising out of the glimmering sea. A horde of 150 bare poles stands sentinel in front. At one time, all wielded Cuban flags to obscure anti-communist messages displayed on an interior billboard during the time of George W.

Once icy diplomatic relations have now thawed, but traces of chilliness remain beyond the well air-conditioned rooms of the Embassy. US credit cards and banks are not recognized in Cuba, and there is a hefty fine to exchange US dollars—I carried Canadian cash for my month long trip, counting and recounting every week, budgeting expenses on the front of a wrinkled, well-worn money envelope.
Slip up and you have two options as an American: first, have money Western Union-ed to a Cuban (480 dollars would be the average Cuban’s yearly salary…it’s an uncomfortable option); second, if truly an emergency, you can have money sent by special bureaucratic means (and a pound of paperwork) to the US State Department, and then forwarded to the Embassy in Havana. Or, you could try swimming to an ATM in Key West, it’s about 100 miles away.