South Florida Sun-Sentinel
May 16, 2004

U.S. dollar served as lifeline

Vanessa Bauza

HAVANA · It is no coincidence that in Cuban street slang the word for dollar, fula, is also used to describe someone who is problematic or troublesome.

There is some disagreement over the word's etymological roots, but it is thought to come from an African-Cuban term for the gunpowder used in Santeria religious rituals.

Just over a decade ago, having dollars in your pockets was a crime punishable by jail time. Dollars were therefore dangerous, explosive, something to be handled with care.

In today's Cuba, fulas are almost essential for survival, and that, too, is a problem for many Cubans, who must buy household staples at U.S. dollar prices but on average are paid only the peso equivalent of a $10 salary per month.

Last week, more trouble brewed around the fula when Cuba's government suddenly stopped most sales at so-called dollar stores in response to new Bush administration sanctions designed to stem the flow of dollars to the island and accelerate the demise of President Fidel Castro's communist system.

Only grocery stores remained open. By week's end an initial avalanche of anxious shoppers had dwindled to smaller crowds, which nevertheless kept clerks busy restocking shelves with sugar, rice, cooking oil and other goods.

The Carlos III shopping mall, normally a bustling four-story showcase of conspicuous communist consumption, was eerily quiet. Guards stood at the base of a ramp blocking access to upper levels where boutiques and shops selling furniture, hardware and sporting goods were all shuttered in accordance with the new freeze on sales.

On Neptuno Street, which runs through the rough and tumble neighborhood of Central Havana, some store windows were covered with cardboard or dark drapes, recalling the bygone days of the diplo-tiendas, or diplo-stores, that used to sell luxury items in dollars only to diplomats and foreigners. In the days when dollars where illegal, the stores' merchandise was hidden behind shrouded windows and Cubans would slip their fulas to foreign friends to buy the goods inside.

The dollar stores were created in the mid-1990s as one of several reforms to help capture hard currency. Last year they produced about $950 million in gross revenue, according to the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations, Orlando Requeijo, called the stores' closure a "provisional measure adopted in order to try to make a proper assessment about what is happening" and predicted the stores would soon reopen. A government statement said prices on some goods and fuel would be raised to counteract U.S. proposals aimed at "strangling our development and reducing to a minimum the resources in hard currency that are essential for the necessities of food, medical and educational services."

The current exchange rate of 26 pesos to a dollar will remain stable as well as prices at government-subsidized bodegas and farmers markets. However, the government statement warned that additional measures might be forthcoming and "days of work and sacrifice" lie ahead.

Legalizing the dollar, expanding tourism and initiating other economic reforms was a lifeline to Cuba after the Soviet Union crumbled, but it also created inequalities and what Cubans call the inversion of the "social pyramid." A taxi driver or hotel bartender can make more money in a day than a doctor does in a month.

Today "gluchando el fula" -- "struggling for the fula" -- is a common euphemism used when Cubans want to describe their daily effort to make a few bucks and get by.

Some Cubans are nostalgic for the days of massive Soviet subsidies, when the Cuban peso could buy a beach vacation or a night on the town. Now pesos are mostly used at farmers' markets or at peso stores that sell limited goods like plastic sandals or recycled clothing.

Pesos are also used to pay state subsidized phone service or electrical bills. And they buy subsidized foods available through ration booklets. Monthly rations include six pounds of rice per person, a pound of beans or peas, eight eggs, a pound of chicken and a pound of fish, among other staples. The rations generally last only about 10 days, Cubans say, leaving them to depend on dollar stores, farmers' markets or the black market.

"It's not logical for my money to have so little value," said Rogelio Zurita, a musician and fisherman, as he looked over Havana's port. "The fula causes problems. It causes envy, some people have it others don't."

Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report. Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at

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