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Cuban Forgers Swamp Market With Low-Value Banknotes

Cashiers check paid-in money carefully, as they’ll have to replace any counterfeits out of their own pockets.
By Osniel Carmona Breijo
  • Cuban banknotes - here real rather than forged. (Photo: IWPR)
    Cuban banknotes - here real rather than forged. (Photo: IWPR)

Shops and public utility offices in the Cuban capital Havana are on the lookout for forged banknotes, a task made all the more difficult by the widespread circulation of fakes in small denominations. 

Shop owners like Onelio Riscart, who has a plumbing supplies business in the city’s Regla de la Capital municipality, say people are constantly trying to pay them in forged money.

“Until I spotted the problem, I was getting hundreds of pesos in fake notes in the till every day,” Riscart said. “I lost a lot of money.”

Riscart said forged notes had been circulating for years, but they used to be US dollars, and later “convertible pesos”, a parallel currency in limited use with its value pegged to the dollar.

More recently, the forgers have turned to normal pesos, making copies of the smaller-value notes most commonly used.

“The difference is that it was always big bills, which put us on the alert. Now they’re small notes and that's why they pass unnoticed. But, bit by bit, the losses mount up,” Riscart said. “People don’t check local pesos.”

The forgeries are nearly perfect copies, and can only be distinguished on close inspection. (See Fake Banknotes in Havana.) On those occasions when people notice they have a forged banknote, they will get rid of it in an anonymous transaction, for example paying in a shop or on public transport.

Sales staff are now checking the authenticity of every note before handing over goods, and government agencies like the tax service and public utilities have installed UV lights to scan pesos that are handed over in payment.

Cashiers in both state and private sectors have to cover any forged receipts out of their own money, and risk dismissal and a police investigation.

Graciela, a cashier at the national power company Empresa Eléctrica, said her office got into trouble when the bank returned a sum paid in with counterfeit money.

“It was an embarrassing situation,” she said. “There was an investigation to find out which cash register the fake money had gone into, but that couldn’t be pinned down. As a punishment, all of us cashiers had to replace all the missing money.”

Graciela recalled another occasion when she quietly replaced 100 pesos out of her own pocket. At under four dollars, that might not seem much, but the average monthly wage in Cuba is just four times that amount.

“Four 20-peso notes got past me. I thought about the possible consequences and decided to take the hit in silence,” she said. “If I’d mentioned the incident, I might have been made a scapegoat, and accused of [handling] all the forged money that's been recorded at the company.”

A policeman from Havana’s Arroyo Naranjo municipality, who did not want to be identified, said the bulk of the counterfeit cash turns up at the chain of cafes run by the state-owned Empresa Gastronomia Popular.

The fact that banknotes had changed hands many times over before they were identified made it hard to trace them back to the forgers, the officer said.

Nevertheless, police had caught several forgers and illegal traders in currency, he said. The criminals were arrested and their counterfeiting technology seized. A number were sentenced to ten or more years in jail, while others were still awaiting trial.

Osniel Carmona Breijo is an independent journalist reporting from Havana and Mayabeque province.

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.

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