Saturday, March 6, 2010
Feb. 24, Chasing Fulas in Habana
A woman who cleans and cooks in a house in Vedado told me today, “it’s the law of the jungle here.” She was referring to the way people chase money, and mostly the all important CUC, called fula, divisa, dolar, peso. Like the Inuit, who apparently have 30 different words for snow, the Cubans have 30 different names for money, not because there is so much of it, but because there is so little of it.
The question I wake up with everyday is how can people survive on their extremely low state salary. And the answer is: they don’t. People must supplement their income by doing odd jobs, some legal some not so legal, receiving remittances from friends and relatives abroad, tips from tourists, or the black market trade. And mostly people rely on extended friend and family networks to get by in lean times.
One of the thriving arenas of entrepreneurial activity in Havana is the rental of rooms to foreigners. The prices range from 25-50 CUC for a legal room, and slightly less for an illegal rental. For those who rent rooms legally, the taxes are quite high. In slightly posh neighborhood of Vedado, it is over 300 per room per month no matter how many days the room is actually rented. At the end of the year, the government taxes the entire amount as income at about 40%. Anytime someone refers a tourist to a “casa particular,” they receive $5 a day. This rate supposedly holds regardless of the rental price. For long-term rentals, the “commission” is 100 CUC a month per room. You can see how lucrative this business can be in a country where the minimum wage is about 10 CUC a month.
Hypothetically, imagine someone arranging the housing for 10 rooms for a group of students. That person would make a whopping 1000 CUC each month for next to no work. Meanwhile, the professor, surgeon, architect, or lawyer earns anywhere from 20- 30 CUC a month. The value of work and commodities have no relation to any standard measure or value. Today I saw a kilo of Provolone cheese that cost 30 CUC (35 USD) in Palco, an upscale supermarket. Meanwhile the pizzas on the street cost 4 Cuban pesos (about 25 US cents). The pass for a multi-day film festival going on now costs 40 US cents for Cubans, but a bottle of olive oil costs 18 USD. The bus costs 40 Cuban cents (about 2 US cents), but an hour of Internet access costs 8-10 US dollars.
The other day, when I changed a 100 CUC note in a bar, I was given change that I later discovered included a counterfeit 20 CUC bill. The paper was a different quality, and the watermark of Martí was missing, but otherwise it was a fairly good fake. Word on the street is that fake bills are being produced in Miami. Is it that Cubans on the island lack the technology or the gumption to counterfeit currency? Some people suggested passing the bill onto someone else, or perhaps going back to the bar and passing it off to them. It seemed like bad karma either way. What would Randy Cohen do? What would Jesus do? Or more appropriately, what would Che do?
It made me think that as long as everyone believed the piece of paper had value, it would keep circulating, and nobody would be the wiser. But once someone decided that the value the bill declared was an empty promise, the whole chain of obligations responsibilities would fall apart. The bank note would be just a piece of paper. The dreams and hopes that the bill could produce would vanish into the air, leaving the holder with the distinct feeling that they had been scammed. This is a sentiment not unheard of on the streets of Havana, especially among young people.
I decided to keep the fake 20 CUC bill as a souvenir of all of the fake promises, the promises made by banks and politicians, the promises made by lawyers and doctors, the everyday promises we make to each other as well. This fake 20 CUC bill takes on a new value now as an objet d’art. This tattered piece of paper is a poem, a flag raised in honor of the false prophets and false profits of people chasing the fula and dreams on a humid and rainy day in Havana in late February.