Paper Money

Collecting the so-called Forbidden notes of Cuba

As the United States begins to repair its relations with the island nation of Cuba, American collectors begin to wonder whether they will be able to freely collect the paper money Cuba has issued since the Revolution and dictatorship under Fidel Castro, and subsequently his brother, Raul.

It is still illegal for U.S. citizens to import numismatic collectibles from Cuba, including coins and paper money, but such material somehow manages to make its way to American soil.

Many notes can be obtained for a few dollars each, up to several hundred dollars each for rare notes or varieties.

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Once here, the numismatic items are offered for sale at public auction, on coin show bourses and other venues. Except eBay, which imposes a ban on the sale of Cuban numismatic material.

Act of Congress needed

Francis X Putrow, a past president of the Cuban Numismatic Association, said recently that just about everything between the U.S. and Cuba is status quo.

“My understanding is that there have been no changes regarding the Cuban embargo,” Putrow said. “It will take an act of Congress to officially lift the embargo. Until then, I would not expect eBay to officially change their policy of not listing Cuban coins, paper money, etc. However, a few listings can be found on eBay today.”

Another past CNA president, Emilio M. Ortiz, provided additional insights.

“Ebay has not relented in their improper and draconian blockade of Cuban numismatic material listings at their site, Ortiz said. “The material they are blocking includes currency printed by the U.S. [Bureau of Engraving and Printing] as well as banknotes printed by ABNCo [American Bank Note Company] and TdeLR [Thomas de la Rue].

“As far as the law is concerned, the embargo is still in effect and can only be revoked by an act of Congress, however legal experts have stated over and over that numismatic material is EXCLUDED, even from the Fidel Castro period (2nd. Republic) as long as it was not directly purchased from any Cuban Government entity.”

The total ban by eBay on the sale of Cuban numismatic material was imposed effective April 9, 2013.

Mark Flaa, eBay’s category manager for bullion, coins and currency, said Jan. 22, 2016, that the online auction site is still waiting to see what action, if any, Congress and the State Department will take that would allow eBay to lift its ban on Cuban numismatic items.

While the ban is imposed on the U.S. version of the eBay website, some versions — possibly hosted where no governmental bans are in place — from other countries still show listings of Cuban numismatic material. A recent check showed listings from sellers in Canada, Spain, Argentina, Croatia and the Czech Republic.

In the beginning

The U.S. sanctions were imposed more than 50 years ago.

In March 1962, a little more than three years after a triumphant Fidel Castro and fellow revolutionaries marched into Havana and established a new government, Castro announced Cuba’s government would operate as a Communist regime.

Castro’s declaration, coupled with other conflicts between the United States and Cuba, including the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, resulted in more embargo legislation against Cuba being passed and becoming effective on July 8, 1963.

The first embargo by the U.S. against Cuba came Oct. 19, 1960, after Cuba nationalized the American-owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation.

The U.S. sanctions remain in effect, preventing U.S. citizens from legally importing or exporting any Cuban numismatic material issued after the 1962 embargo date.

Currently, U.S. sanctions against Cuba are enforced through six different statutes.

In the October 2004 issue of the Cuban Numismatic Association Newsletter, Richard Becker writes, “Some U.S. citizens interpret the law that it is illegal to own or collect these items. In either case, U.S. citizens are urged to adhere to these regulations, since strict fines, penalties, and even confiscation may be imposed on violators.

Collectors who reside in other countries not affected by the U.S. embargo sanctions have a large selection of Cuban revolutionary bonds and bank notes to choose from and should consider collecting these interesting Cuban currencies, Becker suggests.

Viva la revolución

Before diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba soured after Fidel Castro rose to power, the two nations had close political, business, social and monetary ties — the United States even assisted Cuba in the production of needed coins and paper money.

Of the latter, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced a series of five notes denominated in pesos. These notes were produced at the request of the U.S. State Department beginning in 1934, with the last deliveries made in 1950. 

In 1954, upon being advised by Cuban government officials that no more peso-denominated notes were needed, the U.S. Treasury Department canceled and destroyed all of the dies, seals, printing plates and other tooling used to print the Cuban notes, according to History of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing 1862-1962.

The notes were printed on paper of the same quality as U.S. paper money, except the security paper for the Cuban notes was embedded solely with fragments of red silk thread, unlike the U.S. security paper, which incorporated both blue and red.

Most of this BEP production for Cuba was executed for the government run by Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar, an ally of the United States.

Batista was the elected president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, then ruled as dictator from 1952 to 1959, before being overthrown during the Cuban Revolution led by Castro.

During the early years of Castro’s fight against Batista’s dictatorship, Castro raised funds by issuing several different series of bonds. These now-collectible bonds were issued between 1950 and 1958, according to Becker.

After his triumphant entry into Havana on New Years Day, 1959, Castro proceeded to establish his new government, which included provisions for printing Cuban notes.

Banco Nacional de Cuba

The Banco Nacional de Cuba was responsible for printing Cuban paper money between 1949 and 1960, according to Becker.

