Of Cuba’s many complications, the one foreigners most frequently grapple with is its dual currency system.
The Casa De Cambio (CADECA), exchanges a dozen foreign currencies for Convertible Units of Currency (CUC), Cuba's "hard'" currency.
$US are not legal tender, but they are pegged about 1:1 before a ten percent penalty is tacked on, making the rate .87 CUC. That's better now than the CAD at .75 that has no penalty.
Foreigners can also change CUCs —at 24 pesos to the CUC —into moneda nacional, the "soft" currency that Cubans use in ordinary life.
Seems straightforward enough, right?
Okay, say you go to the agropecuario. You buy a pineapple that costs ten pesos, or less than half a CUC, and pay with one CUC. Your change, in moneda, is 14 pesos. Then you take your moneda to buy meat, but the butcher charges in CUC. Confused?
Cienfuegos agropecuario, butcher. B. Rumrill 2015
To further muddle matters, Cubans refer to both kinds of money as pesos. There's always a line for three-peso ice cream cones, five-peso pizzas and one-peso cafecitos. But in a tourist zone, if a waiter tells a foreigner that the espresso is one peso, he means one CUC.
Inter-city tourist buses are priced in CUC; regular buses in moneda. But, except in La Habana, foreigners aren't allowed on regular buses. The low fares are for Cubans (or people who can pass as Cubans). Collectivos, the shared taxis that run regular routes in the capital, charge a set moneda rate.
One CUC for espresso or one peso for cafecito? B. Rumrill 2015
So how do you know what you're supposed to pay where?
The steadfast rule is that anything only a foreigner would do—stay at a casa particular, buy beef or luxury items like soap and toothpaste, take a private taxi—is priced in CUC. A taxi particular would only accept CUCs; if he had wanted moneda, he'd have continued his career as a radiologist or engineer.
*An earlier version of this blog appeared in Cruising Compass.