Cubans Coping with the Absurdity of Two Currencies

Manolo Cordoví agreed to tell us about his last experience with the money he earns as a street vendor, selling whatever there is: “I earned a couple of pesos by selling processed cheese and eggs, bringing the goods to people’s homes. Some customers pay with Cuban national pesos (CUP) while others give me convertible pesos (CUC). Sometimes they even combine both currencies to make up the total.”

“So, is everything going well?” we asked him. What other answer could have been expected than the one Manolo gave us: “At first, everything was all right, but the problem appeared when I once went to the El Diluvio grocery shop to buy some cigarettes and the shop assistant categorically refused to accept the convertible pesos. He said that if an inspector came and found the convertible pesos in the till, he would be fined.” In conclusion, there are grocery shops in Cuba which have put up a notice saying that convertible pesos are not accepted.

When we asked the shop assistant, Alejandro, about the issue, he kindly informed us that shop assistants are supposed to always have change in national pesos (CUP) and that the law does not allow them to accept the convertible pesos. It can be risky. “The turnover is low, sometimes we don’t sell a thing in a day, so where would we get the change of 25 CUP for 1 CUC?”

However, that’s exactly what presents the paradox. The Cubans have even been referring to the convertible pesos as “dollars”, although it’s a national currency equivalent to the American dollar. Both CUP and CUC are issued by the Cuban Central Bank and that’s why they should be both considered national currencies.

The absurdity of the double currency circulating in the island reaches the climax when it comes to the exchange of CUC to CUP in order to avoid trouble in grocery shops or money loss in street deals. When you want to exchange money in the street, you don’t only run the risk of being deceived, but also of being caught by the Police. If you are lucky, the person willing to exchange CUC for CUP will lower the CUP/CUC rate from 24-25 CUP to 23 CUP for 1 CUC, justifying it with the risk they are facing and the favour they are doing you.”

The State is supposed to maintain an official network of exchange bureaus (CADECAS) where the citizens can legally and safely exchange their money at the official exchange rate. However, the number of the CADECAS subsidiaries in the area between the El Vedado and La Habana Vieja neighbourhoods has significantly decreased. To put it simply, there are no exchange bureaus anymore. In past, there were six of them, of which the only one still open closed last month, allegedly due to repairs. We all wonder what we should do now.

The peak of absurdity was perhaps reached when a man wanted to buy several blisters of the Aciclovir tablets, which are on high demand in Cuba and, as a result, often lacking. Yet, the drug provides essential treatment for the annoying and dangerous herpes zoster virus popularly known as the shingles (“la culebrilla” in Cuba).

The man took out his wallet and gave the pharmacist the corresponding amount of money, most of which was in CUC plus some change in CUP, to add up to the total. Yet, the pharmacist refused to accept the money, arguing with the same old story about inspectors. The man, perfectly serene and without changing the pitch of his voice, offered the pharmacist his ID card and with absolute determination started putting the blisters with the medicine in his bag:

“I have paid the purchase price at the applicable exchange rates and I owe you nothing. I’ll take my medicine and you keep the money in the two currencies. They are both Cuban – as Cuban as me. If there’s any problem, send the Police to my home.”

Meanwhile, the people are desperate about the process of monetary unification that the government announced but hasn’t been able to start so far. To sum up, Manolo says: “I don’t care whether I pay 1 CUC or 23 CUP for three boxes of soft cigars in the street. In short, the government is not going not change the value of money. Things like this don’t change and life remains the same, as Julio Iglesias says.”