The ongoing American embargo has a crippling impact on the Cuban economy. As is the case with most embargos, rather than bring about the overthrow of the government we don't like, it just bolsters that government's case that the USA is evil and that defiance is a matter of national sovereignty -- deserving whatever tactics are available. (And like most embargoes, it's more damaging to the daily lives of people than to the government.)
For now, because of our embargo, US credit cards don't work. So -- for the time being -- for the American traveler, it's cash only. (Europeans and Canadians are free to use local ATMs -- just not Yankees.) Estimate the cash you'll need, and then bring more -- as there are plenty of temptations, surprise expenses, and locals who know what Americans can really afford. This was my major stress point for this vacation, as I underestimated how much cash I'd need and had to scramble to cover expenses to the end. To keep a little extra hard cash, I ended up paying my guide after getting home via Western Union. (Guides are in the tourist economy and charge far more than the local standards. I paid $100 a day -- still a great value.)
Changing money is easy, as government-sanctioned exchange offices are plentiful and rates are strictly regulated. US dollars are nicked for about a 10 percent surcharge, so you'll save a little money if you bring in Canadian dollars or euros. But I had no problem with the 10 percent loss, as I figured it would help the local economy -- as if I were paying a little extra in Cuban taxes. (In fact, Americans who feel personally responsible for the deprivation aggravated by the US embargo can take solace in paying extra expenses -- like being nicked at the bank or otherwise overcharged or scammed -- which happens a lot.)
Locals use national currency (Cuban pesos, CUP), and things are extremely cheap by rich world standards. But American tourists are not generally permitted to get or use CUP, so anything a typical tourist might want is sold in Cuban convertible pesos (a.k.a. CUC, pronounced "cuke," worth about $1) -- and when paying in CUC, things get pricey quick. While there are much cheaper alternatives, rich world tourists who insist on rich world standards generally pay rich world prices: 200 CUC for a hotel room, 10 CUC for a taxi ride, 20 CUC for a dinner. At a bus stop, a truck with a canopy over long, wooden benches unloads people paying nickels for the ride next to a comfortable (if well-worn) modern bus loading up those paying dollars for the same ride. A local worker earns about $30 a month (plus the basics the government provides to all citizens, such as health care, education, and subsidized utilities, housing, and some food). But knowing that an American can earn as much in an hour as they do in a month makes it appealing for the Cuban on the street to charge foreigners heavily inflated prices.
Photo: The Travelphile
Cuban paper money celebrates heroes and great events of their Revolution.
This little streetside eatery caters to locals and has a menu in the local pesos -- 24 to a dollar. A tourist would generally not eat here.