By Bob Reis
copyright 1991, 1998 by WCN & BOB REIS
Cuba’s coin course changed by revolution
Cristobal Colon happened upon Cuba during his first trip out in 1492.
the indigenous Ciboney people very badly in an unsuccessful attempt to get them to
cough up the gold they didn't have. Then he left, supposing he had found the continent of
Sebastian de Ocampo corrected the error in 1508 by sailing around the island.
European settlement was begun by Diego Velasquez in 1511. Havana was founded in
1515. Spanish rule was maintained without a break until 1762, when Havana was briefly
seized by the British, and continued thereafter until the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The colonial administration in Cuba formed the model for the rest of the Spanish
colonies in America. The basic elements were ruthless attempts at commercial
exploitation (alleviated only by corruption and incompetence), severe oppression
(leading to extinction) of the indigenes in the service of that end, subsequent importation
of slaves from Africa to replace the dead Indians, and economic stagnation despite all
attempts at reform, leading finally to revolutionary movements.
No coins were struck in Cuba during the colonial period. Money in use would
have been the usual Caribbean stew of Spanish and Spanish colonial silver and gold,
some British (and later American) coppers, including tokens, and barter. Many of the
people in the 17th and 18th centuries were slaves. Therefore, there was little need for
specie. Besides, that went Madrid to finance the imperial capital's wars in Europe.
The closest thing to a local coin issue during the colonial period are
countermarks of the early 19th century. These were ostensibly made in Trinidad on the
central southern coast, though exactly who authorized the issue, and when, is unclear.
The only authentic denomination is the 2 reales. Most of the host coins are from Spain
proper, though the mark is known on colonial issues.
In my experience, the most common undertype is the Madrid issue of Jose
Napoleon. Average grade is VG. It's a reasonably common countermark, and is cheap
enough that one need not be unduly afraid of forgeries.
During the 19th century there was a persistent movement in the United States to
acquire Cuba. That sentiment had its adherents on the island as well. In 1868, inspired
by the abolition of slavery during the Civil War in the United States, a full-scale
insurrection broke out. This was continued until 1878, at which time Spain signed a
treaty with the insurgents promising reform (substantial bribes also being rendered to the
The major numismatic memorabilia of the war are the "key" countermarks. The
marks are found on numerous coins of various countries and denominations, including
those of the United States. The countermark is not as common as the preceding lattice
mark, and forgeries exist, especially on U.S. coins.
There is also a set of patterns dated 1870 for the then-nonexistent republic, as
well as some revolutionary paper money. (Paper had been issued by the colonial
administration since 1857.) The lower denominations of revolutionary paper are
available. The patterns are rare.
Slavery was abolished in 1886, but Spanish rule retained for the most part its
corrupt, venal, exploitative nature, and unrest continued.
In 1895, the revolutionary government in exile once again proclaimed a republic
and war broke out anew on the island. The Spanish response was to recall the bumbling
Governor-General Arsenio Martinez and replace him with the army general Valeriano
Weyler's strategy was to depopulate the countryside by herding the peasants into
concentration camps, a difficult policy to implement with the machinery available at the
time. In 1898, Weyler was recalled and a Cuban legislature was authorized to serve
under the governor-general, who was to remain a Spanish appointee. It was a typical
Spanish offer: too little too late. The revolt continued.
Meanwhile, in the United States, sentiment had been growing for intervention,
and the mysterious explosion on the U.S.S. Maine provided a convenient casus belli for
Americans. War was declared against Spain, and Cuba was invaded (as also the
Philippines). The war was short and sweet in Cuba, at least, though the Philippines was
quite another story. American troops occupied the island.
Numismatic issues of the period are the 1897 souvenir pesos, a "Cuba Libre" 20¢
of 1898, the 1898 peso, and the paper money of the Spanish government. All the coins
were made in the United States as fund-raising devices for the revolution. The paper is
mostly cheap and common.
Two of the three varieties of the souvenir peso are easily available, though not
cheap due to extreme popularity among Cuban emigre collectors. They usually come in
XF-AU or so, strict uncirculated examples are scarce, and low grades are rare, because
they didn't circulate. There are very rare silver proofs, and off-metal strikes in bronze
that I've never seen.
The 1898 peso is very scarce and desirable. In the 1986 Standard Catalog
Coins it was listed as a circulation strike with a range of grades, price in uncirculated at
$850. In the 1992 edition, it is listed as proof-only the price has more than quadrupled.
The 20¢ is extremely rare.