The bank (which was not affiliated with the nongovernmental defunct bank of the same name that had operated from 1905 to 1920) was established in 1949 and began issuing notes after its creation by the Cuban government to act as the treasury and issuer of circulating currency. 

Soon after driving Batista out of Havana and assuming leadership of his country, Castro entrusted the presidency of the bank to one of his compatriots, Felipe Pazos.

A quantity of Cuban bank notes were issued by the bank in 1959 imprinted with Pazos’ facsimile signature.

Pazos’ tenure did not last long. Castro, with the backing of the Cuban Council of Ministers, replaced Pazos with Che Guevara, effective Nov. 25, 1959.

Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, and guerrilla leader at the front of Castro’s revolution movement.

As a result of the switch in bank presidents, additional notes of various denominations were printed, albeit with Guevara’s facsimile signature, according to Becker. 

On Aug. 4, 1961, all Cuban series 1949 to 1960 notes were recalled and demonetized. Soon after, an entirely new series of notes was introduced by Castro’s government.

Notes under Castro

The new series of notes was issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 pesos.

The face of each of the notes bears a portrait of a different Cuban national hero:

??1 peso — José MartÍ

??5 pesos — A. Maceo (José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales)

??10 pesos — Máximo Gómez

??20 pesos — Camilo Cienfuegos

??50 pesos — Calixto García

??100 pesos — Manuel de Cespedes (Carlos Manuel de Céspedes)

In 1975 to mark the 15th anniversary of the nationalization of Cuba’s banking system, a special 1-peso note was printed and issued. A 3-peso note depicting Che Guevara was issued for circulation in 1983 to mark the anniversary of Guevara’s 1967 execution by the Bolivian government.

Cuba’s paper money has undergone a multitude of changes since the 1990s.

Among them, according to Becker, “In 1994, the Banco Nacional, seizing the opportunity to acquire hard cash, issued a series of Peso Convertibles in 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 peso denominations. These notes were on par with the U.S. dollar.”

Series 1995 1-peso notes printed to commemorate the anniversary of Martí’s death, were overprinted SPECIMEN, with approximately 1,000 produced.

“The strange thing about this note is that it was printed with the Banco Central de Cuba name, which did not formally exist until two years after the issue,” according to Becker.

Banco Nacional de Cuba did not have its name officially changed to Banco Central de Cuba until 1997.

Banco Nacional de Cuba in the 1980s also issued four series of foreign exchange peso certificates — Series A, B, C and D — that resemble traveler’s checks in design. Such certificates denominated in Cuban pesos were required from foreign visitors for making purchases. Examples are known as circulation issues as well as specimen certificates.

In addition to notes issued and released into circulation, collectors have the opportunity to acquire a variety of unissued specimen notes with the overprinted word SPECIMEN or Spanish equivalents, ESPECIMEN or MUESTRA.

Depending on the series and denomination, the overprints appear in a number of styles — capitalization varies, and the lettering may be printed in solid letters or outlined. The overprint often appears solely on the face, but in some instances can be found printed on both face and back.

According to CNA member Alfredo Rodriguez, some MUESTRA-printed notes were currency intended to circulate, then overprinted for sale to collectors.

Banco Nacional de Cuba sold specimen notes on a regular basis beginning with 1961 issues. Specimen notes in series 1961 to 1966 were printed with normal block numbers and serial numbers. Specimen notes from 1967 to date all have normal block numbers and serial numbers all in zeroes.

In addition to seeking notes printed for general circulation and the specimen notes, collectors of Cuban notes may consider the Cuban notes counterfeited on behalf of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in their attempt to overthrow Castro in 1961.

Collectible counterfeits

Fearing the growing Soviet influence over Castro and his ever-powerful government, Central Intelligence Agency officials moved ahead with a stealth plan concocted to infiltrate Cuba and overthrow Castro. The ill-fated mission became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

As part of the mission, the CIA printed counterfeit versions of Cuba’s Series 1961 20-peso note featuring the portrait on the face of Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. The fake notes were placed with the invading forces to use so they would not draw attention to themselves with other forms of currency. What are referred to by many collectors as the CIA Bay of Pigs counterfeits are identified by block designations in red ink as F69 and F70. High-grade examples trade hands for several hundred dollars each. Examples of the fakes are known with and without serial numbers.

Two currencies

Today, Cuba functions with two official paper currencies — the peso and the convertible peso. Both bear different designs for each denomination.

There has been discussion at government levels that the two currencies may be merged into one, according to Rodriguez.

The Cuban peso is the currency paid to Cuban citizens, for spending on staples and nonluxury items at designated outlets.

The convertible peso is a foreign exchange note used by tourists. The convertible peso is officially exchangeable only within the country of Cuba.

Despite U.S. restrictions on the importation and sale of Cuban notes and related collectibles by U.S. citizens since the act’s passage, hobbyists have found ways to acquire examples and enjoy the history the notes have to offer. 

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