Major: Political Science and Spanish
CIEE: Cuban Studies-University of Havana, Fall 2018.
In Cuba, the cost of living can either be extremely cheap, or extremely expensive. But how can that be? Well folks, Cuba has two completely different currencies circulating throughout their economy. They have two different names (though most people refer to both as “pesos,” which makes things even MORE confusing), two very different values, and look somewhat alike (again, confusing).
The first currency is the CUC, often simply called “CUC” or “dólares,” which is deemed the “tourist” currency (or “hard” currency) and is equal to $1 USD. Except, not actually, because there is a tax on converting the dollar here that does not exist with any other currency, making $100 USD actually equal about $87 CUC (oh yeah, and Cubans also use the dollar sign to describe both currencies as well).
The CUC is basically used for anything that is mostly catered towards tourists, or non-Cubans. This includes things like privately owned restaurants, bars, a bus to the beach, some stores, etc. There is no set rule to know what establishment uses what currency, but most also use both. Which again, can be confusing as you need to make sure that if you pay in one currency, and they give you change in the other, that you are getting the right amount of change.
The other currency is called the CUP, and is basically the local currency (or “soft” currency). Other names for it are “peso,” “peso cubano,” and “moneda nacional.” This currency is used for things like transportation, movies, snacks, coffee, etc. Basically, for cheaper things. What the CUP is equivalent to is a little hard to say, as it varies, but it’s roughly $.05 USD. However, 25 CUP does not equal $1.25 CUC or USD, it equals $1.00. Don’t ask me why. And that’s if they are giving you a good conversion rate. The value of CUP to CUC ranges from 23-25 to 1. So basically, if you have 1 CUP on its own you have $.05 CUC, and if you have 5 CUP you have $.025, but if you have 25 CUP, you just have one CUC. Confused yet?
Now, the main way that you can tell the difference between these two currencies is that the CUC has monuments, and the CUP has people on it. Other than that, they look pretty similar. The colors on each are also identical. For example, the $20 bill in CUC is blue, as is the $20 bill in CUP. They also both have bills and coins that equal the same amount, i.e. a $1 coin and a $1 bill. And the coins between the two currencies look so similar that you have to read what they say to tell the difference, or feel them. CUC is heavier than CUP.
I’m sure all of this is seeming just as overwhelming to you as it did to me the first time it was explained, but the only way I finally figured it out was after actually using both currencies (for about two weeks).
Now you may be wondering…have you ever been ripped off? And my answer is no….I think. I had to be very careful my first week or two, and always know how much I should be getting back in either currency before I bought anything. Which was very challenging because a lot of places also don’t post prices. So, I had to ask the price, do the math for each, and then order. The difference between a CUC and a CUP is a lot, so it’s important not to mess it up!
And when I say I haven’t been ripped off, it’s not from the lack of people trying. As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, people know I’m not from here. Which makes me an easy target for upping the price on nearly everything. The first time I bought most things here, I always took a Cuban with me so I would know a fair price to pay. If I didn’t know, I could end up paying up to 10 or 20 times as much for a single item. Something that a lot of restaurants do here is have two different menus. One for tourists, and one for Cubans. I had a Cuban refer me to a restaurant that they said was very good, and very cheap (like $1.50 USD for a meal), and when I arrived they tried to make me pay over $25 CUC (basically USD). Here, tourists are easy targets, especially since you can’t always tell at first what a good price is for something since the cost of living is so much lower. So, buyers beware!
I hope this was some good insight to the dual currency system here in Cuba, and didn’t leave you more confused than when you started reading! It seems confusing, but in practice it gets way easier. The Cuban government has previously stated that they want to merge the two currencies, but there has yet to be any progress. So, for now we will just have to do the math!