We, humans entertain ourselves in many amusing ways and if one is 90 miles away from Cuba, playground for the rich and famous from turn of the twentieth century and well into the 1950s, why not use Cuba as a backdrop for tourist entertainment? My friends and I decided to do an escape room in Key West. Level 9 of 10 in difficulty; scripted, scened and tagged as “Jail Break Havana.”
The story states: you have done it this time, engaging in counterfeit contraband and getting caught. We had 60 minutes to solve a number of puzzles and escape the Cuban jail cell. Long story short we failed, did not solve all the puzzles and did not escape. A very nice employee of the Key West Escape Room being short of patience after dealing with a screaming-arguing bunch of half drunk young adults (they attempted to Escape Papa’s Study) politely escorted us out. We did not think much of it at the time. We have not escaped but Game Over. We were out of jail, done with the game-master’s surveillance and any related authorities – or were we not?
After the event we went for a snack and drinks at Schooner Wharf Bar to discuss our small successes in the escape room; as well as, team work, strategies and our ultimate failure. Since I made the original payment for the event my guests collected my Venmo and Paypal credentials to transfer costs of the experience; $38 each for admission and transaction fees. We then happily went home and my guests departed for the main land.
A few days later while checking my inbox, I noticed the following peculiar email from Venmo. I have never received such an email and I wondered if we were still captives of some authority. Were there more puzzles to solve?
Then I received a similar email from PayPal – things were getting even more peculiar. I reached out to my friends and they reported their interactions with the respective Money Transfer Services: PayPal and Venmo. My friend Randy received the following from PayPal:
Venmo is owned by PayPal so not a surprise that both organizations behave in the same way. They both offer “safe, simple and social” way to send and receive money. But why were our transactions of $38 stopped? The answer came shortly from Vishal at Venmo:
Looks like the issue lay with a reference to “Cuban.” There was no issue with “Jail” because clearly, we are allowed to transfer monies to get someone out of jail, we just cannot transfer money to get someone out of a “Cuban” jail. The nature of the US embargo on Cuba “prevents American businesses, and businesses organized under US law or majority-owned by citizens of the United States, from conducting trade with Cuban interests” (Wikipedia). The $38 seemed to be frozen and the payment could not be cancelled, the hold could not be removed until the issue was resolved.
Erik responded to Venmo in the most honest way:
Many of my previous Venmo transaction for hilarity alluded to a potentially illicit activities which could involve an exchange of money for personal favors. In the memo section I would incorporate the word “sex.” Payments for plane tickets would be noted as “sex in an airplane bathroom.” Hotel in New York would be memoed as “Sex in NYC Youth Hostel,” etc. I can only guess that all those were either very obvious jokes to Vishal and his colleagues or were not viewed as a major trespassing and definitely not a compliance issue worth attention as a national security concern. What about payment for a “Cuban” sandwich? My friend Randy plans to test that out.
Thinking about economic embargoes, business compliance and national security, I wonder who is checking on us? Who has the power to freeze our funds? I figured no one better to ask than the organization who has just done so. What I learned was marginally satisfactory but could be very ironic if the case is that Venmo employees outside of the US who receive paychecks from non-US incorporated affiliates are given such a power over US nationals who are simply participating in our everyday lives…