Black Market Alternatives and a Nationwide Cash Shortage Force Cuba’s Currency Exchange Bureaus to Close

A former currency exchange office is now a private business. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, August 24, 2023 — A few years ago, its windows displayed the exchange rates of various foreign currencies. Those signs have since been replaced with drawings of children’s faces welcoming customers to what had been the Cadeca currency exchange bureau on the corner of Obispo and Compostela streets in Old Havana. Euros and dollars are no longer for sale here, much less the defunct convertible peso (CUC). The space has since been leased to a small private company, Ekopeque, that sells board games and other entertainment for children.

“There was always a ton of people at that Cadeca. By the time they shut it down, there was no electricity and it needed to be fumigated. It was a tragedy for this whole area,” recalls Mauro, a 32-year-old resident who lives nearby. “There were always people around, buying and selling hard currency. During the CUC era, it went on non-stop. But after currency unification [in January 2019], people stopped coming. Why is that if the convertible peso is already dead?

Among the items Ekopeque has for sale are children’s sunglasses for 500 pesos apiece, party hats that range from 150 to 200 pesos and checkers sets. What catches the eye of most customers, however, are the plastic cockroaches. “I bought four for 40 pesos each to scare my mom. I’m going to put them in her bed to see how she reacts,” said one mischievous young man who had stopped by the store for the first time on Thursday.

The items that catch the eye of most customers are the plastic cockroaches, which sell for 40 pesos apiece. (14ymedio)

“I didn’t even know this was a mipyme*,” admits the boy, who is duly impressed with the powerful air conditioning and overall cleanliness of the place. “The man who seems to be the owner is very professional,” he observes. “You Immediately realize this is not a state-run store. Before, when it was a Cadeca, the employees always had long faces and it was like the security guard at the door was barking instead of talking.”

The only remaining currency exchange still located in this tourist hub in Havana’s historic city center is at 257 Obispo Street. Housed in an impressive building that for years was the most iconic Cadeca on the island, it was designed to impress foreign travelers. It even features several ATMs. But the current cash shortage and customers’ reluctance to exchange their hard currency at the official rate have left it largely empty.

Meanwhile, exchange rates for the euro and dollar on the black market are at record highs, a fact that is as frightening as Ekopeque’s plastic cockroaches.

Translator’s note: Spanish-language abbreviation for “micro, small and medium-sized enterprise” (MSME).


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