Cuba: Fake Money and Picture IDs

Vicente Morín Aguado

Cuban currencies. Photo: IPS/Cuba
Cuban currencies. Photo: IPS/Cuba

HAVANA TIMES — The grocer at the bodega on my block, a man well liked in our neighborhood, has put up a sign which reads: “Notice: Anyone making purchases with 50 or 100-peso bills must show me their photo ID. No exceptions.”

Asking around, I found out the man had been paid with a fake one-hundred peso note, yet another victim of the veritable invasion of counterfeit money Havana is experiencing. A neighbor of mine tells me they haven’t yet found the printers, true counterfeiting masters. She says that if you place the notes side by side, real next to fake, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.

I get a little concerned, thinking this might be an instruction handed down from the Ministry of Domestic Trade. Clerks at other shops set the record straight: “No, no such instruction’s has ordered that. That’s just your grocer being silly.”

I say goodbye to my friend at the Cuatro Caminos market and head to La Segunda Estrella, a very popular cafeteria, where my friend Mario, who has worked many years behind a counter, tells me: “the bills are identical; they even have the security watermark.”

I ask him whether one sees Jose Martí, Cuba’s great martyr, when one looks at the bill against the light. “You see him, Vicente. You can only tell it’s fake if you wet your fingers and rub the note, because the ink runs. Your grocer is going to need a glass of water and a lot of patience to check each note, by the looks of it!”

That’s a bit much, I think to myself. People don’t often make large purchases at a bodega and pay with fifty or one hundred peso notes even less often. Of course, this doesn’t make my grocer feel any better over being shafted like that, because that money will need to come out of his own pocket, and because he feels cheated by people he has been serving for years in the neighborhood. My concerns, rather, surround this whole business of showing ID, as no one, at least not the competent authorities, has issued any instruction in this connection.

In Cuba, it is mandatory to carry personal identification – a document created by the State as a means of controlling the population – at all times. The police may request to see it, at their discretion, whenever they deem it necessary.

Cuban ID. Photo:
Cuban ID. Photo:

If you don’t have it on you, the police are authorized to take you to a station, fine you and lock you away until they have determined your identity or, of course, until your ID turns up.

Decades ago, Cuban citizens had approved of this law, regarding it as something positive without thinking about its future consequences. We placed a lot of trust in our government, in this and many other matters. It was only years later that we began to see the repercussions of our trust.

Today, the personal identification document can be requested by any figure of authority at an entity whose services one requires, and one must produce it, lest not be denied the treatment that one deserves.

For example, you head to the Computer Sciences Center to get the last update for an antivirus and, if you don’t show them your ID, you get anything. The same thing happens when you need to leave your belongings in a checkroom to go into a store or if you’re seen conversing with a foreigner on the street.

This business of asking for one’s ID upon payment dates back to the 1990s, when the U.S. dollar began to circulate, along with the Cuban peso, in Cuba’s domestic market. If you paid with a fifty or a one-hundred greenback note, it was mandatory for the person collecting to write down the serial number on the note and the personal information of the individual making the purchase.

Now, to make matters more complicated, the managers of many locales offering different services have made this a requirement, of their own free will. At this pace, I will likely have to apply for a new ID card soon, for the plastic is beginning to peel off from so much handling, and, if they ask for it at the bank or police station, where it actually is mandatory to show it, I will be denied service or fined, justifiably, for the questionable state it’s in.

This last remark, made by a concerned neighbor, takes me to the end of this chronicle, leading us, full circle, back to the beginning. According to the newspapers, this year, the Personal Identification Document all Cubans currently have, known as the “CI”, will be replaced with a new, high-security card which is more practical as a means of verifying personal information.

At this pace, I will likely have to apply for a new ID card soon, for the plastic is beginning to peel off from so much handling, and, if they ask for it at the bank or police station, where it actually is mandatory to show it, I will be denied service or fined, justifiably, for the questionable state it’s in.

In the meantime, the streets are still a mess, waiting for a modicum of order which refuses to arrive. Yesterday, I was walking down Monte Street, away from the Parque de la Fraternidad, overwhelmed by the heat of our early summer. I see a brewery, the kind that serve beer on tap, and ask for a pint.

Imagine my surprise when the waiter, a young man whose swarthy complexion Cubans colloquially refer to as “indian”, says to me: “Fella, I need your ID.” “Why?” I ask him, somewhat taken aback. “Cause the place is full, people take off and take the mugs with them, and I bought those mugs myself. If I lose ‘em, I can’t come in to work tomorrow!”

That is to say, this young man, without being rude, was guaranteeing the return of the mugs he had purchased by holding on to people’s IDs. I looked him over twice and continued on my way, angry.

The young man called after me, perhaps as a show of respect towards an older gentleman, to offer me an alternative I, a 56-year-old man, would find acceptable. I was grateful for the gesture, laughed, paid for the beer and gave him a USB memory stick as the guarantee of my good behavior.

As I took the first sip of beer, someone nearby said: “Boss, you’re on top of things!” In Cuba, this is a synonym for an uncommon and effective response to a situation that is out of the ordinary.

Between truth and falsity, we continue to stumble along.
Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]

4 thoughts on “Cuba: Fake Money and Picture IDs

  • Again, I have never been asked to show photo ID when tendering a ticket for an event. I entered the Rogers Centre to watch a Blue Jays game by handing of the ticket. That was all. Same thing in Ottawa at a Senators game. Nobody asked to see my ID.

    The article above does not make clear whether the alleged counterfeit bills are Cuban pesos or convertible pesos. However, it would make no sense to counterfeit the nearly worthless local pesos.

  • What are you talking about? I visited Washington, DC in March and was only ever asked to show ID at the airport. Not even for the tour of the Capitol Building did I have to show ID. I used my credit card without being asked to show ID. No police ever approached me and asked to see my ID. Perhaps I looked too much like any other Canadian tourist to bother with, but I do believe you exaggerate.

  • I hate to raise alarm, but is the appearance of high-quality forgeries yet another US (and/or CAFN) activity to destabilise? This has been a common practice elsewhere, in wartime, by everyone. As for the ID, requirement of photo ID is almost universal in every other country, for everything imaginable. Here in Winnipeg, Canada, for example, you must show it not only when picking up event tickets but also when tendering the tickets at the event. Cuba is just catching up with everyone else in this respect. As for the crime, Cuba is fortunate in having had so little of it; the now-yawning inequality brought by tourism and remittances, not to mention cuenta propia and the loss of consciencia, has increased evidently increased crime considerably.

  • Vicente and any Cubans who haven’t traveled to the US or Europe, be prepared. You will and locals, will have to have an official government issued ID with photo! Keep it on you and don’t lose it. You will have to show it along with credit card, etc., at any bank, government office, security stations (most big buildings in Washington) picking up pre-purchased tickets to movies, theater, trains, airlines (sometimes they let you pass), any cop or security person (you can refuse or make an excuse, but be prepared to be taken to the police station) and even signing in at a hospital or clinic. Big cities much more than small towns, but you never know, so everyone pretty much complies. And of course it makes a big difference if you are dark, young, poorly dressed and foreign looking. Little old white ladies and guys in expensive suits and ties often get a pass too. Definitely not like the “good old days” of my youth.

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