Money in Cuba is more confusing than anywhere I’ve ever been as they operate two currencies at the same time, Cuban Pesos (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). The CUC is what most tourists use and are valued at 24 times the value of the CUP, though tourists can use CUPs and Cubans can use CUCs…. confused yet? The Cubans use CUPs as their currency to buy food and shop at the government run stores, which offer a very limited range of products. I believe that the dual currency system is a hangover from the days when tourists were segregated from Cubans, and Cubans were not allowed to stay in tourist hotels. Apparently Raul Castro has plans to scrap the dual currency system but who knows when that will happen. As we are told repeatedly, “anything is possible in Cuba”.
An average wage for a Cuban worker is about 15 CUCs a month, or the equivalent of $AUS20. Professionals such as teachers and pharmacists earn about 30 CUCs a month. A taxi driver can earn more than a doctor and a tour guide more than a pharmacist. A pair of jeans will cost 25-35 CUCs (AUS$30-$40), and why this is the preferred attire in the 35 degree Celsius relentless heat eludes me. Most employees work for state government institutions or businesses so the low wage results in an unemployment rate of only 1%.
Cubans have had liberati, ration books since 1990. A Cuban family registers with a local supply store where they will receive consumables such as rice, eggs, chicken, noodles, sugar, salt, oil and soap at a very cheap price. Children and pregnant woman also receive milk, and sanitary napkins are provided for menstruating woman.
Basic liberati products are guaranteed however Cubans have to queue at multiple stores, on different days, to get their supplies. Sellers of food have to be government registered and there is a black market in products such as pork and fish.
The local markets had very little produce available which explained why there was limited variety in the meals we were served. We saw no spices or herbs and minimal vegetables.
Education is free, including university education, although graduates must work in a government run institution for two years to repay their debt to society, before they are able to enter private enterprise.
Health care, including dental care is free, and basic pharmaceuticals, including contraception is cheap. Cuba has a reputation for producing good doctors and medical expertise has become an export item with many families telling us they had a professional family member, such as a doctor, working overseas. The money sent home to Cuba is a substantial income for the country and has been instrumental in improving the quality of life here. Escallati’s (who we met at Casa Ramon) father was a doctor working in Ecuador and was due home to see his new daughter when she was two weeks old.
Life is lived on the streets, particularly in the evenings with neighbours congregating to chat, probably to discuss where liberati products are available and how much to charge tourists for laundry. The stoop is a favoured seat and those inside can be seen passing time on the numerous rocking chairs found in each house.
I had been concerned about the trail of rubbish we had left behind us as we travelled, see Slash the Trash, however this dramatically reduced once we left the wealth of the USA and encountered the poverty of Cuba. Here very little is wasted and if only we could package all food products like this delicious sugar cane and coconut traditional Cuban sweet, wrapped only in palm leaves.