Cubans are increasingly using the balance of their cellphone accounts with the government's ETECSA telecommunications monopoly as a virtual currency sometimes called "el ETECSO."
The expansion of the electronic transfers is driven by fears of a sudden unification of Cuba's two currencies, the spread of counterfeit bills and the ease of the cashless transactions.
The practice is likely to expand further with a measure announced last week by ETECSA — Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. Starting June 5, Cubans will be allowed to make three balance transfers per day, instead of the current limit of one. The transfers will cost 20 cents of a convertible peso (know as CUC), down from the current 30 cents.
“That's very good,” said Yosvany, a clandestine clothes and shoes peddler in the south-central city of Cienfuegos. Lifting all limits on the transfers would be even better for his business, he said.
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“Having to walk around with CUCs and pesos (in his pockets) is not the same as a cell-to-cell transfer,” he said, referring to the two legal currencies used in Cuba.
“This is marvelous for me. My son who lives abroad puts money into my telephone account every month, and I pass some of the money to each one of my relatives,” said Cienfuegos resident Angelina Verdecia.
The 68-year-old woman said she knows little about the technology involved, but her grandson uses the cellphone “to pay even the messenger who brings the groceries from the store.”
ETECSA requires customers to pay $40 to open an account, and can close it automatically and keep the money if the customer does not add money to the account within one year. Verdecia said her cellphone transfers don't count as money added to the receivers' accounts.
The telephone company started to allow the transfer of balances in 2015, but only for prepaid accounts, which make up the majority of Cuba's cellphone customers. Companies alone are allowed accounts that require only payment at the end of the billing period.
The transfers can be as little as one cent of a CUC and as much as 2,999 CUCs. The CUC officially equals $1.
“We are aware that a group of unscrupulous people are making improper use of this ETECSA service,” said one company administrator who asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to comment on the matter.
“These citizens should know that they may be doing something illegal, and that the company could break its contract with the owners of the telephone lines involved,” she added.
The number of cellphone users in Cuba has risen steadily since 2008, when the government legalized the service, and stood at 5 million in April. ETECSA, owned by the government, is the only telephone company authorized to operate in Cuba.
Follow Mario J. Pentón in Twitter: @mariojose_cuba