By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 28 — In a year of difficult times for cash strapped Cuba and shortages facing its citizens, an agreement between the US government and Western Union is leading to an increased value of remittances sent to families in the Caribbean country.
Many Cubans –an estimated third to fifty percent- rely on money from abroad to make ends meet since most salaries are not enough to even purchase basic food and hygiene items and pay utilities.
In 2004, the Cuban government prohibited stores from accepting the US dollar and imposed a 10% surcharge on exchanging US dollars for the local hard currency, known as the CUC.
The measure came in response to the US government’s punishing third country banks for doing transactions in dollars with Cuba, in an attempt to freeze Cuban assets as part of the economic warfare waged under the Helms Burton Act.
Thus, Western Union, the main company used for sending remittances, was forbidden to pay out the funds sent to individuals in Cuba’s hard currency, known as the CUC. The result of only paying in US dollars meant that Cuban individuals had to then lose the 10% surcharge when exchanging their money for the CUCs so they could spend them on the island.
The new authorization from the US Treasury Dept. took affect at the beginning of last week. Western Union said on its website that the change is “great news for our clients!”
BBC Havana reporter Fernando Ravsberg noted that the Cuban government would benefit by the measure by receiving the dollars immediately and that Washington would also benefit from a greater control of what is sent to Cuba via Western Union.
“Now the Cuban government will lose that 10%, around US 100 million, but in exchange will receive all the dollars sent, an estimated one billion, directly from Western Union,” which will hand over the money in Cuban CUCs to its customers, noted BBC Havana reporter Fernando Ravsberg.
Ravsberg further notes that the average family remittances are around US $100 a month, in a country where a top level professional only makes the equivalent of US $20 to $30 per month.