Cuba’s confusing dual currency system
Mar 6, 2014 By Guest columnist
By Teresa Sanchez
One of the most confusing aspects of living in contemporary Cuba is
dealing with its monetary system—the country prints two different
The currency for Cubans is the Cuban peso (CUP) and the currency for
tourists is the convertible peso (CUC). CUCs or “kooks” are roughly
equivalent to the dollar, whereas CUPs or pesos are worth roughly 24 to
It took me months to understand where and when it was appropriate to use
one currency or the other, and I had more than my fair share of
embarrassing moments trying to pay with the wrong one (luckily, my Cuban
friends or relatives almost always caught my mistake).
After I’d figured it out, I was often in the company of people visiting
Cuba who felt so unsure of how to pay for goods and services that they
would just hand me their money and say: “I think it will be easier if
you just do all my paying for me.”
Yes, it’s that confusing, especially if you rely on the máquinas, flat
rate taxis, or try to eat at local paladares, privately run restaurants.
Allow me to explain: It’s not as simple as “this is a restaurant in
CUCs” and “that’s a taxi in Cuban pesos.”
In many cases, you can use a mixture of the two currencies to pay a
bill. But CUCs are more valuable, so the basic rule is: CUCs are good
everywhere, and Cuban pesos are usually only good at places meant for
Only once did I have someone turn down my CUCs at a local pharmacy.
In Cuba, Your dentist might just be your taxi driver too!
Although it’s easy for tourists to get their hands on Cuban pesos (they
just need to change their money at a bank) it is hard for Cubans to earn
CUCs, unless they work in the tourist industry.
Cubans who rent out a room in their house or work at a restaurant or bar
for tourists do relatively well for themselves because they have access
to the more valuable currency.
On the other hand, Cubans who only have government-paid jobs earn just a
few hundred pesos a month, a paltry sum.
This is why there are so many stories of doctors who also work as taxi
drivers, dentists who also work as hair dressers, etc.— people need to
have their “on the side” job that pays in CUCs to supplement their
official salary in pesos.
The problem with this whole system, as a distinguished Cuban professor
once told me, is that since the Cuban currency has so little value,
Cubans are left without dignity due to how easily they can be “bought”
This sad reality causes many Cubans to feel like their government treats
them as second-class citizens, in their own country no less.
Another problem that arises from the value of the CUC is that sometimes
Cubans will prioritize their black market job over their official one.
Imagine if you went to a dentist appointment to fix a painful problem
with your tooth, only to get stood up by your dentist because she got a
last minute call to do hair at a quinceañera!
This story and many others like it are sad but true.
Cubans talk in CUC’s
I also noticed that musicians often talked about the money they earned
at gigs in terms of CUCs, even when they were earning Cuban pesos.
For example, if someone earned $400 CUP for a gig, he might say instead
that he earned $16 CUC. When I asked one jazz musician why, he replied:
“Well, it just shows you where our minds are at. And Cuban money ‘es una
mierda’ [is shit].”
This past fall, Cuba announced that it intends to move towards a single
currency, a process that will take at least two years. Many Cubans I
spoke with on the island did not take this news seriously, since the
claim has been made before.
Others are bracing themselves for a potential economic depression.
Whatever change happens, my only hope is that it benefits the Cuban
people, because the current system makes Cuba a fun place for tourists
but a challenging place for the people who actually live there.
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