Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Tragedy of the Malecon

Michael Munger took a trip to Cuba, sounds interesting enough.

I traveled to Cuba recently, and got to form my own impressions. I went on an educational exchange program, exempting me from U.S. travel restrictions. With some other American academics, I gave a series of lectures at the Center for the Study of the United States, at the University of Havana. Our hosts were particularly impressed with my color overheads. Being well paid to make the trip, I paid for the overheads myself rather than bill them to Duke—they had cost me about $1.50 per page to produce. Our hosts were professors and were also well paid, earning in some cases more than $20 per month. The idea that someone would pay nearly $30 to make 18 overheads, on his own, amazed them. I later found out that many of the professors also drove taxis on nights and weekends, since they could make a month’s salary in tips in a couple of days.

While you need a visa to get into Cuba, you may as well leave your Mastercard on your dresser at home. Cubans take plastic, but they cannot accept cards issued by U.S. banks (because of the U.S. law). So Americans have to use currency. This is less of a problem than you’d think, because the currency everyone uses is American dollars. In fact, Cuba is one of the most dollarized economies in the world, and has been for more than a decade. If you try to change dollars for pesos, people look at you like you’re crazy, or American. About the only thing pesos will buy, from the “state” stores, is dead flies and old soap powder solidified into bricks.