Dmitri Prieto

Collective taxi. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Many years ago, the US dollar – then on a par and freely exchangeable with the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) – was valued at 20 Cuban pesos (CUP).

At the time, Cuban quarters (25 CUC cents) were, by simple arithmetic, equivalent to 5 Cuban pesos (CUP) each. By the same logic, nickels (or 5 CUC cents) were each valued at 1 Cuban peso, and dimes at two. Fifty CUC cents were exactly 10 CUP.

With time, the value of the CUC went up (or that of the CUP went down). Today, some private cab drivers – those in the town of Guanabo, for instance – maintain the original exchange rate of 1 CUC to 25 CUP, presumably because this makes it easier for them to deal out change to passengers. In these cabs, when you pay with a 50 CUP bill, you almost always get your 25 CUP change in CUC (in bill or coin form).

Cuban exchange locales (known as “CADECAS”), however, purchase CUCs at 24 Cuban pesos, and many privately-operated establishments exchange it at 23 CUP (sometimes posting up a sign announcing this).

Yesterday, I went to the market to buy an avocado that cost 8 CUP. I didn’t have Cuban pesos on me and I paid the vendor with a 3 CUC bill. The vendor didn’t have Cuban Convertible Pesos and gave me back 61 CUP (using the 1 CUC – 23 CUP exchange rate).

Had he valued the CUC at 25 CUP, he would have given me 67 CUP in change.

Following a rather twisted arithmetic logic, the 6-CUP difference means that I bought that avocado at 14 CUP. If the average price of a mid-sized to large avocado (I am unsure as to the exactness of this figure, but let us assume it is accurate) is 10 CUP, thanks to this less favorable CUC exchange rate, a cheap avocado (8 CUP) was suddenly made expensive (14 CUP).

Things become even more complicated when we start to deal with fractional figures.

For some strange reason, even though the CUC quarter is mathematically equivalent to 6 CUP (as per the 1 CUC – 24 CUP rate), it is still valued at 5 Cuban pesos by the vast majority of private vendors. That means you will never get any change back if you buy something worth 5 CUP with that “dollar quarter.”

If you pay with a 50 “dollar cent” (CUC) coin, the vendor treats it as 10 CUP.

In a similarly conservative fashion, vendors maintain the old equivalences of 5 CUC cents = 1 CUP and 10 CUC cents = 2 CUP, even when one pays with many of these coins, enough to make the difference in value considerable.

Thus, 20 CUC nickels aren’t often equivalent to 23, 24 or 25 CUP, but only 20. The same holds for CUC dimes.

It is easier to convince one’s counterpart that one is giving them the equivalent of 1 CUC (23, 24 or 25 CUP, depending on the exchange rate) if one pays with 4 CUC quarters.

A bit complicated, isn’t it?

A certain Frenchman once said that people’s mentalities tend to be conservative.

I say that whoever laughs last laughs loudest.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

One thought on “Conservative Mentalities and Cuba’s Exchange Rates

  • CUCs and CUPs have never been freely convertible, and the CUC was not “on par” with the US dollar, it was artificially pegged at US $1 by the diktat of the Cuban government. On free markets, i.e. outside Cuba, both Cuba currencies are worthless. You cannot get them exchanged anywhere, for any price.

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