There’s a term Cuban housewives use as they make their rounds in search of the day’s family food: pollo por pescado. It means “chicken for fish”: You have promised fish for dinner, but in the stores there is no fish, so you get a little chicken and pretend it’s your fish. Cuba is surrounded by seawater, of course. Where is all the fish? Ah, any Cuban will tell you, leaning in close, a merry gleam in his eye: glad you asked, mi amor. The fish is in the restaurants. The fish is in the hotel buffets, a popular amenity for tourists, where long counters are piled high with varieties and quantities of food no ordinary Cuban ever sees. The fish is being sold out of private homes, if you know which doorbell to ring. In many of these locales the fish—like nearly every desirable product in Cuba, from nightclub admission to hair dye and plasma TVs and acid-washed blue jeans—is being sold in CUCs.Share
Now we come to that aspect of present-day Cuba that causes the yuma (that’s the grammatically adaptable slang for “American,” “foreigner,” and also “the general outside world to the north and east”) to reach for a calculator and some aspirin and a crash course in recent Cuban history. The CUC, which is shorthand for Cuban convertible peso, is one of the two official currencies of Cuba. Like the libreta, the double-currency system is in theory destined for extinction; things are so fluid in Cuba that by the time you read this, it’s conceivable the government will have begun ending it. But to appreciate fully the elaborate survival negotiations that have dominated so many Cubans’ daily lives in recent years, you have to come to grips with the essential weirdness of the CUC.
It’s a recently invented currency, introduced a decade ago as a replacement for the dollars and other foreign money that began flooding and disrupting the country after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, thus ending the big-socialists-to-little-socialists financial support that had been holding up the Cuban economy. The multiyear Cuban depression that followed the Soviet breakup was catastrophic (fuel shortages, 14-hour blackouts, widespread hunger), and the government set out to counter it by throwing the island open to international tourism. This was all done rather fiercely, with a flurry of beach hotel building that continues to this day—current plans include multiple golf courses and jet-capacity airports—while anticapitalist admonishments still declaim from highway billboards and urban walls:
SOCIALISM OR DEATH!
THE CHANGES MEAN MORE SOCIALISM!In its purest concept the CUC is used for goods and services somehow connected to foreignness: hotel bills, international transactions, Fidel T-shirts in the souvenir shops, and so on. One CUC is worth about one U.S. dollar, and it’s simple to obtain them; whether you’re a yuma or a Cuban, state employees at exchange centers will take whatever currency you hand them and count out your reciprocal CUCs, wishing you a pleasant day when they’re done.
These employees, like the rest of the Cubans who work for the state—currently about 80 percent of the country’s labor force—are not paid in CUCs. They’re paid in the other currency, the Cuban national peso. One national peso is worth 1/24 of a CUC, or just over four cents, and in socialist Cuba state salaries are fixed; the range as of mid-2012 was between about 250 and 900 pesos a month. Some workers now receive a CUC stimulus to augment their peso wages, and recent changes are lifting top-end salary limits and linking pay more to productivity than to preset increments. But it was Cubans who taught me the national comic line about public workplace philosophy: “They pretend to pay us, while we pretend to work.” (Read more.)