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    Cuba and the Enslaving System of Two Currencies

    Cuba and the Enslaving System of Two Currencies / Yusnaby Perez

    Posted on April 16, 2013

    The dual currency system in Cuba is one of the major economic and social

    problems of the country. Don't take my word for it, on several occasions

    the president of the country, Raul Castro himself (and I have no

    intention of calling him a dissident) has recognized this. We Cubans

    have already become accustomed to the existence of the two currencies,

    and the government has become so entangled in an economic and payment

    system that it would be very difficult to disentangle it without

    enormous economic and social — and, of course, political — cost.

    Lately I've dedicated myself to making several comparisons on Twitter

    about the prices of things in Cuba and their equivalent in months'

    wages. To someone who isn't Cuban and doesn't live in Cuba, it's very

    difficult to understand the Cuban monetary system; which is why I would

    like to give a brief introduction to it.

    Historically, Cuba's currency has been the Cuban peso. This is the only

    one that has always existed. In the '90s, with the opening to tourism on

    the island, dollars began to come in. At first the use of dollars by

    Cubans was prohibited and severely punished. I knew people who went to

    prison for seven years for having one dollar in their wallet.

    The threatening force that American money on the island represented to

    the Cuban peso, forced the government to legalize its use by ordinary

    Cubans and it became the currency that ruled the Cuban market.

    All the stores, hotels, snack bars, restaurants and general services had

    their prices in dollars, displacing the Cuban peso. I remember that at

    the end of the '90s my parents rented out a room and I could watch many

    dollars passing before my eyes.

    This of course brought a political cost to the Cuban government. The

    simple fact of devaluing the national currency versus the dollar didn't

    bring much satisfaction to Comrade Fidel. From that moment the

    two-currency system started. Now, how did the Cuban Convertible Peso

    (CUC) come about. At that time, in 2004, using the excuse that "Bush has

    prohibited the use of dollars in Cuba," they decided to withdraw all

    existing dollars from the population and change them for convertible

    pesos (CUC). The exchange was 1 for 1.

    Fidel Castro set a deadline for the exchange and after that date started

    to charge a 20% tax on exchanging dollars for CUCs. Fidel was very

    clever, he was left with all the dollars and gave the people CUCs, which

    are nothing more than pieces of paper printed with the "supposed"

    backing of the USD. This supposed backing was spent on the Commander's

    fabulous idea of buying "rice cookers" to sell to the people. Thus was

    born the CUC, which up to today has accompanied the Cuban peso in an

    apparently eternal rivalry.

    Cubans are paid their wages in Cuban pesos. This is the official

    currency of Cuba, the "socialist" money. With this money Cubans can pay

    for some services such as water, light, gas, staple foods, bus fares, a

    part of the phone bill (because the caller ID and international calls

    are charged in CUC), their dues to the Committees for the Defense of the

    Revolution (CDR), and a few other things.

    The rest, such as the food in supermarkets, hotels, services, state

    restaurants, getting a passport, the departure tax, paperwork, cell

    phone services, car rental, entry to clubs and discos, drinks, taxis,

    home appliances, buying school supplies like pencils and erasers, in

    short, everything that is not "subsidized" is paid for in CUCs (the

    "capitalist" currency) — and this is 99.2% of everyday things.

    The Government is fully aware that some Cubans receive remittances from

    relatives abroad; some get money from tourists in pay for prostitution;

    some engage in the "disappearance" of goods, corruption…; and the

    government disregards it on a huge scale to promote the development of

    the national economy.

    A convertible peso (CUC) = 25 Cuban pesos (CUP) today. The monthly wages

    of an ordinary worker are around 375 Cuban pesos, which, applying basic

    math, gives us a total of 15 CUC a month. Below I show a list of set

    prices at a supermarket in Cuba.

    1 liter of milk = 2.50 CUC

    1 kg of rice = 3.15 CUC

    1 liter of sunflower oil = 1.50 CUC

    12 eggs = 1.80 CUC

    1 kg beef = 17.00 CUC

    The prices of some services are:

    An ordinary passport = 100.00 CUC

    A certified birth certificate = 20.00 CUC (expedited = 120.00 CUC)

    1 night in the Habana Libre Hotel = 275.00 CUC

    1 taxi from Vedado to Habana Vieja = 10.00 CUC

    Airport Tax = 25.00 CUC

    1 minute phone call = 0.35 CUC

    One international text message = 1.00 CUC

    1 1-minute phone call to Germany = 1.80 CUC

    Shoes, low end = 30.00 CUC

    So now you can see how little 15.00 CUC, the salary of an ordinary

    worker, buys.

