By Juan Carlos Espinosa
Havana, Aug 23 (EFE).- Lazaro kissed and crossed himself with a $100 bill inside a currency exchange bureau in the Cuban capital, a sort of victory gesture that elicited expressions of surprise from the office’s staff.
“I’d been waiting since 3 in the morning,” he told Efe.
Like many Cubans, that 57-year-old was authorized as of Tuesday to purchase foreign currency from the government, including the coveted US greenback.
The new policy, which applies exclusively to natural persons and only to cash transactions, was announced on state television Monday by Economy and Planning Minister Alejandro Gil.
The news spread rapidly, with people descending upon the 37 official exchange offices (known as CADECAs) set up for that purpose.
Lazaro waited his turn at one of the six in Havana and ended up being 37th in line despite arriving there in the wee hours, well before the office opened at 8 am.
The line of people waiting under the hot Havana summer sun stretched to the corner and halfway down a perpendicular street.
Icela, 57, obtained the 51st position in line and began sitting and waiting on the sidewalk after the office raised its curtains. The exchange houses shut for the day at 4 pm.
The new policy sets a per-person transaction limit of $100 a day, or the equivalent amount in another foreign currency.
Icela said that ceiling is too low, though adding she understands the government lacks sufficient hard currency to make more available at this time.
The government has been buying foreign currency since early August at a rate of around 120 Cuban pesos (CUP) per dollar, and on Tuesday also began selling greenbacks at a very similar rate.
Until the start of this month, only state companies and agencies had been legally authorized to carry out these peso-dollar transactions – at a rate of 24 CUP per dollar.
Under the new policy, those entities still have access to dollars at that much more favorable rate.
The president of Cuba’s Central Bank, Marta Sabina Wilson Gonzalez, said on television that the new currency exchange market also has another limit: sales of dollars and other foreign currency by the government will depend on how much of that hard currency it had previously purchased.
“We’ve been preparing this process since last week. We’re satisfied because it’s something people had been wanting,” Sandra Castro Peñalver, deputy director of customer service at a CADECA in Havana, told Efe.
People had all sorts of reasons for acquiring coveted hard currency on Tuesday, although most said they planned to use it “to travel.”
Others like Lazaro said they will deposit their dollars in accounts denominated in Freely Convertible Currency (MLC), a virtual currency that is roughly equivalent in value to a greenback and can only be used to make purchases at certain, well-stocked state stores.
Cuba’s economy minister, however, said Monday night that such deposits are not yet permitted.
In a second stage, natural persons will be able to buy foreign currency at banks and through bank accounts. Plans also are in the works to increase the number of currency exchange offices.