A Cuban Scam that benefits all
As the simple swipe of a credit card becomes more culturally ingrained (and more swipeless by the day), and foreign currencies move seemingly closer to one seamless exchange, travel can often remind us that things are not always so simple-- currencies are complicated and we might forever be fumbling our way around changing economic landscapes.
Financial interactions in Cuba can be maddeningly mind boggling. The most notable feature of this confusion is the country’s dual currency system, the CUP vs the CUC (rolling off the tongue as koop vs. kook). Without speaking too deeply on this convoluted subject, it is helpful to understand that the second currency was introduced as a way to control foreign money coming in and out of the country. The CUC, or Chavito, as it was sometimes called, emerged during the Periodo Especial, a period of economic crisis, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was during the Special Period when hard currency from tourists slowly began to creep onto the island.
The CUP (Cuban Peso) is the local currency; the CUC (Convertible Currency) is the tourist dollar, about the equivalent of a USD, both of which are about 25 times the value of a Cuban Peso. Most of Cuba’s population works for the state and gets paid in Pesos but many consumer goods are only priced in CUCs. Doctors get paid in CUPs but their wives, who are often responsible for renting out rooms to travellers, get paid (often significantly more) in CUCs. Some state companies balance their books on the pretense that 1 CUP equals 1 CUC, but most people and shops have informally agreed upon an exchange rate of about 25:1. Sounds confusing, right? As you might guess, this system has dramatic effects on the economy and, realistically, won’t last much longer in its current form. In 2013, Raul Castro said that Cuba would move towards a single currency, but no official timeline has be given as to when this will happen.
Before this dual currency system changes (as if you needed another excuse!), I invite you to take a trip down to Havana and get swindled with a Che Tres Pesos. As far as scams go, it’s a pretty simple one. The three peso coin, featuring revolutionary legend Che Guevara, is about the same dimensions as the one CUC coin, which is about the equivalent of one US Dollar, and about eight times more valuable than the three pesos (CUPs) Che coin.
The most common way to find Che in your pocket is to be given the three pesos coin as change when you’re paying in CUCs, essentially getting an often useless coin, valued at roughly 13 cents, instead of the dollar you’re owed. Most people just take the change and don’t realize they’ve been cheated until they attempt to spend The Che elsewhere.
Or, you’ll encounter a friendly old timer who will extol the virtues of Che, before revealing his ‘special coin.’ Not only is it a Che collectors item, but it is also worth three pesos-- a great deal when you consider you only have to give ‘one peso’ in return. It's one of those scams where you know that something is not right, but it really doesn't seem like you're losing that much so you're hesitant, but happy, to continue with a genuinely friendly interaction. Welcome to Cuba!
There's no shortage of Che ephemera and imagery in this land of little advertising. In an almost logo-less country, the iconic facial caricature by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick is probably the most recognizable 'logo' on the island. But the Tres Pesos coin seems to offer more, much more, than a T-shirt or magnet. Che's battle-hardened glare, complete with the slogan Patria O Muerte, gives the coin a significance beyond a mere souvenir. In a nation where so much leaves you feeling like time has and will stand still, the Tres Pesos is a unique reflection of this fleeting moment in time, where change is surely on the horizon.
As a traveller, you will undoubtedly feel frustrated being duped out of rightful money owed, but, to be fair, you rarely get what you pay for on this enchanting island. Why worry about a little incorrect change when no one else seems to be able to accurately assess the true value of that change? Cuba is a place where you can forget about the almighty dollar, where experiences and people truly do outweigh the material; a place, frozen in time, where it’s OK to be harmlessly hoodwinked by a cigar toting, sweet talkin’ old man. Because who knows how long that old man will be around!
On the other hand, if your stubborn-travel-pride refuses to be swindled out of even the smallest pocket change, I can understand that sentiment too. Some degree of self-preservation is instinctual when traveling. And, no one wants to feel like they’re being taken for a ride (unless it’s along Havana’s Malecon in a 1950s Chevy convertible!), no matter how friendly a Cuban charlatan you encounter. So, if you decide you’d rather not do battle with the sometimes cynical tactics of tourist trickery, may I suggest another revolutionary.
Camillo Cienfuegos, whose playful sense of humor and infectious smile made him the darling in the hearts and minds of many Cubans, is barely recognized by most visitors to Revolutionary Square. You certainly won’t find him on T-shirts or mugs, but he’s definitely a figure worth reading up on before you visit. And, if you fall in love with Cienfuegos like I did, you’ll find that your only real chance at a Camillo souvenir is to take a home a bit of hard currency. But, that’ll cost you: 20 pesos, please!