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Cuba creates a new money-transfer agency — but is there anything different about Orbit?

Ismael Francisco
Cubans at a Western Union money-transfer office in Havana on the company's last day open there, in November 2020, after new Trump Administration restrictions on remittances from the U.S. made operating there too difficult.

Cuban exiles might ask: If Cuba's new agency to handle electronic cash transfers from abroad is controlled by the military, like the old agency, what's the point?

This week the Cuban government introduced a new agency to handle electronic cash transfers to the island from abroad. But the big question everyone’s asking is … why?

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Orbit is the name of the new state-run Cuban firm for handling the money, usually called remittances, that folks like Cuban exiles here send to Cubans on the island. Before the pandemic, that cash totaled close to $4 billion a year — but has fallen 70% since then.

That’s due in large part to restrictions former President Trump put on those cash transfers from the U.S. in order to sanction Cuba’s dictatorship — which takes a cut of that money.

It’s not clear if Cuba thinks creating Orbit might persuade President Biden to ease those restrictions — especially if the Cuban military controls Orbit, just as it ran the old Cuban money-transfer agency, Fincimex, which the U.S. has blacklisted.

“We still have the same question, which is: who controls Orbit?" said John Kavulich, who heads the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York.

"What it does do is create a little bit of a discussion again on these U.S.-Cuba money issues.”

That is, a discussion about not only whether the U.S. should loosen Trump's measures on cash transfers to Cuba — but also take steps such as opening up direct U.S. investment in Cuba’s fledgling private businesses as well as the sort of direct U.S.-to-Cuba banking to better facilitate it.

“You’ve got U.S. companies that are saying, ‘Let us in to help these folks,’" said Kavulich. "But the Biden Administration has been sitting on a license application to allow direct investment in small and medium-size Cuban enterprises.”

The Administration says it is still “reviewing” those Cuba policy options.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.