Cuba’s Current Dire Economic Situation 

In the midst of the flurry of recent commentary about the new U.S. policies regarding  Cuba, including this blog’s current exploration of the many facets of those policies, it is easy to ignore or forget Cuba’s very difficult current economic situation, which only will be made worse by these U.S. policies. Here is some information about that economy.[1]

According to the Associated Press, “After two decades of relative stability fueled by cheap Venezuelan oil, shortages of food and medicine have once again become a serious daily problem for millions of Cubans. A plunge in aid from Venezuela, the end of a medical services deal with Brazil and poor performances in sectors including nickel mining, sugar and tourism have left the communist state $1.5 billion in debt to the vendors that supply products ranging from frozen chicken to equipment for grinding grain into flour, according to former Economy Minister José Luis Rodríguez.”

“That economy is afflicted by deep inefficiency and corruption. Many state employees demand bribes to provide services to the public. Others spend only a few hours a day at their jobs, spending the rest of their time doing informal private work or selling supplies stolen from their office, warehouse or factory. Despite a highly educated and generally well-qualified workforce, Cuba’s industrial sector is dilapidated after decades of under-investment. The country produces little of value on the global market besides rum, tobacco and the professionals who earn billions for the government working as doctors, teachers or engineers in friendly third countries.”

“The agricultural sector is in shambles, requiring the country to import most of its food. Economy Minister Alejandro Gil said Saturday that Cuba would spend $5 billion on food and petroleum products this year.”

“Over the last 20 years, many of those billions came from Venezuela’s socialist government, which has deep ties to Cuba’s and sent nearly 100,000 barrels of oil daily for years. With Venezuela’s economic collapse, that has roughly halved, along with deep cutbacks in the economic relationship across the board. And the news has been bad in virtually every other sector of the Cuban economy. Nickel production has dropped from 72,530 metric tons in 2011 to 50,000 last year, according to Rodríguez, the former economics minister. The sugar harvest dropped nearly 44%, to a million tons. The number of tourists grew only 1%, with many coming on cruise ships, a relatively unprofitable type of visitor. Overall GDP growth has been stuck at 1% for the last three years.”

“Meanwhile, under agreements Castro struck to rehabilitate Cuba’s creditworthiness, the country is paying $2 billion in debt service to creditors such as Russia, Japan and the Paris Club.”

“Stores no longer routinely stock eggs, flour, chicken, cooking oil, rice, powdered milk and ground turkey, among other products. These basics disappear for days or weeks. Hours-long lines appear within minutes of trucks showing up with new supplies. Shelves are empty again within hours.”

“No one is starving in Cuba, but the shortages are so severe that ordinary Cubans and the country’s leaders are openly referring to the ‘special period,”’the years of economic devastation and deep suffering that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s Cold War patron.”

“‘It’s not about returning to the harshest phase of the special period of the ’90s,’ Communist Party head Raul Castro said last week. ‘But we always have to be ready for the worst.’”

“Two days later, President Miguel Díaz-Canel said cutbacks were necessary because: ‘This harsh moment demands we set clearly defined priorities in order to not return to the worst moments of the special period.’’”

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[1] Assoc. Press, Shortages Hit Cuba, Raising Fears of New Economic Crisis, N.Y. Times (April 18, 2019).

 

 

Economists Discuss Cuba’s Current Economic and Political Situation

On July 28, Cuba’s “Current Economic and Political Situation” was the opening session of the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, a U.S. non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting “research, publications, and scholarly discussion on the Cuban economy in its broadest sense, including on the social, economic, legal, and environmental aspects of a transition to a free market economy and a democratic society in Cuba.”[1]

The presenters at this session were (1) Joaquín P. Pujol, International Monetary Fund (retired); (2) Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, Cuban Economist, Temas Magazine;[2] and (3) Jorge R. Pińón, Researcher, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, University of Texas at Austin.

Economists’ Comments

Joaquín P. Pujol discussed “Cuba: Great Expectations, but How Real Are They?” Cuba is facing problems in servicing its foreign debt, unifying its unwieldy dual currency system, fixing its decrepit infrastructure and promoting sluggish foreign investment. “The Cuban government now finds itself again in need of foreign financing and they’re not going to get it. In fact, it has turned to Miami” as Cuban relatives and friends have become an important source of funding for small start-up businesses in Cuba.

Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva discussed “Cuba: Economia y Desafios” [Cuba: Economy and Challenges]. Although the government has projected the Cuban economy will grow by 1 percent this year, “I’m not sure it will reach that this year.”

Even though final figures for 2015 haven’t been announced yet, he said Cuba would show a deficit in goods and services trade. And even though tourism is growing briskly, he said taking into account expenditures in the tourism sector, the yield can be disappointing.

