By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek.com…
Ask most Americans born following the Cuban Missile Crisis about Cuba, and you’ll probably hear about cigars or Guantanamo Bay. Maybe baseball. But America’s strained relationship and historical connection to the Caribbean island goes far beyond mid-century cold war tensions, delicious ham and pork sandwiches, connoisseur cigars, and the rise to prominence of Livan and Orlando Hernandez, or Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.
Yesterday’s joint announcement by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, that the two countries would chart a new course and reopen normal diplomatic relations with one another, marked a political turning point in the Western Hemisphere. And in so doing, it affords Americans and Cubans alike the opportunity to see each other in a new light.
From a humanitarian, cultural, and economic perspective, this decision may give Cuban-Americans who fled the country years ago the opportunity to revisit their cultural home. American and Cuban businesses may find prosperity in newly-opened markets. And the proud and vibrant culture of Cuba–the same culture that drew Hemingway and others like him to the salty tropical air of Havana–may attract tens of thousands of curious American tourists, who have for years longed to see their mysterious southern neighbor.
For coin collectors in the United States, the lessening of economic sanctions against Cuba will open up an enormous area of numismatics that has long gone unnoticed or underappreciated.
For Cuba has a fascinating numismatic heritage, one that spans centuries and is often entangled in foreign politics and colonialism.
Coinage of the First Republic (1902-1962)
Cuba’s long and compelling history can’t satisfactorily be distilled here, but suffice it to say that the island endured more than four hundred years of colonial rule before revolutionary fervor and U.S. intervention against the ruling Spanish led to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. The outcome of this bloody modern war was Cuban independence and the establishment of the First Cuban Republic.
Of course, to use the word “independence” when referring to the freshly independent Cuban government is to twist the meaning of the word. The reality on the ground was much more complicated, as the newly-installed government was rife with corruption and served at the beck and call of American corporate and political power–essentially a client state of the U.S.. So, while the Cubans may have loosed the shackles of Spanish rule, they were no freer to pursue their own interests under the new arrangement.
Over the next 20 years, the United States intervened in the island nation’s affairs, oftentimes exerting control over the Cuban government, other times influencing Cuban politics and quelling dissent through military occupation. By the mid-1920s, American corporations controlled the island’s economy.
As Cuban economic policy was meted out in the boardrooms of powerful American corporations, the U.S. government benefited from Cuba’s “special relationship” with its neighbor to the north, a byproduct of which was that Cuba contracted with the United States Mint to strike Cuban coinage.
Cuban coins produced during this time are highly collectible, and from a technical point of view they mirror the quality of contemporaneous American issues. From an artistic perspective, the larger denomination Cuban coins are beautifully-designed and expertly executed–especially the silver 40 centavo of 1952 designed by Juan J. Sicre, the silver “ABC” peso struck from 1934-1939, and the wonderful low-mintage gold issues of 1915-1916.
The long-standing trade embargo has made it difficult to acquire the coins directly from Cuba, but determined American collectors have typically had few problems purchasing the material from international sources.
Coinage of the Second Republic (1962-Present)
Cuba under Castro’s communist regime is known as the Second Cuban Republic.
Cuban currency, which was previously produced by the United States Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, was contracted out to Soviet satellite Czechoslovakia, while coining operations began in Cuba at the Havana Mint.
To call Second Republic Cuban coinage prodigious is an understatement.
The Krause Standard Catalog of World Coins is the closest thing the American market has to a Cuban coin reference. Cuban issues take up 53 pages of the 1901-2000 Catalog (41st Edition), and the better part of nine pages in the 2001-Date volume (8th Edition).
Between these two volumes, Krause counts more than 900 coin types in the series, of which more than 890 were struck between 1962 and the present.
And while the sheer volume of coins leaves our humble overview severely wanting, the coinage of this period can be broken down into the following major categories:
- Coins struck for domestic circulation among the Cuban populace
- Coins struck for limited domestic Use by foreign tourists (Visitor’s Coinage and the Peso Convertible Series)
- Circulating and non-circulating commemorative or themed coins
The major categories are herein described.
Coins Struck for Domestic Circulation among the Cuban Populace
Circulating coins are used in everyday commerce by the Cuban people. Since their resumption in 1962, Cuba has struck seven denominations of domestic circulating coins. They are the centavo; the 2, 5, 20, and 40 centavos; the peso; and the three peso coin.
Of those, the 40 centavo piece has been withdrawn from circulation. This one year type coin was struck to the tune of 15.2 million in 1962 and features the likeness of fallen Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959).
The remaining denominations were struck in either aluminum or copper-nickel, in sufficient numbers to flow freely on the island. Most examples will be found in Circulated condition, and, as far as we know, no condition census has been conducted on any of these issues. Certified populations are virtually non-existent.
