Burritos in Havana

Lucy Blumberg, Public Health in Cuba 2014

There’s a new restaurant in town. It’s called El Habanero Burrito, and it’s one of those hole-in-the-wall places that spills out onto the sidewalk of Calle 23, one of the busiest streets in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood where our group is staying. Their bright and colorful signs give diners the history of ceviche and the Mexican revolution, and their menu has everything from burritos and chimichangas to paella, one of the most common items found on Cuban menus, after pizza.

Most importantly, all the prices are listed in Cuban pesos. When we first arrived in Havana, our American dollars were converted not into pesos but into CUCs, or pesos convertibles. Most restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, and many nightclubs list their prices in CUCs. Originally tied to the American dollar (now it’s a little stronger) and created in 1994 in an effort to stimulate the Cuban economy, CUCs signify foreigners and wealth to many, as the conversions from peso to CUC is usually around 25:1. For most Cubans that I have met during my short week here, CUCs also symbolize the inaccessible.

Public sector workers are all paid in pesos, and a comfortable job, such as working at one of Cuba’s premier cultural institutions like Casa de las Americas, pays the equivalent of 15 CUCs a month. Difficult when a jug of water costs 3 CUC, and a bar of soap 2 CUC. There seem to be two separate economies: the foreign influenced and the world of the Cuban peso. And although my CUCs usually always work at places like El Habenero Burrito, the opposite is simply unfeasible. Bridges between the two spheres certainly exist, but certain goods and services are made completely unattainable to a large section of the population. A great deal for me, when a surprisingly good quesadilla costs 35 pesos or 1.40 CUC, but one of the most frustrating complaints on a long list of grievances held by many here in Cuba.