What do you normally think of when you hear the word Cuba? Dreamy Caribbean beaches, rhythmic salsa music, cigars, classic cars, and Che Guevara. We all probably know at least one person in our circle who has been to Cuba and raves about it. I myself visited Cuba in 2005 with my parents. We stayed in an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, like most people who travel there. Although I had a good time during that trip as a child, I was fascinated by the country beyond the hotel walls, and even back then, I wondered why we had to fly for over 10 hours just to spend most of our vacation within the hotel premises. It was partly due to boredom, but also my curiosity about the world beyond those walls that prompted me to attend a Spanish course during our stay. Learning the Spanish language has been a lasting interest of mine. This year, while walking the Camino de Santiago, Kevin and I met Marinus, one of the most inspiring individuals we encountered on our journey. He spoke passionately about the beauty of Cuba and how he had traveled the country with a backpack some time ago. Suddenly, I felt like that little girl again, wondering what life was like beyond the clean hotel walls. So, it didn’t take long for Kevin and me to be sitting on our couch at home, sorting out visas and flight tickets to Cuba. Even at this stage, it was evident that this trip would be different from the ones before.
PayPal und Kuba
I typed in the details for our flight tickets on my laptop while Kevin sat beside me, purchasing our tourist cards, which are our visas. “Hold on, I’ll PayPal you the amount for my share,” I told him, opening PayPal in a new tab. I wrote “Cuba ✈️” as the subject, sent the money, closed the tab, and completed our flight booking. A day later, I received an email from Olga from the PayPal Compliance department in my inbox:
As part of our security measures, activities within the PayPal system are regularly reviewed. During one of these reviews, we recently identified an issue with one of your transactions. The PayPal Compliance department has investigated your account regarding this matter and has identified activities for which we require further information from you.
On May 13, 2022, you made a payment (3KY66168D8791993K) of 27.00 EUR € for “Cuba.” Please provide the following details:
- An explanation regarding the reference to “Cuba.”
- The purpose of this payment, including a complete and detailed explanation of how the payment will be used.
Uff… I hadn’t considered the US sanctions against Cuba in this context. My PayPal account was blocked until the matter was resolved. So, I composed a written statement, addressing the questions truthfully. Shortly after, I received a response, this time unfortunately without a name, only addressed from PayPal’s Compliance department:
For security reasons, account activities in our system are regularly reviewed. PayPal is obligated to comply with all applicable global legal regulations. Among other requirements, we must ensure that our customers, merchants, and partners using PayPal also adhere to the laws and regulations in the United States. PayPal’s Compliance department reviewed your account and found activities that might violate regulations currently in place in the USA. Current US regulations prohibit the purchase and sale of various goods and services originating from or being shipped to Cuba. We noticed that you initiated a payment for items sourced from Cuba, which is currently prohibited according to US regulations. We kindly ask you not to initiate such payments or similar ones through PayPal again. Please be aware that we reserve the right to close your PayPal account if we continue to observe activities that represent an obvious violation of our legal obligations.
That was clear. Don’t do it again, or we will close the PayPal account!
To book accommodations.
Booking accommodations in Cuba turned out to be challenging, especially on Airbnb, an American platform. I found a nice place for our first few days in Havana, but when I tried to book it, I was asked for the purpose of my trip. I knew from some forums that the correct option was “Support for the Cuban People.” However, I still couldn’t complete the booking because I kept receiving vague error messages. Other well-known booking sites informed me directly that bookings in Cuba were not possible. Eventually, I found a Cuban platform where I could reserve a place and pay in cash upon arrival. Except for the accommodation in Havana, we decided to search for all other lodgings on-site. This process was not complicated. In addition to hotels, there are places called Casas Particulares, which are rooms in private homes. You can recognize them by the symbol of an inverted blue anchor on the door. If you see such a symbol, you can simply knock and ask for a room. There are also anchor symbols in red, indicating that only locals are allowed to stay there.
The Cuban currency system
Until a few years ago, Cuba had two currencies. The Cuban Peso (CUP) was the currency used by locals, which could be used, for example, to buy food at the market. The Peso Convertible (CUC), on the other hand, was the tourist currency used to pay for accommodations or excursions. While the CUC was pegged 1:1 to the US Dollar, you would get approximately 20-25 CUP for one Euro. Having two currency systems with different exchange rates was quite cumbersome. We were glad to read that in 2021, about a year before our trip, the CUC was abolished, and the CUP became the only currency in Cuba on paper. However, it wasn’t that straightforward. There was an unofficial form of currency called “Moneda Libremente Convertible” (MLC). There were MLC stores where only card payments were accepted. Tourists could easily pay with credit cards, as long as the card was not from a US bank. For Cubans, it was much more complicated. They needed specific foreign currencies, such as Euros. They could exchange these currencies for credit on an MLC card, a form of card for cashless payments, at a state-owned bank. They could then use this card to pay in MLC stores. If they received US dollars, for example, from relatives, they had to exchange them into Euros before depositing them onto the card. Unfortunately, we would soon experience on our trip how this system didn’t work at all…