I was gambling in Havana,

I took a little risk.

Send lawyers, guns and money.

Dad, get me out of this.”

Warren Zevon


That’s not quite the way it happened to us. We didn’t need lawyers or guns, and my and my wife’s dads were long dead. But the panic over money echoed in our own least pleasant experience in Cuba: nearly running out of money, with no more in the offering.

When we realized money was going to be a problem, we weren’t in Havana but in Cienfuegos, a pleasant provincial capital on a large bay that penetrates deeply into the heart of the island.

As we arrived in Cienfuegos, we still had several hundred dollars, but our trip was only half over and we knew we had been spending more than the $50 a day I had calculated in advance. So we decided for the first time to use a debit card at one of the few ATMs. We didn’t anticipate any problem since our usually reliable guide book, “The Rough Guide to Cuba,” stated unequivocally, “As of mid-2016 U.S. credit and debit cards are now usable in Cuba.”

The debit card didn’t work. Neither did a credit card. We went to a bank and to a luxury tourist hotel and to a casa de cambio, a money changer. We tried both the debit card and the credit card again and again. Nothing worked. A bank employee finally explained that no U.S. cards worked in Cuba. In growing panic, I tried to call the consular section of the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana but could never get through to a live person.

The Cuban owner of the casa particular where we were staying, Juan Luis, said it was easy to get money wired to you in Cuba from any Western Union office in the U.S.

We called my brother-in-law in Santa Fe, who agreed to wire us $500. But after we walked to the Western Union office in Cienfuegos, they informed us that only Cubans could receive money by this route.

After mulling the problem over and talking it out with Juan Luis, we agreed that the money would be sent to him and he would accompany us to Western Union to receive it. This was a bit risky, for nothing would prevent him from simply taking the money and walking away.

We bought a second phone card, called Ben again and asked him to alter the name of the recipient the $500. He wasn’t sure he could do this as the money had already been deducted from his bank account and sent to Cuba. But he convinced Western Union that the Cuban was our “primo,” our cousin, and they agreed to put the money in his name.

Finally, at Western Union in Cienfuegos, the clerk handed Juan Luis the Cuban currency. He handed it to us and insisted that we count it to make sure it was all there. It was. As we prepared to leave Cuba two weeks later, we even had enough money for presents.

A mural in Central Havana—not far from where Fidel Castro used to hold his mass meetings and from where the Communist Party elite still rules—ridicules Cuba’s crazy economy and nonsensical twin currencies: 2 + 2 = 5. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

In more ways than one, money was always a problem for us in Cuba. The country is unique in the world in having two currencies, each with a full panoply of bills and coins. Both currencies are called pesos, and both use the same $ sign as U.S. money.

One currency, generally called a CUP (Cuban peso, or moneda national, pronounced coop), is used exclusively by most Cubans. They are paid in CUPs and most inexpensive goods are priced in CUPs. The other currency is called a CUC (Cuban convertible peso, or just a convertible, pronounced cooc). Dollars and other foreign money can only be exchanged for CUCs. In the unique case of dollars, the government withholds 13 percent although in theory one CUC equals one dollar.

One CUC can then be exchanged for 24 CUPs with no fee deducted, but the second exchange often has to take place at a different location. Dollars cannot be exchanged directly for CUPs.

Some things, like the Viasul buses that are only for tourists, can only be paid for in CUCs. Other things, like the ubiquitous street pizzas, can only be paid for in CUPs. Many stores accept both currencies. Often when you pay for something in CUCs, you receive a combination of change mixing the two currencies.

I tried to keep CUPs in one pocket and CUCs in another (and dollars in a third), but I often confused the currencies. Even after a month in Cuba the 24-to-1 conversion rate of CUPs to CUCs still sometimes confounded me. Finally, to complete the confusion, in the rapidly spoken Cuban dialect, “P” and “C,” “coop” and “cooc” often sounded alike to us.

There seem to be two rationales for the double currency. One is political, to separate tourists as much as possible from Cubans. Thus there are dual bus systems, most resorts are located on remote, otherwise uninhabited beaches, and a few hotels are reserved only for Cubans. The other rationale is economic, to separate tourists from as much of their money as possible by pricing tourist purchases at basically 24 times what Cubans would pay for the same thing.

Life in Cuba is lived in the slow lane. Moving slowly is a requirement not an option.

Campesinos still mow grass with machetes and plow their vegetable plots with teams of oxen. Cubans are still more likely to walk or ride in a horse-drawn cart than to get in a car. The colectivo trucks many take to work, with their covered tops and railed-in sides, with passengers sometimes standing shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, resemble nothing so much as cattle cars. They stop everywhere, to let people on and off, and take forever to get anywhere.

The trucks are also, as one of our hosts remarked about horse-drawn carts, “más Cubano.”

Everyone has to wait for everything in Cuba, but there are no lines. There is a shortage of everything. Lines are a kind of hidden rationing that enforces the literal rationing of almost all the necessities of life.

They wait for money at banks, for phone and computer cards, for bread and milk. They wait to enter a store; they wait to leave their bags with an employee; they wait to be served at each department in the store; they wait to pay at each department; they wait to have their receipts checked on leaving; they wait to reclaim their bags. Shopping for a tube of toothpaste or a package of crackers is an ordeal.

Even to buy the dietary staple, Moros y Cristianos, white rice and black beans, there are ration cards and lines.

Yet there are no actual lines. At each shop door or pizza window or bank entrance there is an unorganized mob. A newcomer asks who is “el último,” the last one waiting, and somebody will hold up his hand. The newcomer is behind him.

Once many years ago my wife and I and a friend stopped in at an outdoor restaurant in the African bush. We asked the waiter what he had for dinner. Chicken, he said. What else? Rice. So the three of us ordered chicken and rice. And Biere Niger. After a while we saw the waiter and another man racing around the premises in pursuit of a chicken. The chicken must have been unusually elusive because the chase went on and on before it finally ended with a loud squawk. Eventually, a very good chicken dinner was served to us. Ever afterward “chasing the chicken” became a code phrase between my wife and me to describe painfully slow service.

In Varadero, at an open barbecue two blocks from the beach, we saw chicken, pork and fish on the menu. Do you have fresh fish? Yes, but it’s frozen, the boss said with a frown. Undeterred, we ordered it. For a long time we sat in the shade chatting and drinking strong, dark Bucanero beer and waiting for our frozen fish. Eventually some one appeared holding a large whole fish that was dripping wet. It disappeared into the kitchen, to reappear on a platter fried with garlic and herbs. It was one of the tastiest, freshest fish I’ve ever had. My wife winked at me. “Chasing the chicken,” I said with a wide grin.

Even fresh Cuban fish tastes better if flavored with a sense of humor.