Cubans Wait All Night to Buy Cheaper Dollars

Like an anthill, the people of Santa Clara hunkered down during the early hours at the junction of Cuba and Trista streets. Photo: 14ymedio

By Juan Diego Rodríguez and Juan Izquierdo (14ymedio)

HAVANA TIMES – The night begins to cool off in Santa Clara and, after having a bite to eat, the coleros [people standing in line for others, for pay] cross Vidal Park on their way to the currency exchange (Cadeca). The custom is new but the method is as common as poverty and underdevelopment on the island: hold on all night to guarantee one of the first places in line.

The booty: the hundred dollars “per head” for 120 pesos each that the Government promises to sell to anyone who has a place. Like an anthill, the people of Santa Clara hunkered down during the early hours last Friday at the junction of Cuba and Trista streets. On the street those same dollars cost 150 pesos.

It’s a central corner and a crucial one for the movement of the city, interrupted, however, by a long zinc fence, which slows down traffic. The inhabitants of the city are accustomed to going around the obstacle, which “protects” them from the ruins of the old Florida hotel, to reach the Cadeca and the branch of the Bank of Credit and Commerce.

“A tremendous show broke out that night,” one of its readers in Santa Clara tells 14ymedio. “More than a hundred people waiting, and everything is a disaster. A guy started shouting that it was a shame and that he couldn’t take it anymore.”

At ten at night, the man says, the atmosphere was already “heated.” From afar, in the park, the police didn’t lose any time in harassing the coleros. “It’s normal that they patrol that area and, from time to time, intercept a drunkard or an unsuspecting university student and ’invite’ them to enter the guasabita,” he adds.

The guasabita is the name that the people of Santa Clara give to a small gray bus where the officers improvise their “interrogations.” “People leave there on a stretcher,” says the man, “that’s why the coleros also avoid it.”

But not even a hypothetical beating or an unforeseen arrest stop those who have to exchange their dollars. In the Cadeca, the mechanisms of a gear that no one fully understands and that works based on traps, tricks and bribes, begin to rotate.

The fundamental rule: maintain your ground and be aware of the movements of others. The euphemism par excellence, “taking care of the line,” is the ace up the sleeve of those who appear and disappear, exchange places with someone, or duplicate their place under all kinds of pretexts.

The “dollar line” is confusing and exhausting, with the additional danger of knowing that everyone who goes in or out carries money in their pockets, which tempts the city’s bandits and assailants.

“I’ve even been afraid of standing in line,” admits the man, who says he feels the same neurosis in the Cadeca as in a line for chicken, coffee or cigarettes. The overnight sale of foreign exchange has become another business in the informal market.

“But make no mistake,” he adds, “this is a small business; it isn’t the ‘mafia’ of Santa Clara. This is the same thing that happens when people ‘struggle’ with their ration books for meat or some tobacco. The idea is to spend the time that others can’t or don’t want to spend. That’s why they [the coleros] take a percentage.”

At the moment of greatest agony, when there is no longer any desire to shout or protest, the sun rises. Cadeca workers, very calmly, open the door and start calling the first numbers. But there is no guarantee that there will be enough dollars to cover the demand.

“Everyone knows that you can spend the night here and that it’s a choice,” the man concludes, “but that’s what it is. This is the only country where you can live from standing in line for someone.”

Those who read the daily reports of the official press won’t be able to detect any abnormalities. With subtlety, the Government is recalibrating the balance of exchange: every day it sells the most expensive dollar but demands to buy it at the lowest possible price.

Meanwhile, exchange rates have skyrocketed on the informal market. The dollar reached 150 pesos on Saturday, according to the monitoring of the digital media El Toque. Those who experienced the instability of the currencies during the “Special Period” of the 1990s soon recognized that this was the figure at which the dollar came to be valued during the previous crisis.

At exchange rates of 149 and 148 pesos, respectively, the euro and the magnetic MLC currency almost reached the threshold of the US dollar. With these figures, phrases such as “recovering the purchasing power of the salary in Cuban pesos” or “a single exchange rate,” formulated by Minister Alejandro Gil Fernandez, are already terrible jokes of economic humor.

Translated by Regina Anavy for Translating Cuba


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One thought on “Cubans Wait All Night to Buy Cheaper Dollars

  • How crazy is this?

    The Cuban socialist system produces very little of value. It cannot meet the basic needs of its citizens and has nothing to sell on the international market. So, it must purchase and import foreign food and manufactured goods. Because it has a history of expropriated of assets, has defaulted on its past obligations, and does not have a viable national currency, it must pay for everything in cash (dollars or euros). It has no credit.

    So, for an extended period, the Cuban government tried to capture dollars that flow through the country. It imposed a tangled mass of constantly changing rules for that purpose. It created a 24 to 1 rate of exchange for dollars but would not purchase pesos for that rate. When the free market rate reached 120 pesos to 1 dollar, it adopted the free market rate of 120 pesos, and also agreed to sell dollars for that price. Then, since it didn’t have enough dollars to sell, the free market rate went up to 150 pesos per dollar. Still, the government kept its official rate to sell dollars at 120 to 1.

    It is pretty obvious to any capitalist (and there are many in Cuba), that it’s profitable to buyer dollars for 120 pesos from the government and then sell them for 150 pesos on the free market.

    For the Cuban government, this strategy is beyond stupid. It is hard to believe they let it continue.

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