The occupying American troops performed public works, most spectacular
the elimination of yellow fever through control of the mosquito. American capitalists
moved in immediately and set up enterprises in sugar, etc. Meanwhile a group of patriots,
in close coordination with American advisers, put together a constitution. Just how close
the relationship was can be seen in the so-called "Platt Amendment," which authorized
intervention of American troops whenever the situation warranted.
In 1902, elections were held and the first American-style president, Tomas Palma,
was sworn in. That same year the Platt Amendment was invoked and American troops
were dispatched to quell a revolt against the Palma administration, which had already
revealed itself as corrupt.
Several more episodes of violence occurred, and in the upshot, the Americans
remained in occupation for more than 20 years. During this period, the American dollar
was the circulating medium. Though a national coinage was initiated in 1915, with the
peso at par with the dollar, American money, both coins and paper, continued to be used.
Even with the introduction of national paper money, printed by the U.S. Bureau of
Engraving and Printing in 1934, greenbacks were the mainstay of daily commerce.
The 1915 coinage consisted of copper-nickel 1¢, 2¢ and 5¢, silver 10¢, 20¢, 40¢,
and peso, and gold 1, 2, 4, 5, 10 and 20 pesos. The 5¢, 10¢, silver peso, and gold 1, 5, 10,
and 20 pesos were made on the model of their American counterparts. The 20¢ and 40¢
coins were equivalent to the Spanish 1 and 2 pesetas.
Copper-nickel 1¢ and 2¢ and gold 2- and 4-peso types were unique to the island.
All of the base metal and silver coins are easy to find in circulated condition, though true
uncirculated examples are tough. The gold can be found, typically in high grade. Proofs
of this year are rare. "High relief star" and "low relief star" varieties exist for the 20¢,
40¢ and peso, but this distinction has not caught on among either the collectors or the
dealers, and when the coins are offered the difference is usually not mentioned.
The entire denomination set was repeated in 1916. All the 1916 coins are scarcer
than those of the previous year, the differential ranging from barely noticeable in the case
of the copper-nickel coins through the more or less impossible proof-only 20 peso. As
with the 1915 coins, uncirculated examples of 1916 minors are hard to find, and proofs
are very rare.
Minors only were struck in 1920. Save for the 40¢, they are all quite common,
and uncirculated pieces, though a bit difficult, are noticeably easier to find than 1915 and
After 1920 and through the 1959 Revolution, coin issues became rather spotty. In
the minors there is a very scarce 20¢ of 1932, a scarce 1¢ in 1938, brass 1¢ and 5¢ in
1943, both common and available in uncirculated, 1¢ and 5¢ again in 1946, this time in
traditional copper-nickel and common in uncirculated, and common 10¢ in 1948 and
“Star” type pesos, struck in 1932, 1933, and 1934 are not uncommon and occur
with some frequency in AU-Unc. In 1934, the type was changed to a more modern
design. This so-called "ABC" peso (named for one of the parties that participated in the
overthrow of the bloody Machado regime) is a highly popular type, struck yearly between
1934 and 1939. 1934, 1935 and 1936 are the common dates, 1937 is very tough and
expensive, 1938 and 1939 are not much easier to find. True uncirculated specimens are
In 1952, a silver set was issued commemorating the 50th anniversary of the
republic. These coins are common. The following year was the centennial of the birth of
the patriot-poet Jose Marti, celebrated in a numismatic mode with a special 1¢, 50¢ and
peso. These too are common. Both sets of commemoratives were issued to circulation,
though uncirculated examples are not difficult to obtain. 1953 proofs are basically never
The Marti type, without the commemorative inscription, was used on the 1958 1¢,
a common coin and the last pre-revolutionary issue.
Fulgencio Batista had been pulling strings since he was a sergeant in
He participated in the overthrow of Machado in 1933, and took the lead in the ousting of
Machado's successor Cespedes. By age 32, Batista had become the major power
personality in Cuba.
After five puppet presidents, Batista himself ran for and was elected to the office
in 1940. In the 1944 election, he was defeated by Ramon Grau, whom he had deposed in
1934. Batista went into exile in Miami, leaving Grau to deal with a primarily pro-Batista
Congress. Grau was succeeded by Carlos Prio. Prio established a genuine national
currency and ended the general circulation of U.S. dollars. His administration was
Batista declared for the 1952 election. Fearing fraud on the part of the incumbent,
he seized power in advance of the voting. By this time, however, the Cubans were used to
at least a show of legitimacy, and organized anti-government activity began almost
immediately after the coup.
