HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban government officials told a U.S. congressional delegation visiting Havana that this was the year to unify Cuba’s two currencies that were distorting the economy, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Cuba’s government has been working for years on establishing a single monetary system that would unify the two currencies that circulate on the Communist-run island at a variety of fixed exchange rates.
President Raul Castro said in December the reform could no longer be delayed but did not name a date for it.
“We did talk at considerable length about the importance of getting the Cuban currency unified,” Wyden said.
“The Cuban officials repeatedly said this was the year to get it done, to unify the currency.”
Cuba has the peso (CUP), in which most wages are paid and local goods are priced, and the convertible peso (CUC), used in tourism, foreign trade and some stores carrying imported goods.
Wyden was part of a delegation of Democratic U.S. lawmakers to Havana led by long-term advocate for engagement with Cuba, Senator Patrick Leahy.
The delegation, which met Castro on Tuesday, criticized the Republican administration of President Donald Trump for disengaging with Cuba at a crucial moment of transition.
Leahy said Castro was “animated and involved” in their “extremely candid conversation” that touched on bilateral relations as well as climate change and had a “positive outlook”.
Cuba will select a new president in April, after nearly six decades of rule by the Castro brothers.
“Cuba is changing,” said U.S. Representative James McGovern. “Regrettably at this historic moment in Cuban history, U.S. engagement is limited.”
U.S.-Cuban relations have nosedived since Trump became president and rolled back elements of the detente negotiated by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, returning to Cold War-era rhetoric.
Ties have also been severely strained by a series of unexplained illnesses that the United States says have struck diplomatic personnel and their relatives stationed in Cuba.
The Trump administration says “health attacks” caused those illnesses and has blamed Havana for not ensuring the safety of U.S. diplomats although it has stopped short of accusing Cuba of being the perpetrator.
The United States has cut its diplomatic presence in Cuba by more than half last year, warned U.S. citizens not to visit and expelled 17 Cuban diplomats.
The congressional delegation condemned those moves for endangering cooperation on matters from security to science and the arts that was beneficial to both countries and for limiting U.S. reach in Cuba.
“We don’t have a human rights officer here anymore as a result of the cutback in staff,” said McGovern.
McGovern said he was concerned the United States did not appear to have a game plan for moving forward in its relationship with Cuba if the U.S. and Cuban investigations into the diplomats’ illnesses failed to come to a conclusion.
Many previous U.S. congressional visits to the island have included Republicans as well as Democrats.
Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Alistair Bell