Millions of peoples who read Blasting News are unaware that it was illegal for Cubans, until the mid-90s, to holdany foreign currency - especially the US Dollar. Violating this law was punished as a criminal act.Even today the communist Castro government runs a system of currency control that's even more sophisticated than theone in Venezuela.The control of dollars is, for both regimes, their "anti-imperialist" Philosopher's Stone.

In recent years the state has opened up many "dollar stores" where food, clothing, appliances and morecan be bought for cash dollars. This was quite a turn-around, as only a few years earlier the mere possession of dollars was a crime.

But the state, always short of hard currency,needed to get hold of the dollars coming in from relatives abroad or from tourist tips. So those with dollars are now allowed to buy canned and packaged foods (sometimes even frozen meat), sodas, liquor, shoes, clothing, light bulbs and so on in these state-run shops. This established two classes in a previously almost classless society; those with dollars and those with only Cuban pesos.

Thismeans that the average Cuban citizen (especially those who do not receive money from family in the USA), when he shops in the stores called "Shoping",does it with onlytwo orthree dollars in his wallet.One US dollar equals25 Cuban pesos and the average salary of a worker is 250 pesos a month - about $10.

The prizedgreen paper money, internally called "Fula", can be purchased in the streets of any Cuban city or village by black market"sellers of Fula". But if you do not want to risk buying dollars that way you can do it in exchange offices and government banks, where exchange rates are higher and you do notget real dollars, but paper currency known as CUC.

The dollar aristocracy

Until mid-2001 you could buy products in "dollar stores"and pay with either USD or CUC. However, whatever the source of the money, every ticket will be thoroughly reviewed by the store's cashier. The difference is that one gets a better deal; vendors are very friendly if you pay with American dollars, butinattentive if you hand over CUC.

They also know whether the client is an international tourist, Cuban-American, Cuban-European, Cuban-South American or Cuban resident on the island - that's the social hierarchy, and it decides whether the "Shoping's" employees are very nice or very rude.

At the door to every dollar storethere is a sign which reads: "It is forbidden to enter with bags, coats, raincoats, hats and umbrellas, video or photographic cameras". Once inside one finds security guards for the entire store, who greet every tourist with a "Welcome, sir!".

Welcome to our home!

Onc, a scruffy-looking lady entereda dollar storein Santa Clara. She was black, and smoking a cigar. The old lady headed for theappliances departmentand stopped at a huge refrigerator that shebegan stroking.Soonan employee appeared and told her contemptuously, "Hey!

Do not touch the refrigerator, and go smoke outside!" Then the lady, in a scene straight from a soap opera, reached into her bra and pulled out a roll of dollars. Before the incredulous eyes of the employee she unrolled twenty new$100 bills, while telling him "I want this refrigerator, a television, a washing machine... I want everything right now!"

The man, now conciliatory andcontrite, apologized and gave her several Cohiba cigars. "Lady," he said, "Have you made a good choice! Welcome toour home!".

I will not tell where the money came from right now, or describe the sad "trade" thatenslaves the daughter of the woman. Nor will I relatethe partyin the neighborhood when the lady came home with the huge refrigerator.

Can she now engage in the sale of ice cream? Who knows! That's another dream, another utopia of the survival, day by day, of the Cubanwomencoveted by European white men -German, Italian, French and Spanish -who continue toarrive in Cuba from the Old World with dreams of conquest.

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