I glided into the government-run money exchange office in Old Havana to convert my last Euros to CUC. The guard motioned me to booth #6. Seated behind the poorly lit faux wood desk was a female employee dressed in an exhausted gray suit chatting with her coworker. She took no interest in the fact that I was standing in front of her.
With a big, relaxed Texas grin I said, “Muy buenos días señora, ¿cómo está hoy?”
At this point, she apathetically turned towards me and glanced in my direction.
She didn’t respond, she just stared through my face and to her thoughts.
Being a big fan of common courtesy and actually acknowledging people’s existence, I repeated my friendly greeting, “Pues, ¿cómo le va hoy?”
She continued staring through my soul and maybe to her evening plans.
Vanquished to the fact that my Texas charm wasn’t going to work with this communist female government employee that day, I got straight to the point, “What is the exchange rate between CUCs and Euros?”
She mumbled an exchange rate as she glanced back at her co”chatter”. Not wanting to relive the rejection of college girlfriends and me being needy and insistent on actually being acknowledged, I just turned and ran into the arms of my wife on the warm Cuban sun-drenched pedestrian street outside.
She probably hadn’t realized I had left.
That was my second real interaction with Cuban bureaucracy.
In my mind, this represents the juxtaposition of communism and a Latin American country located in a warm Caribbean climate. The two just don’t mesh.
As I see it, communism doesn’t value the individual, i.e. customer service. From my experience, Latin America will go out of their way to make people feel valued, even if it takes a long time. It may not be efficient, but the majority of the time, you will be done right. With Communism, you work hard, and then your money is repossessed and redistributed by the state. You don’t work at all, you are still fed . . . something. It appears that the only motivation is to work just enough to simply provide for your family.
Cuba deals with two different currencies. The CUC (the Cuban convertible peso) is the official currency for tourists and the CUP (the Cuban peso) is the official currency for Cuban nationals. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar while the CUP is valued sharply less than the CUC. One CUP is worth 3 American cents. Products are quoted in two prices. If you are a tourist, prices are in CUC, while Cubans are quoted prices in CUP. You can exchange American dollars in Cuba, but this is accompanied by a 10% tax. If you swap Euros, there is no such tax.
Cuba is like the kid that didn’t get picked to play ball in elementary school. She subsequently became angry at you and became a rebel. As a teenager, she made some questionable choices and surrounded herself with some shady friends that don’t always get along with your friends. Maybe a few tattoos here, a few piercings there. Now that she has grown up, she realizes it’s probably better she play nicely with her neighbors, as she never knows when she will need other people’s aid. Cuba is now a young adult. And just maybe the U.S. is maturing and letting go of that grudge from five centuries ago.
Cuba’s economy hasn’t had the freedom to trade freely with the United States in over fifty years and the European Union hasn’t been actively involved either. Unlike the warm Caribbean winds, there isn’t a free flow of capital across the island nation. Cuba realized that tourism can serve the economy and ease the pain of the American embargo. Tourism isn’t new to the island, as Europeans, Russians, Canadians have been making trips for years. Yet they haven’t had influence than an influx of American tourists would have on the island. I am not sure that they are quite ready for this inundation neither. Yet that American storm is brewing in the near horizon and will be arriving soon.
Now my first interaction with Cuban bureaucracy was our arrival to José Martí International Airport in Havana.
At Cuban immigration, Nadine, our friend and coworker Katie B. from school and her friend patiently waited in a line while a plain clothes cop walked around craftily inspecting arriving passengers and their baggage. Since I spoke Spanish, the three had me approach the immigration booth first. Nadine also demanded I not get my passport stamped and request that the officer not stamp their passports.
I approached the immigration officer with a big smile on my face. She greeted me with a surly scowl on her face. In my mind, I thought, “Here we go. My first opportunity establishing friendly Cuban/Texan relations, “Muy buenos días señora, ¿cómo está hoy?”
Like a pick into a chunk of ice, she smiled.
“Muy bien gracias. Pasaporte por favor.”
Just like that, I handed over my American passport and kindly asked she not stamp my credentials this time. I might not make the same request next time or even need to.
Just as relations are thawing between the U.S. and Cuba, and rightfully so, our evolving relationships will need a few smiles and ice picks along the way to melt the frigid relations floating between the Caribbean island nation and its’ neighbor to the north.