Skirting U.S. sanctions, Cubans flock to cryptocurrency to shop online, send funds

Jason Sanchez, 35, shows the startup Fusyona displayed on his mobile phone, Havana, Cuba September 5, 2019. Picture taken on September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE

HAVANA (Reuters) – Jason Sanchez, 35, was able to start buying spare parts online last year for his cellphone repair shop in Havana thanks to the advent of cryptocurrency trading in Communist-run Cuba.

Cuba, which in many ways remains stuck in the analogue past, may seem an unlikely hotbed for cryptocurrencies – digital tokens that use encryption techniques to secure transactions.

Yet the roll-out of mobile internet nearly a year ago has opened the way for cryptocurrency transactions, and enthusiasts have multiplied as the currency helps overcome obstacles created by U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

The decades-old U.S. trade embargo cuts Cubans off from conventional international payment systems and financial markets. Cubans cannot obtain credit or debit cards for international use on the island and struggle to do so abroad.

So Cubans like Sanchez are buying digital currencies, which are mostly unregulated, decentralized and anonymous, to make purchases online as well as to invest and trade.

“This is really opening new doors for us,” said Sanchez, who uses Bitcoin, the most well known cryptocurrency, to purchase parts not available new in Cuba from an online Chinese store.

Alex Sobrino, founder of the Telegram channel CubaCripto where Cubans debate and trade digital currencies, said he estimated some 10,000 Cubans were using them.

“We are using cryptocurrencies to top up our cellphones, to make purchases online, and there are even people reserving hotel rooms with (it),” said the 33-year-old, who trades crypto as a side gig to his family’s baking business.

To be sure, it is unlikely the digital coins will become a primary payment method for the Caribbean island’s 11.2 million inhabitants any time soon.

Cryptocurrency trading still falls in gray legal territory in Cuba.

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