Coins Struck for Limited Domestic Use by Foreign Tourists
Two unique series of limited-circulated coinage were introduced by the Cuban government to deal with international trade and tourism. The first was a series of Visitor’s Coinage produced from 1981 to 1989. It was struck in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos, and 1 peso. The coins share one of two common reverses, and feature designs meant to invoke the natural beauty of the island. This coinage was demonetized in 2001 and replaced by Canadian-made Convertible Pesos (CUC), also known as chavitos.
The Convertible Peso is pegged to the U.S. dollar and consequently trades for significantly more money than the national peso. It is used by the government as a means to acquire foreign currency from tourists and as an instrument to facilitate foreign trade.
The CUC is controversial on an island that dislikes domestic controversy, because it led to the creation of a two-tiered economy. Those involved in foreign trade and tourism benefit while ordinary Cubans–paid in pesos–cannot afford many goods and services.
1n 2013, the Cuban government announced that it is phasing out the CUC.
Circulating and Non-Circulating Commemorative or Themed Coins
Cuba’s circulating and non-circulating commemorative and themed coined output is gigantic. On the circulating commemorative side is a pair of 25 centavo coins struck in 1988 and 1989.
Cuba also struck collectible coins for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ World Money Programme in order to support agricultural development.
Cuba’s first F.A.O. coins debuted in 1981 as part of a numismatic celebration of the first World Food Day. Cuba continued to produce F.A.O. coins on and off through 1996.
In his standard reference FAO Coins International Catalog, Attilio Armiento lists 25 Cuban F.A.O. coins (including eight proofs). These coins were produced at the Cuban Mint in Havana and typically have mintages in the 4,000- to 7,000- coin range for business strikes, and 500 to 1,000 for proofs. The denominations range from 1 to 10 pesos and the compositions used are copper-nickel, nickel-steel, and .999 fine silver.
Themes are relevant to the mission of the F.A.O. The 1981 peso and 5 peso coins depict Cuban sugar cane production. The 1 peso coin (pictured here, from Charles’ collection) measures 30.0 mm, weighs 11.6 grams, and is made of copper-nickel. 10,000 pieces were struck. Approximately 1,000 Uncirculated examples were sold to those who purchased the F.A.O. World Food Day coin album in 1981.
The coin today is worth approximately $15 to $20, despite the fact that it’s hard to buy and sell in the American market.
The “key” to the Cuban F.A.O. coin issues is the 1985 “40th Anniversary of the F.A.O.” proof. Struck in .999 silver, only 500 pieces were struck. In the European market (where it’s legal to purchase Cuban-made goods, the coin retails for approximately $100.
Additionally, Cuba produced copper-nickel and copper-plated bronze commemorative pesos, commemorating a wide variety of Cuban cultural icons and revolutionary figures; and silver commemorative pesos at denominations of 5 and above. A survey of the cumulative Cuban silver coinage output reveals an artistically and technologically capable mint program.
Cuba also struck a number of collector coins in gold. Gold coins come in denominations of 50, 100 and 200 pesos. 500 pieces were struck for collectors, starting in 1977 with the release of a 100 peso gold coin commemorating the 60th year of Lenin’s Socialist Revolution. Only 10 pieces were struck, making this one of the most difficult Cuban issues to acquire.
Gold commemoratives with larger mintages exist as well. The sweet spot for Cuban gold collector coins is in the low hundreds, with many at 150 and below.
Cuban thematic-or-commemorative coinage really took off during the world coin-collecting boom of the 1970s and early ‘80s. It was during this time that Cuba struck commemorative issues in denominations as humble as the 25 centavo and as bombastic as giant five-ounce silver discs with a face value of 500 pesos.
All of these issues have low mintages, typically in the one to three thousand range. A few, like the 1984 Medios de Transporte one-peso coin is an absolute rarity, with only 23 examples reportedly struck.
Before the President’s surprise announcement on Wednesday, these coins were seldom traded openly on the American market, as doing so is a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act and could subject the offender to stiff fines and/or imprisonment.
With the likely easing of economic sanctions and the possibility of a larger degree of openness between the United States and Cuba, these draconian penalties should go away. When that happens, expect a steady influx of pre-Castro and Castro era coins into the American market. With a substantial numismatic industry at its doorstep, Florida will likely be the epicenter of the Cuban coin boom in the United States.
Collectors in the states who’ve been surreptitiously holding Cuban coins for years playing the long game may be the first benefactors, but there’s no reason to doubt that the Cuban Mint in Havana and American distributors will find ways to work together to bring new novelty coins to market.
President Obama’s shift in policy was a stunning volte face, the reverberations from which will play out in the days and years to come. For numismatists in the United States, the December 17, 2014 announcement will have a tremendous impact on the hobby.
In fact, many dealers and collectors involved in world coins have long considered the possibility of a Cuban coin renaissance–if and when detente between Washington and Havana ever came to pass. Now we’ll have the opportunity to see firsthand how market makers and an eager collecting public will take to the coins of America’s enigmatic island neighbor.
If the past is precedent, we expect American business–the coin business included–to look to the Caribbean isle with great interest.