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CUBA DIARY: Four pennies to see qualifier
by Mike Woitalla, September 6th, 2008 11:55AM
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Cuba has two sets of currency. That's why I accidentally paid 24 times more for a newspaper than the asking price. And why when I tried to buy a postcard with the peso bill that features Jose Marti's face I was told to use the one on which the 19th century Cuban hero is riding a horse.

The CUC, or convertible peso, is what foreigners use. The CUP, or Cuban peso, is for locals and is the equivalent of four U.S. pennies - which is what the admission price is for Cuba's World Cup against the USA on Saturday.

"It is a symbolic entry fee," said Luis Hernandez, Cuba's soccer federation president.

Besides the low ticket price, the Cuban government is also offering free transportation to encourage a turnout that would fill the 17,000-capacity Pedro Marrero Stadium, which usually attracts a sprinkling of fans for soccer games in a nation where the sport ranks behind baseball, track & field, basketball and volleyball in popularity.

After conversion tax and fees, a CUC peso costs $1.20. What tourists pay at fine restaurants for an entrée is about the same as they would in the United States.

Locals, however, on Havana streets can buy an ice cream for one peso nacional (four U.S. cents), a pizza for six pesos (24 U.S. cents) or a pound of black beans for 12 pesos (48 cents).

Grocery stores have a sparse selection, but one British resident said that the government's permission to allow farmer's markets has made fresh fruit more accessible. He did point out that the oddity of a island without fish markets.

"Funnily enough, Cubans aren't that big on fish," he said.

But hotels and restaurants offer a good variety of seafood while the fish the Cubans do enjoy finds their way into Havana homes from fisherman that line the Malecon, the four-mile seawall and walkway.

"You just have to know someone," said the Brit. "That's how it is with a lot of things."

What is very expensive in Cuba is Internet access, which is restricted by the government and generally available only at the workplace or luxury hotels

An hour online costs about $10. One Cuban resident, a music teacher, told me he goes to a hotel for Internet use when his father in New York sends him money and e-mails greetings back to the USA as quickly as he can.

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