The media have recently reported on Cuba’s first documented Bitcoin transaction.
My wife and I went on holiday to Cuba in mid-2013, and being a total geek I did this with an eye to the data infrastructure and Bitcoin. I even took a Casascius physical bitcoin with me to show to anyone who might be interested.
Cuba is rapidly evolving and changing country, it had changed noticeably from the stories others had told me from their visits just a few years previously.
We had booked onto a tour and stayed in a number of casas particular. These are privately owned family houses from which the Cubans rent out rooms to tourists, so you get a small peek into the lives of everyday Cubans. The majority of casas particular we stayed in were done up to a very high standard, with all the mod cons including air-conditioning. And interestingly they all had a computer somewhere in the house; these were typically about five to ten years old with a family member almost permanently glued to its curved CRT monitor.
All these home computers seemed to be on the internet, but usually people were browsing web mail in HTML mode or using some form of IM. It was clear that although the middle classes had internet access, bandwidth was rather restricted.
In one house the computer was left on permanently showing the latest films on its small CRT screen.
In Cuba everything is used: over the decades the Cubans have become incredibly resourceful. There were people in the street who had worn wooden trays with parts of ‘disposable’ cigarette lighters, who would rebuild your broken lighter for a few cents. In the electronics shops, and there were a lot of these in the towns, you could buy CD and DVD writers along with stacks of blank disks. But what also struck me was that you could buy the laser assemblies from inside the drives; you could even buy individual cogs, lenses and motors to repair specific drives.
As we moved from town to town on our tour some of the Cubans with us would meet up with local contacts. They would all sit around and over their cases of CDs and DVDs and begin swapping the latest movies and music. This very much reminded me of my university days in early 2000’s, where it would take days to download certain files, but only a few minutes to burn it to a disk and pass it to a friend.
This was 2013, so I’m pretty sure things will have moved on.
Our tour guide was an entrepreneur in his own right, he worked for the tour company who provided our holiday, and was currently setting up scuba diving holidays company in Cuba and New Zealand and was working with his wife on a casa particular of their own to let to tourists.
I’d bought my old Nokia black and white mobile phone with me for emergencies and to avoid any roaming charges, but my tour guide had a Samsung Galaxy S3. Many of his colleagues had the latest smart phones too. Again data connectivity was limited, but in 2013 it was available in all of the towns we stopped at.
He and I talked a lot about business and globalisation. He was surprised that I thought fuel and electricity prices were very high, he said they cost Cubans virtually nothing, we both agreed that this probably would not last as Cuba opened up to the west. Cuba currently produces its own petrol at one petroleum refining plant which we passed on our tour of the island.
For his scuba diving business he was setting up with a friend he specifically asked me if I knew of a way to do international money transfers quickly and cheaply. To my wife’s delight up until this point I’d been on my best behaviour and not mentioned the ‘B’ word once. But at this point there was no putting the genie back in the bottle.
I talked to him and everyone on the tour about Bitcoin. After a few days of this it became clear to me that he thought I must be mad, and politely explained with the poor bandwidth in Cuba this would not be an option for him so I left it at that.
Then three days later my wife and I moved into a new casa particular on our tour, typically staying in each town on our route for a day or two. In this same casa particular were a Dutchman and American who had organised their own impromptu tour of the island in a car they had hired.
The casa particular we were staying in had a large garden so was also the main point our tour group would eat supper. That evening the American and Dutchman joined our group for dinner.
I’m not sure how it came up but someone jokingly mentioned Bitcoin. That’s when the Dutchman got very excited, he ran an ISP and consultancy and was also a Bitcoin enthusiast and accepted Bitcoin for both his main businesses. He loved Bitcoin so much he even had a Bitcoin tattoo on his leg. We must have been the only two Bitcoin enthusiasts on the entire island, and here we were eating at the same table. Our tour guide did not know what to think.
On the last day of the tour round Revolution Square in Havana I lost my physical Casascius bitcoin I’d been showing to people. I’m pretty sure it fell out of my short’s pocket on the tourist bus. I’m not sad about this though, because I know if anyone in Cuba finds it it’ll get used, either as cash, for its brass value or someone will know what it is and hopefully spend the Bitcoin.
And in my own small way, I’m happy I did my minuscule part in helping bringing bitcoin to Cuba.