By Regina Cano
In buying anything, having coins in hand is something indispensable around the world. This type of currency has to be issued widely, because despite its seeming durability (given their being made of metal), coins disappear quickly into circulation; they tend to get lost as well as be employed for other uses.
In Cuba, government-run shops provide services or sell goods at prices that include centavos (cents). There are large numbers of these state-managed retail establishments (far more than the number of private businesses, which charge prices in rounded-off figures).
In these government-run establishments, when a customer pays for a good or service, if the clerk doesn’t have change to make the corresponding refund, the price ends up being rounded off against the buyer, hiking the real price of the service or product.
It’s not that they are concealing the official price, but it has been established as something of a norm that prices must be paid in whole pesos, even when the price is indicated in fractions. It is assumed that the price is greater, and thus the expression “the peso’s not worth anything” (in comparison to the Convertible Peso or CUC that circulates in Cuba).
That phrase indicates the different psychological and tangible ways that this impacts the Cuban people, given the fact that the regular peso (called Moneda Nacional or MN) continues being the currency in which people are paid for their daily efforts. In addition, it is the tender with which a significant percent of the population uses to pay the great majority of their necessary expenses (electricity, gas, rent, publicly rationed food, public transportation, etc.).
Paying for transportation is something complex, after we have experienced almost 20 years of unstable madness in this area after the collapse of the Socialist Bloc. Attempts to resolve this problem were first made through experiments (like the “Camel” buses), and later with donations of foreign buses, as well as through more recent major investments by the Cuban government, which has tried to solve the public transportation nationally and especially in Havana.
Firstly, though the price of the bus is 40 centavos, passengers usually pay one peso every time they board; this is due to the recent installation of collection boxes and a lack of change. Prior to these, fares were paid directly to a collector, though one would often run into the same problem, “Sorry brother, I don’t have any change.”
Whereas the surpluses used to go into the pockets of that collector, who later shared them with the driver, they now presumably end up in the government’s coffers.
However, what’s now happening is that Cubans are slowly establishing daily practices to supposedly fight things like this, but what is surprising is that they are like quiet, complicit and tacit agreements.
People, who don’t have change to put into the moneybox, sometimes split the surplus with a person behind them (accepting the other rider’s 40 centavos and paying for both riders with their one peso).
Alternately, they place the peso on the dashboard so the driver can put it directly into their pocket, adding it to the surplus daily income that had been lost because collectors no longer exist.
I wonder if this is assistance to a fellow worker to increase the driver’s unofficial wage, or does the public prefer not giving more money to the government, or is this a veiled protest against the absence of change? I don’t know… these things can be difficult to explain.