Saturday, January 11, 2020
January 8, 2020 - The Currency of Cuba
We were up at 5:30 am for a cold shower (hadn’t seen much in the way of hot water the past few mornings), did some final packing, checked-out, and were on the bus headed for the airport. Because the buffet wouldn’t be open before our departure time, Ana and her mom hatched a devious plan the evening before to secure us a breakfast. We all walked into the buffet, even though we knew we were going to eat at the a la carte restaurant, but we wanted to look genuine. Ana and Stella gathered up a bunch of buns, deli meat and cheese and sat down at a table right at the entrance, thinking the frenzy of activity would somehow disguise their deception. The rest of us were supposed to wander around the buffet, looking at the food to distract attention from our accomplices, but John and Maria forgot the plan and just followed Ana around, making suggestions on which chunks of deli meat to take, and which variety of cheese looked best. Magnus and I did what we were supposed to, and found a hell of a lot of good food on offer tonight, making me think we should give the a la carte a miss. I went and sat with Ana and Stella to help with sandwich construction and extraction. But since the Cuban staff outnumber the guests, there were already two servers on our table getting us water, asking if everything was okay and so on. I went and grabbed a plate of papaya, to make our little meal look authentic, then started eating it ever so slowly as I layered ham and havarti into buns and then Ana stuffed them into her bag whenever Stella’s shifty eyes spotted an opening when neither of the servers were looking at us, and gave her mom the nod. After five minutes of this all the buns had disappeared and we looked at the servers, rubbing our bellies, so happy after eating such a delicious meal but whoops, sorry folks, gotta run - late for a big meeting.
We returned to the buffet 10 minutes later because there were no more tables at the a la carte, and we snuck back in three separate groups, to avoid detection, and took a table in the back corner of the restaurant. We should have had Ana change hats or wear a false moustache or something because the servers nailed her as soon as she stepped in, but instead of taking her to the resort holding cell to await trial and sentencing by the local Communist magistrate, they gave her a pass, probably because we’d tipped them both at some point during the week and them Cubans have great memories.
The handling of currencies at the airport is a prefect representation of why the Cuban economy is so completely messed up. Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Peso (CUP) which is the national currency and used by the locals, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is a parallel currency that was originally only to be used by tourists. For many years American dollars were used extensively throughout Cuba but about 15 years ago they completely banned them and US currency was useless. But recently the government has changed direction and they are now moving back towards the US currency.
You are not allowed to take CUC’s out of the Cuba, so you are directed to convert any CUC’s you have back into your home currency of Canadian dollars or Euro. So here’s where it gets fun. Ana took our remaining CUC’s to the currency exchange desk at the airport to get Canadian dollars. But all they had were Canadian twenty dollar bills and Ana had only enough CUCs for just under twenty bucks, so all they could do was give her regular local Cuban pesos, which she said could be used to buy things in the departure lounge. Once through immigration, we looked around in the shops and discovered the following. All prices are in US dollars, but if you pay in US dollars, they charge you a 10% tax. They will accept Canadian dollars, Euro, or local Cuban pesos, but any change is given in US dollars, unless they don’t have enough, in which case they will give it to you in Canadian or Euro. They do not accept the CUC currency, but obviously a lot of tourists weren’t told that because many of them only had CUC bills, but you could only convert it before going through immigration, making them worthless. The prices in duty free were probably 50% higher than the prices in the hotel shops or shops in the street, and unless you want to buy rum, coffee beans, honey, a Cuba hat, or a dry chicken sandwich at the pitifully stocked restaurant, there’s probably not much you would want anyway.
It’s no wonder the country is in such bad economic shape, and you certainly can’t blame it all on the US embargo when they refuse to abandon this horribly inefficient Communist system. The kids asked me to explain how Communism works, but I told them they’d be better off reading some Karl Marx to get the information directly from the source, but I did say that as far as economics goes, Communism is the great equalizer; it provides for everybody in the country to be equally poor. But it must be said that vacationing in Cuba gives you a refreshing break from the rampant consumerism that we are so used to and support unthinkingly.
Our trip back home was trouble-free, except that the “stolen sandwich” breakfast in the airport instead of our regular 3000 calorie buffet extravaganza just wasn’t cutting it for our stretched out tummies, so we bought meals on the plane which helped sooth the savage hunger beast. And before we knew it we were back in Toronto, through immigration and baggage collection in record time, and arrived home by 8pm. We never seem to have this much luck in airports – Ana’s folks must be our good luck charms!