He is eight years old and enormously confused. This morning his mother put 25 centavos in his hand, telling him, “Here are five pesos.” He looked at the shiny surface with the shield of the Republic on one side and on the back the tall thin tower of the city of Trinidad. Although born in an economically schizophrenic country, he is still not used to the switch from Cuban pesos to their convertible relatives. At school the teacher has never talked about the issue, but to explain it would take an entire course over a whole semester. Nor do they explain much at home, as if the adults think it is normal that they mix two kinds of money in their wallets.
In Cuba there are four kinds of markets and two different types of money to pay for things in them. Every morning the housewives detail in their heads – with a minimum of fuss – a plan for which currency they will use to buy what, in which places. It’s an arithmetical operation that takes a few seconds, fifteen years after the implementation of dollarization and its subsequent “ghost,” the convertible peso. The conversion is done constantly and there are sellers who accept both the symbolic tokens they pay our wages in, and the others with a value 24 times greater. For a pineapple we can pay as much as 10 pesos in national money – a day’s wages – or about fifty centavos in the money commonly called “chavitos.” Some tourists are not aware of such complexities and acquire the queen of fruits for ten convertible pesos. That day, the trader closes his stall quickly and goes home happy for the mistake.
My son’s generation does not understand what it’s like to live with a single currency. I think they have a special development in the area of the brain that eventually accepts the absurd, in the neural connections that handle the unacceptable. They perform currency conversions with the ease of someone who has learned two languages since infancy and alternates them with little difficulty. Except that the learning of several languages is always enriching, but taking for normal the financial duality is to accept that there are two possible lives. One of them is flat and gray, like the national centavos, and the other – which is forbidden in all its extension to a good part of the population – seems full of colors and watermarks, like the style of the twenty convertible peso bill.
Briefly, Cuba has two currencies. Moneda nacional (national money or the Cuban peso) is the currency that wages are paid in and some goods are sold in. The convertible pesos (CUC) is the currency tourists must exchange their dollars, euros, or other currencies for. Many goods are sold, even to Cubans, only in CUCs. One CUC is worth 24 Cuban pesos. After the Revolution, possession of the U.S. dollar was outlawed in Cuba until 1993, when it was permitted. The CUC replaced the U.S. dollar in 2004. The slang name for CUCs, “chavitos,” is a play on Hugo Chavez’s name.