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COLUMN ONE : Her old money makes her poorer : Rosa has always struggled, but life is even harder under Cuba's dual currency system. Milk and sweet potatoes are luxuries.

May 08, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

HAVANA — Pushed to the fringes by a money-driven social divide, Rosa is what Cubans call a "marginal" person.

She's lived all of her 72 years in a shabby enclave of Marianao, a neighborhood where crude wooden cottages, their rotting boards held together with coats of paint, descend into a gully strewn with refuse and sewage.

Her two-room shack was an early gift of the revolution, back when the idealistic brigades of social levelers were at work lifting the poor and teaching the long-neglected how to read and write and care for their children. Rosa's sturdy metal-framed eyeglasses, a more recent state handout, magnify tired gray eyes that turn to Cuba's three state-run channels for diversion now, having lost the desire to read because of a dearth of books and practice.

Widowed 22 years and left with only a tethered mongrel named Mochito for company, Rosa is among the considerable ranks of Cubans in the country's population of 11.2 million who find themselves lost in poverty as the flow of money from trade, tourism and the black market has broken its once-egalitarian foundation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, November 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Cuba: An article in Section A on May 8, 2008, about Cuba's dual currency system said the nation's convertible peso had been introduced four years earlier. The currency began circulating in 1994, mainly for government purposes, and was issued for wider distribution years later. The article also reported that a Cuban identified as Rosa watched the country's three state-run television channels. Cuba has five state-run television channels.

The problems faced by Rosa and others like her, complicated by factors such as the country's loss of Soviet aid years ago, appear to be getting worse. Cuba's system of two currencies may be at least partly to blame.

Cuba uses the dominant convertible peso known as the CUC -- introduced four years ago to replace the U.S. dollar, which had been circulating for more than a decade -- and the Cuban peso known as moneda nacional.

Those with jobs in hotels, airlines and shops and on the thriving black market earn CUCs, referred to as "the dollar" and worth about 25 times the peso. The peso is the currency given to all state workers and pensioners, which must be converted to CUCs to purchase most goods. The Cuban government retains the peso because it lacks sufficient foreign reserves to back and circulate only CUCs.

The U.S. dollar, which circulated in Cuba from the mid-1990s to late 2004, was removed by then-President Fidel Castro and now is subject to a 10% tax whenever it is converted to CUCs -- in effect a devaluation by the state. The tax is felt most by tourists and the estimated 10% of Cuban households receiving money from relatives abroad.

Those like Rosa, who have neither foreign benefactors nor the vigor to run their own dollar-earning schemes, watch the buying power of their moneda nacional recede each month as more goods become available only for "dollars."

Rosa survives on her late husband's 164-peso monthly pension, about $7, and the ever-shrinking basket of staples issued by the state each month.

"The rice is gone in 10 days, and then only if I'm careful," laments the widow, stout from a diet of bread rolls and rice. "What I have after the electricity is paid I spend on food, nothing else."

Like many Cubans, Rosa won't tell a foreigner her full name for fear of official retribution, although it's difficult to imagine how her circumstances could worsen.

Dressed in a faded blue floral dress worn thin as a hankie, beige socks and flip-flops advertising Cuba, she spends her days washing the concrete-slab floor of her hovel and cooking rice for her two daily meals.

For the first four days of each month, she boils a single cup of coffee at midday from the quarter-pound packet that is her most treasured item in the ration basket. She quickly uses the two cups of beans, the small bottle of cooking oil and the single chicken leg.

Once the ration of rice runs out, she must convert her pesos to CUCs to buy food for the rest of the month. She subsists mostly on rice simmered in bouillon, along with the single white bread roll she can collect each morning from the state bakery at the top of her alley.

Her joy, she says, is having a few precious minutes with one of her eight grandchildren on the rare occasion when her daughter or one of her two sons can take time from their own daily scramble for sustenance to visit. Another reprieve is sweet potatoes, to break the monotony of her meals, an indulgence she affords herself once a week if nothing has come up to divert her meager funds.

She takes her rice from a chipped earthenware bowl as she sits on a lumpy, sheet-covered sofa, the black-and-white TV in the corner switched to one of the three state channels. She pays little attention to which one it is tuned to; often all carry the same official speech or cultural program.

A two-burner gas hot plate on the dented metal counter is the only appliance in the kitchen. A small fridge, dotted with plastic beer-bottle magnets, stands kitty-cornered in the sitting room, unplugged to save on the power bill as there is seldom anything perishable in it. A towel draped across the top displays a collection of white ceramic figurines and a candle. A scrawny calico cat she never bothered to name probes the scrubbed floor in fruitless pursuit of a dropped morsel.

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