Cuba Has A Currency Problem


Determined to take the trip "before Castro dies" my partner and I recently spent a couple of weeks exploring Cuba, which has been a socialist stronghold since 1959. One of the first things we noticed as we entered the arrival hall was the abundance of official-looking uniforms filled by official-looking people.

In a country where more than 80 per cent of the population is employed by the government, there’s no shortage of bored public servants on hand, often less than friendly but always authoritative and ready to steer you onto officially sanctioned paths.

After clearing customs we walked out of the arrival terminal in search of a place to change our foreign dollars into local currency, which is only available inside Cuban borders. We approached an airport worker carrying a walkie-talkie as well as a laminated pass and against our better judgement let her bundle us into a taxi as she reassured us that the driver would take us to change our money.

The taxi drove just 200 metres then stopped. The driver told us to get out and change our dollars inside a different part of the terminal, while he waited outside with our luggage locked in his boot. All the stories of scams that we’d been told by past visitors came rushing back. There was no better option in sight and dusk was fast approaching.

As we stood in the queue at the currency exchange counter for nearly 45 minutes (our first taste of the inefficiencies of socialist bureaucracy), we became increasingly anxious and increasingly sure that we’d bid adios to our luggage. So we were overjoyed when, after finalising our transaction, we found our driver waiting patiently outside. He drove us direct to our hotel and only charged us the usual overly inflated tourist fare, to which we happily added a reasonable thank-god-you’re-not-a-thief gratuity.

Where we had a less positive experience was at the currency exchange desk itself. When it was finally our turn at the window, we handed over the cash we’d brought with us to a disdainful young women who changed it into Convertible Pesos, known on the island as CUC. Cuba has been using a dual currency system since 1994 and the CUC is the currency designated for tourist use, while locals deal primarily in Cuban pesos.

After counting out our pile of notes numerous times, the cashier handed them over and we were sent on our way. But, with our own quick ad-hoc conversion, it seemed that we’d been short changed so I stepped back to the window and asked for the receipt that had conveniently not been handed over with the currency.

With no hint of embarrassment or concern, the Cuban cashier feigned surprise, did a search of her desk for a couple of minutes, then handed over a crumpled receipt and the extra $20 CUC that was missing from our pile.

It was surprisingly brash behaviour from a Cuban official. However, as we got to know Cuba better, we soon understood why a young government worker would risk their job to filch a few notes from unsuspecting travellers.

One CUC is worth about 25 regular pesos and the average monthly wage in Cuba is around 450 pesos. So the single $20 CUC note missing from my pile was equivalent to almost a whole month’s earnings.

It’s not just the value of the currency that’s attractive. There are many things in Cuba that can only be bought with CUC, including most imports. Items like new clothes, pens, schoolbooks and even soap are only available to those who hold Convertible Pesos. Most Cubans in public service jobs (remember, that’s more than 80 per cent of the population) get paid in Cuban pesos. They need to save them and buy CUC to be able to purchase many basic items.

So it’s easy to understand why a government-employed cashier who hands out thousands of dollars of CUC to foreigners every day might try to slip a note aside for herself. It’s also easy to understand why a taxi driver, who gets paid in CUC every time he picks up a tourist, wouldn’t risk driving off with a boot-full of luggage when getting caught would mean losing one of the most lucrative jobs on the island, and missing out on a tip worth half the average monthly salary.

The Convertible Peso was introduced to Cuba as a mechanism for bringing foreign currency into the country through tourism and investment. It has contributed to creating the very thing that the Cuban Revolution had intended to eliminate – a class system. There are now two distinct classes in Cuba: those who have CUC and can enjoy the coca-cola shipped in from Mexico, and those who don’t, some of whom can be found approaching tourists on the street asking if they have spare clothes to leave behind.

This disparity is not only creating tension in Cuban society. It’s also creating a massive brain drain as some of the best and brightest young Cubans are leaving government professions in schools and hospitals to work in the tourist trade. While a medical doctor earns around 500 Cuban pesos a month, or around $25 CUC, a taxi driver can easily make that amount in a day. The Cuban sex-tourism industry is also thriving.

The problems have been publicly recognised by the Communist government for some time. A key demand of their 2011 Party Congress was that the dual system be scrapped. However it was only last month that President Raul Castro finally announced that CUC would be phased out.

Businesses that used to trade only in CUC will now be able to take payments in local currency, although many of the items in those stores will still remain out of reach for the average Cuban until steps are taken to increase the wages of government workers.

Castro hasn’t outlined a course of action or given a deadline for the end of the dual system. As with most things in Cuba, the process is likely to be frustratingly slow. But the announcement was seen as a positive step that has been widely embraced by the Cuban people.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.