What we didn’t film in Cuba

Cuba in mid-October was nearly as hot as in July, when we finished shooting ‘Cuba: Living Between Hurricanes‘. We went back to show the almost finished film to our collaborators in Havana and in the small fishing port of Caibarién, where much of our filming was focussed. Our efforts were rewarded by lively discussion and we returned home to make some adjustments in response to the feedback. The film is now finished, and will have its first public screening in Havana in December during the Havana Film Festival.

Going back and forth between these two islands on opposite sides of the Atlantic puts things in both places in perspective. It now transpires, for the first time in my life as a voter, that I shan’t be at home in front of the TV screen on election night. You will probably find me, at 5pm Havana time on election day, searching for a wifi connection to find out what the exit poll says, although I suspect that might not relieve the suspense. The prospects do not look good. Perhaps the situation is so volatile that the opinion polls are getting it wrong, but the sense of excitement around Jeremy Corbyn that animated the 2017 election is lacking. Maybe the best to hope for is that the Tories are denied a majority, because otherwise I might not want to go back home. (I wonder what would happen if they won, but de Pfeffel lost his seat?) 

In Cuba there have been important developments (not to do with the film) in the interval between our visits. As I wrote in a previous post, the country was plunged into a fuel crisis by renewed pressure from Washington. This has now eased a bit as the government took control of the situation. (Pressure from Washington continues through other means.) Then, a few days before we went back with the film came a new and unexpected move, with the announcement that citizens will henceforth be able to open new foreign-currency bank accounts which they can use to purchase imported electro-domestic goods from new state-run shops. (The system uses debit cards, and they have to deposit the dollars or whatever first.) What lies behind this move? 

When we filmed in Caibarién, one of the things we noticed but didn’t really get on camera was the range of local forms of transport. A modest number of cars and vans, intercity buses and trucks, horse-drawn carts, a few motor bikes, pedal taxis, and two types of bicycle: pedal and electric. These electric bikes, we were told, came from Panama; that’s where people went to buy all sorts of electro-domestic goods. Now comes a report that they’re Chinese-made, were first licensed for import in 2013, cost six times less than a petrol-powered bike, and are known as motorinas. They don’t pollute the environment and don’t make a noise – which is paradoxically why I noticed them in the first place, because you see them glide past silently. A couple of enthusiasts’ clubs, using their mobile phones to organise themselves, have been out on the streets rescuing bus passengers stuck because of fuel shortages. The new scheme means people won’t have to go abroad for such purchases, which makes life a bit easier. 

As for the bigger picture, the first thing this tells you is that there are enough people with access to enough dollars, principally by way of remittences from family abroad, to constitute a significant flow of much needed cash. There are no official figures for its value, but according to a report in the Miami Herald, cash remittances from the US soared from $1.45 billion in 2008 to $3.69 billion in 2018. The new provisions are an attempt to catch these ‘street dollars’, as one Cuban economist puts it. But like their counterparts everywhere, Cuban economists have different interpretations of what’s going on, some positive, some negative. Some consider it a short-term measure to deal with a liquidity crisis, some warn that it could also lead to the re-dollarisation of the economy. Others see it as a step towards further measures aimed at reforming the whole system, with the intention of finally abolishing the dual currency system, an aim that was already announced several years ago but so far not acted on.  Meanwhile, as someone joked to me earlier this year, actually Cuba has four currencies: the peso, the convertible peso (introduced in 1994 to deal with an economy in crisis), the dollar – and the black market. Another report says that foreign currency, especially dollars, are in such short supply that merely reserving a sufficient amount for tourists to change their convertible pesos back when they depart results in shortages elsewhere, which leaves the black market to pick up the business.

When I was making Money Puzzles, about money and debt, from the cash in your pocket to the international debt crisis, which we filmed in the UK, Greece, Spain, Belgium and Argentina in 2015, I thought perhaps there should be a chapter on Cuba’s dual currency, but quickly abandoned the idea as far too complex. I’m no economist (that’s why I made a film about money) but it’s obvious that the Cuban monetary system is deeply problematic, weak and vulnerable. Am I being alarmist? One of things I learned making Money Puzzles is that if a country loses control of its currency, the consequences can be dire. When it happened in Argentina at the end of 2001, the country dealt with the chaos by lapsing into barter and using IOUs. I hope that the new Cuban leadership, in the face of the mounting onslaught on the economy from Washington, gets it right. 

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