Jorge R. Pińón’s subject was “Cuba’s Energy Crisis: Truth or Fiction?” Faced with mounting energy problems, Cuban officials announced strict energy savings measures at state enterprises earlier this month in hopes of avoiding blackouts during the sweltering summer months. Officials have said Cuba will have to cut fuel consumption by 28 percent during the second half of the year.

Cuba produces about 50,000 barrels of crude oil a day and has relied on Venezuela for the other 80,000 to 90,000 daily barrels it needs. But with Venezuela on the ropes economically, continued oil supplies are uncertain. Indeed, over the last six months, he said, total Venezuelan oil production has come dangerously close to dropping below 2 million barrels a day. “In our business that’s catastrophic.”

“As of last week there was enough oil . . . [in Cuba] to keep the lights on,” Piñón said. “June and July deliveries were sufficient.”

Some analysts, looking only at declines in oil arriving in Cuba directly from Venezuela, have predicted an even worse outlook for the island, but Cuba also receives oil from offshore Venezuelan facilities.

Cuba also has been stockpiling oil, and there is an estimated 60-day supply on the island. The question is what happens with Venezuelan deliveries in August and September. “The [economic] hurricane is coming in Venezuela and it’s a Category 5 hurricane. The question is: Will it hit Cuba?”

Already hours have been cut for some state workers, fleets at nonessential enterprises have been parked and some neighborhoods have reported blackouts, drawing comparisons to the 1990s “special period” when after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its generous subsidies, there were severe shortages in Cuba in everything from fuel to food.

Indeed, Raúl Castro in his recent speech to the National Assembly said, “There is speculation and rumors of an imminent collapse of our economy and a return to the acute phase of the special period.” Raúl Castro said during a recent speech to Cuba’s National Assembly. But he said the island was “in better conditions than we were then to face them.”[3]

The surge in Cuban tourism and the growth of private enterprise also is putting more pressure on Cuba’s energy sector. About 68 percent of oil consumption in Cuba is fuel oil for its inefficient electrical power sector. The government has said it will protect the tourism sector and private businesses from cutbacks.

If Venezuelan oil supplies dry up, it’s unlikely Cuba would be able to find another benefactor like Venezuela in Algeria, Angola, Russia, China or any other country, forcing it to go to the world market to buy about $1 billion worth of petroleum annually.

In recent years, Cuba has actually been receiving more oil from Venezuela than it needs and has been selling the excess on the world market as refined petroleum products. But Piñón suggests it would be cheaper and more efficient for Cuba to shut down its refineries and buy gasoline and jet fuel than buying crude and refining it.

Other Gloomy Outlooks [4]

An even gloomier outlook was voiced by Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank employee who is now a professor at Colombia’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Cali. He said, “Under current conditions, [Cuban] gross domestic product will dip into negative territory this year and decline 2.9 per cent in 2017. If relations with Venezuela fall apart completely, GDP could decline 10 per cent.”

Another economic negative is anticipated declines in Cuba’s export of medical services (its foreign medical missions), especially to Algeria, Angola and Brazil. In 2014 such medical services earned Cuba about $8 billion or 40% of its total exports.

Karina Marrón, deputy director of Granma, has warned of possible street protests. “A perfect storm is brewing . . . this phenomenon of a cut in fuel, a cut in energy. This country can’t withstand another ’93, another ’94.”Rapid response brigades in the 1990s were formed to quell social unrest; they are now reportedly on alert.

“Just when we thought we were going forward, everything is slipping away again,” says Havana retiree Miriam Calabasa. “I am worried people are going to decide enough is enough: then what?” A mechanic, Ignacio Perez, stated, “Nothing will get better any time soon; it can only get worse. The roads won’t be paved, schools painted, the rubbish picked up, public transportation improved, and on and on.”

But foreign businesses hope these great economic challenges may speed economic opening. “Venezuela’s problems increase the chance of Cuban reforms. This government only acts when it has to,” says one Spanish investor on the island.

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[1] Whitefield, Economists debate how hard Venezuela economic storm will hit Cuba, InCubaToday (July 28, 2016).

[2] As mentioned in a prior post, Omar Everleny Perez was one of the Cuba’s best-known academics, an expert in developing economies and a consultant for Castro’s government when it launched a series of market-oriented economic reforms in 2011. This last April (three weeks after Obama’s visit to Cuba), he was fired by the University of Havana for allegedly having unauthorized conversations with foreign institutions and informing “North American representatives” about the internal procedures of the university. Perez said he believed he was fired because of his critical writings about the slow pace of economic reforms.

[3] President Castro’s recent speech to the National Assembly was discussed in a prior post. His earlier speech to the Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba also touched on Cuba’s economic problems; this speech was covered in another post.

[4] Frank, Venezuela’s Economic Woes Send a Chill Over Closest Ally Cuba, Fin. Times (July 25, 2016).

 

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