Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In March 2019, several Cuban entrepreneurs advertising their homes for rent on a Dutch tourism booking site were defrauded by SmileWallet, the site’s payment platform that was caught up in a money laundering and drug trafficking scandal. This exposé left many without their payouts and with very little recourse and revealed the particular vulnerabilities Cubans face in operating with mobile payment platforms that do not have correspondent relationships with Cuban retail banks due to US embargo sanctions. Using ethnographic data collected over ten years in Havana and Miami, in this paper I trace how transnational money transfer has shifted from cash to digital, from mulas (underground courier services) to AirBnb, and Booking.com. Most forms of cash circulation in and out of Cuba were and continue to be illicit in nature and thereby rooted in networks of trust that are not always stable. I argue that engagements with recent digital payment circuits too hinge on the creative bypassing of formal legal constraints and refashioning of payment rails that in turn rely on informal trust relations like its cash counterparts. This reveals the precarity of digital infrastructures in Cuba-related monetary exchange and their entrenchment in global neoliberal politics, complicating widespread understandings of mobile payments as being more inclusive, efficient and secure. Moreover, it demonstrates that despite recent openings with the Lineamientos and the new Constitution, Cubans are still compelled to undertake great risks and engage in informal activity in order to avail of the new opportunities offered by this changing economic environment.