CubaNews / January 2003
By Larry Luxner
Before Fidel Castro’s rise to power, most Cuban coins were minted in the United States. Then Washington and Havana broke diplomatic ties, and Cuba’s coinage began to be produced in Spain and various Eastern European countries — right up until 1977, when the Cuban Mint was established.
But because they’re so numerous, these newer coins — which commemorate everything from Che Guevara to the fight against AIDS — have little value to investors.
“There’s no benefit in buying Castro-era coins,” says Florida collector Frank Putrow, who hopes to establish a National Cuban Coin Club once the embargo is lifted. “They’re oversaturated. Cuba minted thousands of beautiful commemorative coins, and a lot of people paid premium prices for them. Now they’re worth only half the original value.”
U.S. law prohibits the importation or exportation of post-1962 Cuban coins and currency.
“Technically, it is not illegal to sell, trade or buy these items if they are physically in the United States, but the law is firm and the penalties are harsh,” says Putrow. “Awareness of the Trading With the Enemy Act is essential, since confiscation of coins and monetary penalties may result.”
That’s why most collectors focus on pre-Castro coinage, Putrow told CubaNews.
The definitive work on this subject is “The Coinage of Cuba: 1870 to Date,” published by Thomas Lismore in 1966. Other key reference books include “La Moneda de Cuba” (José María Aledón, 1999); “Billetes y Monedas de Cuba” (1975); “Numismatica Cubana” (Banco Nacional de Cuba) and “Cuba: A Country and its Currency” (Banco Nacional de Cuba).
Among the most valuable coins are the 1870 provisional and 1897 souvenir issues, which were never intended for general usage. Some of these sell for as much as $10,000 in uncirculated condition.
From 1898 to 1914, the U.S. dollar was the official currency of Cuba. In 1914, the Cuban government authorized the minting of centavos (1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 40) and silver and gold pesos (1, 2, 4, 5, 10 and 20). All were produced at the Philadelphia Mint in 1915 and 1916, though in 1915, a law was passed prohibiting all foreign coins and currency, except those of the United States.
Between 1898 and 1953, only two faces appeared on coins of Cuba: José Martí and the symbolic “Lady of Liberty.”
The reverse of Cuban coins are fairly common: the Cuban coat of arms, within a wreath of oak on the left and olive on the right with the ends of the branches meeting over the coat of arms.
Cuban commemorative coins were introduced in 1952, on the 50th anniversary of Cuban independence. Issues of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 40 centavos were authorized with the obverse displaying the Cuban flag. In 1953, coins of 1, 25 and 50 centavos, as well as 1 peso, were minted by the Batista regime to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of José Martí.
Interestingly, while U.S. paper money circulates freely throughout Cuba, U.S. pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters are no longer legal tender. In August 2001, Cuba’s Central Bank announced that U.S. coins would no longer be accepted after Oct. 15 of that year. Those coins have since been replaced by peso convertible coins of equivalent value.