A Chinese in Cuba  

Although the currency exchange counter at the Havana Jose Marti International Airport looks unremarkable, the average traveler might be confused for a few moments at the discovery that there are two Cuban currencies listed in the table of buy-sell rates between Swiss Franc and Euro. One of them is Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), with both the buy rate and the sell rate at 1, and the other is Cuban Peso (CUP), with the buy rate at 25 and sell rate at 24. After a moment of reflection, the traveler would probably realize that CUC's are what he needs to pay for a taxi ride to the hotel, if only the name of CUP doesn't suggest convertibility. He would then thank Fidel Castro for allowing him to convert the unused CUC's to whatever currency he wishes to use in the rest of the world, even though after a few days in Cuba he would be unhappy about the fact that Cubans use CUP's to get much better deals.

But for a Chinese old enough to remember the way things were in China before the economic reform started in 1980's, the word “convertible” sounds familiarly ridiculous. I guess the Chinese should thank Fidel Castro for making us feel less embarrassed---we are not the only ones that have used foreign exchange certificates (FEC) to control and exploit international travelers. (After returning home in Vancouver I discovered that the prestigious list of countries currently using some kind of FEC includes two more countries, Myanmar and North Korea.) The only thing that seems strange from my Chinese perspective is that the buy and sell rates for CUP are also listed. Before the Chinese government finally eliminated the foreign exchange certificates in1995 it was officially illegal for foreigners to use or even possess RMB's (People's Money), so it would not have made any sense to list both FEC and RMB. I still remember being victimized by money-changers in Beijing when I tried to change my US dollars into RMB's in the black market in 1994. My only guess is that the Cuban government is trying to regulate the exchange market of CUP instead of hiring additional police to stop it. But then I would have to assume that the government here knows what it's doing, which is not obvious from the exchange rates of CUP. Before leaving home in Vancouver, I checked a few websites and found that Japense Yen is 20% undervalued relative to other international currencies as implied by the exchange rates through CUC, which made me hopeful that I could make some quick profits at the Havana airport. Upon arriving at the airport, however, my hope was dashed as the exchange rates no longer seemed so out of line, although I couldn't make out why a few currencies, Canadian Dollar and Japanese Yen included, have a lower buy rate than the sell rate, while others including US Dollar, Euro and British Pound have a high buy rate.

There were quite a few other things that looked to me familiarly ridiculous. Ration shops for the locals to exchange coupons for necessities were just as empty as I remember in the pre-reform days of China. Revolutionary slogans painted on the wall and the banners hanging over the street alleys were just ubiquitous. A Chinese old enough to remember Chairman Mao right before he died in 1976 would appreciate Fidel Castro's determination to delay the inevitable economic and political reforms until he dies so as to preserve his legacy of standing up against the American imperialists. And just as Deng Xiaoping morphed to the capitalist cheerleader-in-chief from a revolutionary radical, Cuba's would-be reformer Raul was once nicknamed “Raul the Terrible” for his cold-blooded revolutionary tactics. When our “casa particular” host Frank remarked that Cubans are just waiting for Fidel to go away, I thought they should plan ahead and invite a few retired Chinese economic planners to tell them how to avoid the potholes on the road to capitalism. And in addition to the modern-looking buses and the usual cheap electronics and sneakers they are now buying from China, Cubans should really import a few more cooks to Havana's Barrio Chino!

For all the similarities between today's Cuba and pre-reform China, it is amazing, at least from the perspective of this Chinese, how much cultural influence a small and relative young country like Cuba has had on the world stage. A unique cultural achievement outside of Europe and North America must be Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, which boasts of some eye-catching Egyptian, Greek and Roman pieces, in addition to a large but perhaps uneven collection of Spanish and French paintings. Of course the origin of these collections most likely belongs to the Spanish colonialists who crossed the Atlantic thinking to make Cuba their permanent home and the French who fled the Haiti Revolution in great numbers in the beginning of nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Cubans feel ambitious and confident enough to build a fine arts museum to house the collection and call it “universal” to go along with their own contributions to the world of fine arts, which are nothing to scoff at in their own rights. And outside of the exalted arts of paintings, what marvelous cultural contributions Cubans have made, from salsa dancing and rumba music, to Havana Club and Cohibas!

The Chinese communists came to power in 1949 and, in addition to confiscating private properties, promptly severed all links to the past, which they claim is nothing but national humiliation at the hands of the European, Japanese and American colonialists and imperialists. So the Chinese suffered not only poverty but also a culture-less life. In Cuba, while still busy nationalizing the key industries and driving away the Americans after the Revolution succeeded in 1959, Fidel lured one of their cultural icon, ballerina Alica Alonso, back to Cuba with a gift of $200,000 to fund Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Today her ballet troupe still ranks among the top in the world, and Havaneros continue to enjoy a massive subsidy to see her students perform in the splendidly baroque Gran Teotro---they pay 20 CUP's and we pay 35 CUC's!

Cuba is as poor today as China was before the reform showed results in 1980's, but Cubans certainly don't seem to be suffering as much as the Chinese did back then. Maybe Cubans just know how to enjoy life the way the Chinese will never do. Once Fidel goes away---he would be doing a favor to himself as well to his people if he does now---Cuba has a bright economic future in cultural tourism. The Chinese will continue to be hardworking and high-achieving if and when they are allowed, but Cubans will be proud and fun-loving even if Fidel lived for another 20 years.