One Currency

S. and I are talking at his house in Havana. I am staging a trip to a town where I am doing fieldwork for a book about African-inspired religion. I need a cell phone and a couple of MP3 players for friends there.

“Dude, a couple of phones that can play MP3—that’s the only way to go.”

 “Pesos Cubanos or CUC?” I ask.

“Bro, you know my phones are CUC all day.”

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Convertible pesos and Cuban pesos. Photo by James Byrum.

S. and I are clearing up the first question of any black-market transaction in Cuba. The Cuban peso (CUP) is the national currency. It is the money people receive as pay from the government, the near-monopoly employer on the island.

S. is a technology teacher at an elementary school and his monthly income of around four hundred Cuban pesos is fairly average. With this salary, he buys subsidized, rationed food at government distribution points called bodegas. The list of provisions available at subsidized prices has shrunk under Raúl Castro’s leadership. Cubans joke about a “mass exodus” of goods from the ration list. These days S. can count on rice, beans, a little cooking oil, some sugar, some salt, and a pound and a half of chicken per month. A full run of the ration book—in practice, one week’s worth of food—will cost around fourteen Cuban pesos. With the remaining 386 pesos, S. will ply his black-market networks for another week’s worth of the very same foodstuffs, often from the same bodegueros who sold him his rations but at inflated prices. For the other half of a month’s food, Cubans are left to do what they have done since the Soviet collapse: to “invent” and “resolve,” in local parlance.

Even though most of the goods on the black market are priced in Cuban pesos, my transaction with S. would not happen in the national currency. Goods like phones are bought with convertible pesos—CUC. This is strange money. It is worth ten percent more than the U.S. dollar. One CUC is worth twenty-four Cuban pesos. For a full month of his teacher wages S. would get sixteen CUC. With this money S. would head down to a CUC-only store, where he could afford very little. There are thousands of goods in CUC-only stores that will never be sold in Cuban pesos, from disposable diapers and food to enormous flat-screen TVs.

How to get CUCs when you are not paid in this currency is the question every Cuban family asks itself and wonders about its friends and neighbors. Cuban reality is about knowing exactly how and when to spend Cuban pesos, when to change to CUCs, and how to get more CUCs. Successfully handling the difference between the two currencies means everything.

S. gets his CUCs from selling cell phones. Selling tightly controlled goods in CUCs puts him on the cutting edge of Cuba’s economic transition. More black-market goods and services are now being priced in CUCs instead of Cuban pesos, which is onerous for most people. As far as the government is concerned, S. lives about five years in the future, which is too far ahead to be entirely legal.

S. uses his CUCs for relatively unencumbered (i.e., black-market) Internet access, a computer, and hip clothes. Among Cubans he is lucky. But he wants more.

 “Una sola moneda,” he says when I ask him what he wants from the changes underway.

“One currency?” The disbelief in my voice is marked.

“One currency, bro. That’s it. It is the only thing that matters to me and everyone else.”

 “Never.”

S. chuckles at my stupefaction. “They,” he begins, referring to the government in the way Cubans do, as if it were a secret society, “they have got to shrink the 24:1 gap.”

“They can’t,” I say with certainty. 

“If they don’t shrink it, then nothing changes for regular people.”

“Agreed,” I say.

“Their legitimacy depends on it,” he says. “There is no future for me or anyone else if they don’t.”

I try to get my head around the idea. “The entire economy runs on the difference between the peso and the CUC,” I say. “The profit the government makes off money sent from Miami depends on it. They skim ten percent off the top, just on the exchange rate.”

“You’re right,” says S., smiling. “The CUC is a wringer, and it squeezes money out of anything and anyone that touches it. The overhead is tiny compared to a shop full of CUC-only TVs.”

 “Every hotel is a CUC–peso wealth extractor,” I add.

S. seems pleased that I’m getting it. “Foreign companies pay the government CUC for Cuban workers, but the government pays workers in pesos.”

“All of this means they can’t get rid of the CUC,” I say.

S. turns serious. “They can do whatever they want. They take rations away by the day. They fire state workers by the thousands. I just want them to tell me the rate is now twenty Cuban pesos to one CUC. Tell me it’s 19:1, 18:1. Get me down to 10:1 and I’ll start to hear ‘New Cuba.’ Get me to a situation where I don’t have to change my wages at all before I can walk into a store. Sooner or later they have to do it, bro—otherwise, what happens to the Cuban people?”

 “I don’t know,” I say, but keep what I’m thinking to myself as S. answers his own question.

“We keep going through the wringer.”

Cubans have only the tiniest of economic spaces, in which they are squeezed by a once-socialist government that adopts the worst clichés of the free market. Right now I’m in one of S.’s tiny spaces. If he can only get me to buy a couple of phones then he’ll manage what Cubans hope to pull off every day: to come out ahead in the miserly gap between two currencies.