HAVANA – The cell phone rings shortly after dawn. “Wake up”, says our contact with the cheerful and plaintive stamp that Cubans always have, “today is the day of the euro, the exchange rate has risen again”. Ernesto is young, he is part of the Millennials. The most active generation on the island of Che and Fidel, far from the Revolución which learned in school books rather than on the street. Like many, he too would like to leave. He always thinks of America. But he prefers to stay: the web has dispelled the myth of the promised land. While waiting it is better to stay and take advantage of the moment. Come up with a job, transform yourself here into what you dreamed of doing elsewhere. The stockbroker, for example. A black market broker.
So off, you get up, bite into a sandwich like Cubans do for breakfast and take a look at the windows of private shops, the old cuentapropistas born as the great reform that opened to private individuals today transformed into Mipimes, an acronym that stands for small and medium-sized enterprises . See new products, study prices, what goes up and what goes down. It is the parallel stock exchange, the compass needle that indicates the course of life, the heart that beats through the veins of Cuba. The one that no one sees but that everyone knows.
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The Wall Street of Havana is located on Calle Neptuno, the artery that crosses Habana Centro, beaten by the colectivos made from vintage cars and by a river of people who invent everything to make ends meet. The crowd concentrates in front of the shops created by the state where the products that are missing in the popular ones are found. Quality products. Dear, but essential. There are people queuing up from the night before. The goods run out quickly, you run the risk that when your turn comes, you will be left empty-handed. Thus families take turns; someone takes the opportunity to sell the place or to pass the shopping list to others. You can pay only by credit card and in foreign currency. The bank will issue it to you where you open a specific euro account. The dollar is now banned. Because it is worth less and because the millions of greenbacks accumulated in the pandemic are used to pay off the investments made to find two anti Covid vaccines.
The euro triumphs, more stable and more available among the remittances that arrive from those who are abroad and send home every month. But here the trap is triggered: the change is the official one. It remained unchanged: 24 pesos for 1 euro. You lose five times: on the road you manage to get up to 110 Cup, the only coin left after the reform that sent the old Cuc, the convertible peso that created disparities between Cubans and foreigners to the attic.
The great reform designed to restore oxygen to an asphyxiated economy has not, however, come to terms with reality. The timing was wrong: in full pandemic, everyone at home, borders closed, without tourism. Reviving GDP proved impossible. No one saw the perfect storm looming on the horizon: a mix of slower-than-expected recovery and the onset of inflation. We lacked the war in Ukraine, with sanctions in Moscow, an energy blockade, a ban on flying over Europe and the US. Vacation in Cuba has become prohibitive. The Russian tourists who had given oxygen and have now disappeared.
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Ernesto is already in full swing. We knock on the grated door overlooking the street. He opens his wife, Yamila. It is she who writes everything down in a notebook while her husband handles the money. A look at the mobile where an app marks the indexes of the moment. You must be lucky. Three days ago it was 80 pesos every euro; this morning he has risen to 120. We go out on the street. We look for one of the many shops where you buy in euros. Files everywhere. Many protest, there are the smart ones who skip the shift. And then there is always the risk of going dry. Throughout Habana Centro, small, self-managed, private shops and bars have sprung up offering the same products. You pay by weight and obviously the prices have tripled. Tens of thousands of people live thanks to this perverse mechanism. The hunt for the euro becomes a necessity. It is the initial investment: I buy at the official rate, I sell at the parallel rate. I’m not getting rich. We feed the family. The libreta nacional, the card that the state guarantees to all, is consumed in ten days. You have to wait your turn, take the set quantity, for a quality that is not always guaranteed.
In the infernal circle that marks your day you rely on what you find. Every girl, even young, already has children. She often she is forced into prostitution. It has always been like this but today it is more widespread. There is a social bomb threatening to explode in Cuba. The government knows this. So far it has curbed the revolt. Selectively. With arrests and convictions. But the discomfort is getting bigger and bigger. People are hungry, as is the case in the poorest part of the world. Including Cuba. Everything is done for food. Today you can only find it if you have foreign currency. Prices have skyrocketed while the average salary remained at 4,000 pesos, 160 euros at the official exchange rate. Which become 17,600 weight in the parallel one. “This is the new Cuba”, Ernesto snorts while he is chatting on his cell phone, “Time is money. Better to insist today, tomorrow the rate may drop.”