Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Too many CUCs spoil the broth

Fresh off the plane, tourists arriving in Cuba are ripe for the picking. Jam packed with Euros, Dollars and Pounds, the initial confusion on which money plays Jesus in this country can embarrass, confuse and eventually lead you into trouble. Especially when there is two official local currencies floating about. In a tit for tat political decision back in 2003, Fidel announced that after ten years of being legal tender, the US Dollar would no longer be something people could use as money. Instead, a new currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), would take the dollar’s place as the De Niero for foreigners and the Cubans more equal than others. Like the money used by Cubans, the Peso Cubano, the CUC is still not able to be bought or sold anywhere but Cuba, but is roughly indexed to the Euro. At the moment it’s equal to about 24 Peso Cubano for every 1 CUC. Both currencies are called Peso, both use the $ symbol as denominator, some of the notes and coins have a slight resemblance to each other (such as the 3 Peso Cubano coin and the 1 CUC coin), and the confusion between the two is played on by the tourist industry to fuck visitors royally.

My first night in Cuba was a learning experience and a great introduction to the economy lurking in the shadows cast by tourists.

Landing at Varadero airport at 7pm on a hot night, immigration consisted of ten large queues and small confined booths with angry looking police types stationed at each one. While chatting to them about all things Austrian, I began to read the immigration rules set out in big friendly letters. The obvious stuff was all there (valid passport, visa, plane ride out), but the final condition was to have already booked a hotel and show evidence of such a booking. Hmm. This was going to be difficult, as I had intended on grabbing a Casa Particular (a rented room within someone’s house), once I arrived. I looked over the shoulders of the Austrians at what they had written on their tourist cards. “The Ingletaria”. Sounds good. I scribbled that don on my form and continued waiting in line. Their immigration process involves you going into a small space with a dude behind a counter asking questions about your purpose for visiting the country. There is no window or open door looking out into the side of immigration which is where tourists want to be, and the only view you have is from where you came. So if you fail the test, the electric door doesn’t open, you do not pass go and you do not collect your luggage. I managed to get through the questions, the dude pressed the button and the electric door opened. I grabbed my luggage and just like back home it went through an x-ray unit just to make sure I wasn’t smuggling in any metal device used to topple governments.

My capitalistic sensibilities said to change a minimal amount of Euro into local currency at the airport and then wait until I could get to a bank to get a better exchange rate. I changed 50 Euro into Cuban Peso Convertables, the money used by tourists now the US dollar was outlawed. With a gauntlet of bus operators, taxi drivers and house owners offering their services at inflated prices to the jet lagged, I was overwhelmed by the options, but I quickly found a bus to share to Matanzas with four Greek guys who were going to Havana. The ride cost 25 CUC, and when we stopped off in Matanzas for my let out point (and a beer), the Greek guys suggested it might be easier to get accommodation in Central Havana, another 80kms away. Looking around the uninviting looking Matanzas, I decided to take them up on the idea.

More soon...

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