In 1956 a group of exiles from Mexico put ashore at Oriente Province and
established a stronghold in the mountains. They were led by a certain charismatic lawyer
named Fidel Castro. In the face of organized armed opposition, Batista blossomed into a
vicious thug. An El Salvador type situation ensued, with mass terror on the part of the
During the period 1956-1958 an estimated 20,000 people were murdered by
Batista's security forces in "extrajudicial procedures." At the end of 1958 the
Revolutionary forces had achieved military superiority. On Jan. 1, 1959, Batista fled.
One of the early acts of the new regime was the demonetization of most of the old
paper money to prevent the exiles of the Batista government from using the suitcases of
the stuff they took out with them.
Coin issues continued to be spotty. Old-style 5¢ pieces were released dated
1960and 1961. They are reasonably common, but not so easy to find in uncirculated. In
1962, a new type of 20¢ was issued with the same Marti portrait used on the 1953
commemoratives and with a new motto: "Patria o Muerte" replacing the old "Patria y
Libertad." It too is a common coin, also a bit tough in unc.
The type was repeated in 1968, and this date does not seem to show up at all in
the market. Also in 1962 was issued the only post-revolutionary 40¢, a copper-nickel
coin with a portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos looking an awful lot like Castro. This coin is a
bit tough even in circulated grades, and verges on difficult in unc.
From 1963, the minor coins began to be struck in aluminum in denominations of
1¢, 5¢, and 20¢, with aluminum 2¢ and brass circulation pesos starting in 1983. Only a
few of these coins have made it past the blockade in any quantity. These are the 1¢ of
1970 and 1981 and the 20¢ of 1972. The other dates are hard to find in any grade in the
This blockade business is worth discussing briefly. As I understand it, it is legal
for U.S. citizens to own the post-revolutionary coins as long as the Cuban government
got no benefit from the transfer. This is to say that is illegal for us in this country to deal
directly with the Cuban Mint in Havana. What happens in real life is that an American
dealer will buy them from other dealers in Canada and Europe and then sell them here.
I'm sure some would argue that that is illegal too. The fact is that many
post-revolutionary coins reside in collections and dealer stock within U.S. borders.
The Cuban Mint began issuing commemorative coins in 1975 and has built up a
large portfolio of work since that time. Virtually all of the copper-nickel and silver
issues can be found. A few, such as the 1982 FAO issues, are available in wholesale
quantities. The gold issues appear to be practically unknown here.
Small quantities of tokens were issued by a small number of firms in
the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Most are rare. A few, such as the "Una Racion" of 1884 from
Gibara, are merely scarce. The Ministry of Tourism issued tokens for use by foreigners
in 1981 and 1988. Both years have been offered in the past, but no one seems to have
Collectors of Cuban coins seem to come in three varieties. Most avid are the
emigre collectors, most of whom are interested only in pre-1959 aspects and won't touch
the Communist issues. Most of the spendy stuff ends up in that sector.
Then there are those people who want one of everything. Finally there are the
collectors of what I'll call the "Democratic Centralist States," the phrase referring to what
"they" call the governments that "we" have somewhat erroneously labeled "Communist."
This last group is a small but growing sector of the collector community. The growth is
spurred somewhat by the dawning realization that it is a coherent series with definite
beginnings and most likely definite ends.
I have found interest in the Cuban coins to be typically somewhat lax. The coins
sell, but turnover is slow compared with my Russian and German coins. One reason is
certainly that the common coins are very common. Everybody has them, and anyone
who wants them can pick and choose. It's hard to get a good profit on them, so dealers
don't want to keep a deep inventory, and collectors tend to wait for good deals. Being a
dealer, I wish that it weren't so.
I believe also that the massive offering of late-date commemoratives somewhat
vitiates collector interest. It becomes too expensive, not to mention confusing, to collect
the entire set. Some of the types have extremely low mintages, but they're stuck in with
literally dozens of other types. Contemplation of the series tends to overload one's
numismatic senses and create boredom where acquisitive fascination is the desired
If they're reading this in Havana, I offer some free advice. Issue only one
commemorative in each denomination in a given year. Make a large mintage and sell
them cheap. It is the only way to make money.
A reader comments:
I am a history buff and have read extensively about the Cuban wars of
independence, there are several flaws with your version of that history
but I will only mention one. The War of 1868 was not inspired by the abolition
of slavery as you state, as a matter of fact, all of the main players were
wealthy slave owners, including the leader of the revolt, Carlos Manuel
de Cespedes, he freed his slaves and gave them the choice to follow
him of set out on their own.