Cuba's announcement that it will phase out its convoluted two-currency system, which has angered housewives and befuddled accountants for decades, has given hope to consumers and economists.
The government's communiqué Tuesday gave few details, but the change should increase the purchasing power of average Cubans, lower prices for tourists, create more-efficient accounting in state enterprises and increase incentives to step up exports, economists said.
Since 1994, Cuba has used two currencies, one the convertible peso (CUC) that is pegged to the U.S. dollar and used for foreign trade, the tourism sector and at stores carrying imported goods, and the other, the Cuban peso (CUP), which is used to pay most salaries and for domestic products. A CUC is worth 24 ordinary pesos.
Cubans have been complaining about the dual currency system since it began.
"It sounds like what people have been asking for, but who knows?" said Havana teacher Elena Martinez. "A liter of cooking oil costs me 3 CUCs. But my salary is 500 pesos a month. How is this going to help me buy that oil?"
Cuba's announcement said the government had approved a "chronology" to gradually unify the two currencies -- but gave no dates -- as part of President Raúl Castro's efforts to allow more market forces in the country's stagnant, Soviet-style economy.
"This is not a measure that by itself resolves all of the current problems of the economy," the statement said, "but its application is indispensable to guaranteeing the re-establishment of the value of the Cuban pesos and its functions as currency."
Any changes will be applied first to enterprises and later to individuals, it said. There will be no "shock therapies," and the government will give advance warning of any devaluation so those "legally" holding CUCs will not be hurt.
State-run enterprises now get just one peso for every dollar's worth of goods exported abroad, and pay only one peso for every dollar's worth of imported supplies they use -- meaning they have few incentives to increase productivity or salaries.
The unification will "create the conditions for an increment in efficiency, a better measurement of economic events and an incentive for the sectors that produce goods and services for export and the substitution of imports," the government statement said.
Archibald Ritter, an economist at Carleton University in Canada, said Cuba must eliminate the two-currency system because it reflects an old system of government-controlled and subsidized prices Castro has been gradually eliminating to improve the economy, long stagnant despite massive subsidies from Venezuela.
"The old peso economy has almost disappeared," he told el Nuevo Herald by telephone from Ottawa. "A single currency also would help the Cuban enterprises to improve their income from exports and compete against imports."
The unified currency also should benefit Cuban consumers, as well as foreign tourists, by making prices now set in CUCs more accessible, Ritter said. "The purchasing power of Cubans in pesos should increase significantly in time," he added.
Market forces should eventually set the value of the reunified currency, perhaps somewhere around 13 to 14 pesos to the dollar, said Ritter, who edits The Cuban Economy blog.
The government has recently experimented with more-favorable exchange rates for state enterprises that export, such as the sugar industry, paying them 10 to 12 pesos for each dollar earned.
But Cuba's announcement acknowledged currency unification will face many difficulties, noting the government will have to update its laws, computerized accounting programs and training for those who handle transactions.
Not listed among the difficulties was the possible rebirth of a black market in currency as Cubans try to hedge against being caught with a disadvantageous currency.
In the past, to get around onerous government regulations and red tape, many Cubans have resorted to illegal businesses or cheat on their taxes -- and hide their true incomes.
"That's why there could be an increase in the value of the U.S. dollars or the European euro within the ... illegal black market with the goal of preserving the surplus money that cannot be justified by its owners," wrote Miami radio commentator Max Lesnik in a column Tuesday.
Miami cafeteria worker Yvonne Medina said she is worried about her son-in-law in Havana. He is keeping thousands of CUCs in cash at home in unreported income from a bed and breakfast favored by European tourists, she said..
"If he keeps them and they are devalued, he loses. If he reports them, he goes to jail," Medina said. "But he's a smart man, and Cubans have been slipping their way around the government for many, many years."
Russians faced a possibly similar situation with their rubles after the collapse of their communist government and centrally controlled economy in 1991.
Foreigners and Russians who had dollars were previously legally required to exchange them for rubles at the official rate of one-to-one -- and the KGB made sure they did. But after the collapse, a dollar could bring 20, 30 or even 50 rubles in the illegal but easily accessed black market.
A three-hour Aeroflot flight within Russia that cost 400 rubles or 400 U.S. dollars before the collapse cost as little as $8 in black-market rubles afterward -- until Aeroflot months later started charging foreigners in dollars. \