Wednesday, 6 July 2011

What you can do with two currencies that you can´t do with one...

Take tourists for one hell of a ride, that’s what. Create two parallel worlds which overlap in the most curious and confusing ways, and make some money out of it.

I’ve just written about tourism so don’t want to overdo it. Permit me a quick deviation though to try and describe some insights I’ve recently gained on the price of being a tourist in Cuba.

Firstly, take a look at these few examples of the difference in cost for products and services:

Product/ service
Price for Cubans (MN)
In CUC/US$
Price for tourists (CUC/$USD)
Taxi Alamar to Habana
$20
$1
$5
Traditional Cuban lunch: rice, beans and chicken
$20
$1
$6-10
Museum entry
$10
$.50
$8
Ice cream
$.60
$0.0 something
$2
Beer
$7
$.30
$1
Bottle of rum
$48
$2
$4.50
Ballet performance
$10
$.50
$25
3 cigars of the best quality
$264
$11
$25


Before we go on I’m anxious to clarify that I’m not complaining about the necessity / morality of charging tourists more: when the average local salary here comes in at about 50 cents a day there is no way locals should be expected to pay more and every reason for tourists to contribute to the economy. Nope, the problem is often the situation and substance of the transaction. In other words, it just feels like one massive scam. Quite often you’re enjoying (or not depending on the quality and service) a coffee, show, bus journey or meal sat either across from or next door to a bunch of locals, but for 24 times the price. If the quality, service and experience were 24 times better, I’d cough up with pleasure. The problem is that is often is not, and what’s more, if you take your holiday in the world of in divisa currency (CUC) it feels like you’re losing the experience of being in Cuba.

It’s for this reason (and of course to try and save money when possible) that I’ve attempted so far to go native wherever possible – always carrying a wad of national currency around with me at least so that I have the option of what food, drink, transport and ultimately experience I want.  Having said that it’s not always that easy – most notably when the tourist prices are set in law, which basically means you have to be able to prove you’re a resident in order to pay in moneda nacionale, and otherwise the tourist way or the highway.  I might be learning to speak ‘Cuban’ (which essentially means I gesticulate wildly, no longer say the ‘s’ at the end of the sentence, and say ‘no, no, no, no, no’ when I mean “well, yes”), but with pale skin and light eyes, in the word’s of Salcines, “you’re not fooling anyone, kiddo”. I found this out the hard way.  

Having kept my eyes and ears open for any sign of ballet in Havana, (it’s not the season but I was keen to see one if I could find something) I stumbled across a matinee featuring young performers and decided to go along. Things got a bit complicated when I tried to buy a ticket though.

I approached a lady sat down in the foyer of Havana’s principal theatre and explained I wanted to see the show. She proceeded to look me up and down before confirming that I was not a resident in Cuba. At that she fetched a man to ‘explain the situation’. The situation, it transpired, is that tickets cost $25CUC, and I’d have to come back in one hour to buy them. This was curious – to me it seemed costly but with that kind of a price tag what national was going to be able to go and see the ballet? They couldn’t surely rely on a hoard of Canadian sight-seers to stumble upon a matinee performance?

Fairly determined I asked them to reserve me a place and went off for a coffee where I ran into Evelid, a local show organiser who asked me for a lighter. We got chatting – he was delighted to find a foreigner in one of the few local café’s in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and reiterated very emphatically the importance of paying for everything in moneda nacionale. He’d had a fair amount of travel experience and didn’t like it when people made a fool of tourists. When I explained I couldn’t have a beer because I was off to the ballet, he wasn’t impressed that I was about to pay $25CUC (“my monthly salary”) to see a performance that costs less than one CUC for a local. He was determined to help out and accompanied me to the box office to buy a ticket in MN – for which I gave him $2CUC and offered my sincere thanks. The only problem is, it didn’t work.

The moment I walked into the entrance to get my ticket torn off I was asked for my proof of residence. That’s how they make sure then I thought as I was rather aggressively told I couldn’t enter on this. Fair enough in a way – again, I earn more than them and can afford to pay more. But so much more seems wrong. Pretty annoyed I went outside and was approached by the man who’d told me to come back later. “We’ve been waiting with your ticket, do you still want it?” I explained my annoyance and he dropped the price to $15CUC, just like that. Again, curious. Even more curious was the way he took me into the theatre - I was told to wait, and then run when given the sign. That I did and we ran through the back door, through the dressing rooms and into the theatre. And once I’d got a seat he asked me for the money. Definitely not kosher.

I did get to see the ballet though, and I think I was the only foreigner in a crowd full of excited young Cubans sitting on their parent’s knee and enjoying the short matinee. International standard ballet this was not but it did teach me a lesson. There is talk of uniting the two currencies in the coming couple of years, but it remains difficult to see how they’d solve the tourist v local pricing issue, or indeed how a different currency would stand up to the test against any international market where at the moment neither currency means a thing.

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