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Where the dollar has no clout

Last updated on: September 15, 2006 18:35 IST
"Dollar, No! Euro Yes," says Tania Saarez, the receptionist at my hotel in Havana.

If you have seen the magic of the dollar work wonders in other parts of the world, Cuba will open the doors to a new reality. The dollar is not wanted.

If your credit cards are from an American company, they are not accepted with the customary smile. Ditto with traveler's cheques. They are a strict no-no because the Cubans are not sure whether American companies will honour payments that come from Cuba.

Ever since the John F Kennedy administration imposed economic sanctions on Cuba in 1962, the Cubans have learnt to live the hard way.

It is also the reason for their affinity for anything that is not American, like with the Euro.

While the US may be the land of dreams for many, in Cuba, it is synonymous with sanctions and restrictions.

Try getting your dollars exchanged and you will know how much these two countries dislike each other.

On Havana's Malecon beach, a huge poster of George W Bush greets you. It declares he is a terrorist and mass murderer.

The American government refuses to have any trade ties with Cuba and hardly any American goods are available here.

The only American elements you find in Havana are Hollywood, American music and CNN.

Also, if you are carrying dollars, you are taxed more than with other currencies.

"It will be better if you pay in Euros, sir, as it is much cheaper," says Tania. "Otherwise, you have to pay more."

The hotel room, which costs 270 CUC (Cuban currency) for three days, will make you poorer by $315 if you are paying in dollars.

Does this mean the Cuban currency has a value much higher than the dollar?

"How is it?" I argue, "How can the Cuban currency be stronger than the dollar?"

Another hotel staffer, speaking on condition that he would not be identified for this feature, steps up to answer that one. "Our currency is worthless if you go to any other part of the world. But within our country at least, we dictate the terms to the Americans and other foreigners."

Government officials say there is a fear that if more dollars pour in, the Cuban economy could become unstable.

"The Americans want Fidel's government to collapse and want us to become beggars," one official tells us.

Recently, he says, an Italian shipping line introduced a cruise to Cuba. At least 400 Cubans were employed to handle the flow of tourists.

Soon, an American company bought the Italian shipping line and all those who were hired found themselves jobless.

Such incidents, the locals say, only increase their hatred for the "imperialist attitude shown by the American evil empire towards the people of Cuba."

"The shipping company row happened just 15 days ago," says Mario, a waiter at the hotel.

"See how we survive against the might of the Americans. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fight is getting tougher by the day. But we are sure we will sail through in the future too," he says confidently.

Venezuela has taken over from the former Soviet Union as a benefactor that bails Cuba out financially. Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is a big fan of Fidel Castro and sees himself as the heir to Castro's Leftist legacy in the region.

One casualty of the feeble economic situation in Cuba is that the famous Cuban cigars have become very expensive, with the government taxing it heavily to cash in on its demand all over the world. These days, a box of 10 cigars can cost anywhere between 45 to 50 Euros.

"Whatever is in demand," says one Havana resident, "the government hikes the price because that is the only way they can fight this economic blockade. There have been many sanctions but we have managed to fight our way back and will continue to do so against American imperialism."

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Havana, Cuba