The Convertible Peso Does Not Exist at Havana’s Airport

The ban on taking convertible pesos (CUC) out of the country has led to long lines at currency exchange booths outside the boarding area, even at dawn. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 21 November 2019 —  The first thing a traveler notices upon entering the boarding area at the Havana airport is that the convertible peso (CUC, or, as popularly known, el chavito) is no longer accepted in the duty-free shops. Now purchases can only be made with the Cuban peso (CUP) or major foreign currencies.

When it comes to putting an end to the country’s cumbersome two-currency system, the government seems be following Raúl Castro’s philosophy of doing it “without haste but without pause.”

The ban on the import or export of CUCs took effect last Friday, after the measure was officially announced on October 23. A sense of urgency marks those passengers who want to unload their convertible pesos before going through the emigration check and boarding their flights.

Lines at airport currency exchanges have grown dramatically. Even at dawn, the wait can be as much as an hour.

The CUC’s decline has been gradual. It began with the closure of currency exchanges. Then shopping malls began allowing customers to pay in CUPs. And in recent weeks the dollar has surged. Blow after blow, the convertible peso is becoming increasingly less relevant. Cubans are already preparing for its ultimate demise.

“At the duty-free shops I can now buy a bottle of rum or a bag of coffee with euros, dollars and even CUPs. But I can no longer pay for them with those little [CUC] bills,” says Genaro, a Cuban with Spanish citizenship who travels frequently to Panama and Mexico to bring goods back for resale. “When I left last week, I was surprised to find they weren’t accepting CUCs in the store at Terminal 3 [in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport].”

“May I give you some of your change in euros and some in dollars?” asked an employee at a cafe near the departure gate. The customer had paid with a ten-euro note and got back five euros and two dollars in change.

Those most affected are the employees who clean bathrooms in the boarding area, hovering around travelers using the facilities in hopes of getting a tip. “Around here no one is giving us CUCs because it’s forbidden. But a tip in euro or dollar coins doesn’t help because we are only allowed to exchange bills.”

The convertible peso (CUC) is no longer one of the payment options for products sold in the departure area at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. (14ymedio)

The convertible peso (CUC) is no longer one of the payment options for products sold in the departure area at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. (14ymedio)Rejection of the CUC can also be seen on the streets. “I only accept Cuban pesos,” reads a sign inside a collectively owned taxi which operates between Brotherhood Park and the suburb of Marianao. “The days of the chavito are numbered and I don’t want to be stuck with money that’s useless,” explains the driver to some disgruntled customers.

But the CUC “has more lives than a cat,” claims a taxi passenger. For a decade the prospect of merging the two currencies became an increasingly important topic in official discourse. “There were times when it seemed the CUC was on its way out but nothing happened. It should never have existed. It has produced more problems than it has solved,” she adds.

In early 2018 the European Union offered to help the island unify its two currencies by sharing its own experience of transitioning to the euro. But months went by and the CUC kept setting the pace of the island’s battered economy. A transition schedule has been in place since 2013 but, so far, it is anyone’s guess as to when it will happen.

Given the multiple indicators signaling the CUC’s end, self-employed workers and Cubans with savings are seeking shelter in the dollar, whose value has risen in the informal currency market to the rate of nearly 1.20 CUC to the dollar. The decrease in American tourism to the Island has been another factor that has led the fall in the currency’s use and a change in its value.

It’s already dead. The only question is when to bury it and how much pain people will feel in their wallets,” says Juan de Marcos, a vendor of sweets and empanadas on bustling Monte Street. Among the most widespread fears, he believes, are that authorities will “eliminate the chavito before the end of the year, causing tremendous confusion” and will “strictly limit the amount that can be exchanged.”

Juan de Marcos only accepts payment in Cuban pesos and says he has gotten rid of all his CUCs. “I have no need for them except to paper my walls or to give them as souvenirs to my grandchildren,” he jokes.


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