    Now let's continue by looking at the comparison to understand what it

    means for a Cuban to pay prices in CUC. Consider a staple like milk and

    the 375 Cuban peso salary of an ordinary Cuban.

    1 liter of milk = 2.50 CUC = 62.50 Cuban pesos = 16.7% of the monthly

    salary of a worker

    Let's take Switzerland as a random reference, where the minimum wage is

    about 3,000 USD. If we apply the same percentages that a Cuban pays for

    a liter of milk, it would be the equivalent of a Swiss paying 501.00 USD

    for that same liter of milk in his country.

    To calculate what it means for a Cuban to buy 1 liter of milk relative

    to your salary, you can do the following calculation: Take 16.7% of your

    monthly wages.

    Imagine that the above result is what you would pay in your country for

    one liter of milk. A horrible truth? Well the equivalent of this result

    is what a Cuban in Cuba pays because of the dual currency.

    Even though Fidel seized all the dollars in 2004, dollars still

    circulates among us, and the government is subtly giving signs that it

    needs U.S. surrency again. Why do you think that every month the phone

    company ETECSA holds a 2-for1 promotion for recharges over the internet?

    Because it's a very simple way to get "fresh" dollars for the government.

    In fact, in the days when ETECSA is running the 2-for-1 promotion, a

    Cuban who goes into the local ETECSA office with 20 CUC will not be

    offered the promotion; because it can only be paid for with VISA or

    MASTERCARD, and what ordinary Cuban has one of those?

    Unquestionably the suppression of the second currency (the CUC) would

    have a political cost which in my opinion would be unbearable.

    Supposedly the CUC is the currency that tourists use (previously having

    exchanged euros, dollars, Swiss francs, Mexican pesos for it…). Now, if

    they suppress the CUC, then tourists would change their currencies into

    Cuban pesos, and then they would see the abysmal economic inequality

    without the "slavish" intermediary CUC. This same comparison can be

    drawn today, but without the second currency it would be much sadder.

    For example, if we eliminate the CUC, one night in a standard room at

    Habana Libre Hotel would cost 6,875 Cuban pesos, or 18 months salary of

    an ordinary worker. The reality is that mathematically it wouldn't

    change anything relative to where we are now, but for millions of Cuban

    who have spent more than half a century of continuous brainwashing, to

    digest that it would take 18 months — without spending a single peso on

    anything else — to be able to sleep one night in this hotel, would be a

    serious blow to the government.

    Raul has supposedly been working for years on a project to eliminate the

    dual currency, but so far without success. To do it, he would have to

    raise Cuban salaries 3500% (using as a reference point the costs of an

    average family of four), for Cubans to be able to minimally survive with

    the real prices that exist in Cuba today, without creating an internal

    crisis. And the country does not have now, nor will it have in the

    distant future, the conditions for such a change, such that, if such a

    reform happened, I highly doubt that the majority of Cubans could meet

    the minimum requirements for survival.

    Today, we Cuban face an ongoing struggle with money. They pay us with a

    money worth very little and with which we have to acquire many things

    including food. Our work is devalued to the level of slaves when we have

    to change Cuban pesos into convertible pesos. If, in theory, the

    convertible peso is a currency "designed" for foreign tourists… Why do

    they charge us in convertible pesos to get a passport? Or to buy ham? Or

    chicken? And I can continue naming countless examples of things that the

    government makes it very difficult and costly for us to access.

    But, dear readers, I'm not talking about changing the peas for coffee.*

    What I have outlined above was not a "mistake" by the government. No! It

    has been a carefully calculated strategy of domination. Economic power

    is political power.

    By leaving the overwhelming majority of Cubans with meager wages and

    depriving us of basic things like eggs and meat, they put us in a state

    of despair. Cubans live every day just trying to get — to "resolve" as

    we say — the food for that night. A teacher who is a mother with two

    children, who after working 8 hours at the school has to tramp all over

    the place to get food for her children's dinner, hardly has time to

    think about "democracy."

    This story is repeated every day for millions of Cubans, who over 50

    years have become accustomed to subsisting, forgetting the decency of

    the right to a fair life, and living with the hypocrisy of two

    currencies: one socialist and the other capitalist.

    *Translator's note: A reference to the fact that the "coffee" sold to

    Cubans is greatly extended with peas.

    2 April 2013

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