On December 15th a New York Times editorial, “Cuba’s Economy at a Crossroads,” called for the U.S. to end its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” This recommendation first was made on October 11th in the Times’ initial editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”
Summary of the Editorial
Now, however, ending the designation is seen as a way the U.S. could assist a struggling Cuban economy. Surprisingly this editorial does not mention ending the U.S. embargo of the island as another, and more important, way the Cuban economy could be aided by the U.S. Instead the Times makes a vague suggestion of the U.S.’ “relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba.”
Most of the editorial is devoted to discussing the many problems of the Cuban economy.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution’s “[c]ommunism brought an ever more anemic and backward economy, one propped up largely by Moscow. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did Cuba’s economy.” After that collapse, Cuba found Venezuela as a “new benefactor” that provided “heavily subsidized oil” to the island, but now that country’s “worsening economic and political crisis” threatens that subsidy.
Low wages and poor prospects have forced many Cubans to leave the island “in recent years in search of a better life.” This could be accelerated by the elimination of the country’s two-currency system, which the government plans to do.
“The country’s birthrate is declining, while its elderly are living longer.” Couple these facts with the exodus of working-age citizens presents Cuba with an enormous demographic challenge.
“The agricultural sector remains stymied by outdated technology and byzantine policies. A foreign investment law Cuba’s National Assembly approved in March has yet to deliver a single deal.”
Cuba’s leaders have adopted various measures to reform the economy, but the “pace [of economic reform] has been halting, with plenty of backtracking from the government’s old guard.”
Yet these reforms have created a “small but growing entrepreneurial class.” All of them “struggle with the [Cuban] bureaucracy, since they are unable to import legally items as basic as mattresses and pillows. Bringing items from the United States is onerous and complicated by American sanctions.” Changes in U.S. policies could make “it easier for Americans to provide start up-capital for independent small businesses. Doing that would empower Cuban-Americans to play a more robust role in the island’s economic transformation. More significantly, it would gradually erode the Cuban government’s ability to blame Washington for the shortcomings of an economy that is failing its citizens largely as a result of its own policies.”
Continuing U.S. antagonism, on the other hand, “is only helping the old guard.”
I concur in the Times’ call for ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” It is an unfounded, stupid, absurd action that is only counter-productive as has been argued in posts in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.
But I do not see ending this policy as the linchpin for the U.S.’ helping the Cuban economy. Instead it is ending the embargo, which the Times on October 11th recommended, but which is not mentioned in the latest editorial.
Moreover, I think the latest editorial understates the troubled state of the Cuban economy even though a prior post expressed optimism about Cuba’s attracting $8.0 billion of foreign investment for the Mariel port’s industrial park now under construction. Further reflection raises the following points that question that optimism:
- First, the Cuban economy by itself is obviously unable to afford to purchase the many commodities that presumably will be unloaded from the new super-container ships that will be able to cross the expanded Panama Canal.
- Second, for the commodities to go elsewhere will require the unloading of the super-container ships at Mariel and then reloading those commodities in smaller container vessels to go to the major countries on the northern and eastern sides of the South American continent: Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. How big are those markets?
- Third, presumably the major Latin American countries with coasts on the Pacific Ocean like Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile will not be markets for commodities transshipped from Mariel.
- Fourth, unless there is U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, the largest potential market for such transshipment, the U.S., presumably would not be importing commodities from the Mariel port.
Similar skepticism about Cuba’s ability to attract foreign investment for other reasons have been voiced by foreign investment experts. The Inter-American Dialogue, which is the leading U.S. center for policy analysis, exchange, and communication on Western Hemisphere affairs, has provided the following four such skeptics.
Matthew Aho, consultant in the corporate practice group of Akerman Senterfitt in New York, said, “While the [Cuban] rhetorical message was positive: ‘Cuba is open for business,’ little has changed to improve Cuba’s general investment climate, and foreign companies there report few changes to their dealings with Cuban counterparts. In fact, many businesses say the same bottlenecks, delays and idiosyncrasies that have long frustrated investors have been exacerbated recently by growing wariness among major banks to handle legitimate Cuba-related transactions.” He added, “While Cuba clearly has potential, most mainstream investors will steer clear until the Cubans define clearer rules of the road and improve their track record with new and existing partners.”
According to José R. Cárdenas, director of Visión Américas in Washington, “Eight billion dollars is a wildly exaggerated figure that Cuba has no chance of ever realizing. [Foreign investors] demand such things as transparency, legal guarantees and predictability, which the Cuban government is incapable of providing. Witness the widely publicized ordeals of Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian and Englishman Stephen Purvis, among others, who wound up in incarcerated in Cuba’s Kafkaesque legal system for unclear reasons. There may as well be a ring of flashing red lights surrounding the island warning foreign investors of the exorbitant risks to doing business in Cuba. . . . Any progressing economy needs the freedom to innovate, take risks and guarantee that one will reap the benefits of their efforts. Cuba, like China, cannot ultimately offer such conditions. As long as the primacy of the Communist Party remains the Cuban lodestar, the country will continue to head into an uncertain future.”
Scott J. Morgenstern, associate professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh also was skeptical. He said, “Cuba must create new opportunities for private employment. Thus, while the reforms are making some investment possible, investors will not find wide-open markets and streamlined bureaucratic procedures. In many areas, there are severe limits concerning where people can invest and the types of businesses they can open. Currency convertibility will also be a critical issue for any business; currently there are two currencies, only one of which is convertible. Foreigners, formally, are only allowed to use the convertible currency, and the official exchange rates distort the currency values. Reforms are promised, but the uncertainty will likely discourage some investors. One other important concern for investors is the size of the Cuban domestic market. The country is attracting several million tourists per year, and many Cubans do receive financial support from abroad, but purchasing power is still limited.”
Carlos A. Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group and Regis HR Group offered these comments. “Cuba’s economic reforms so far have been too little, too late and too timid to result in significant economic performance . . . . [Cuba’s] continuing economic mismanagement, the numerous distortions in Cuba’s economic and political systems, a stubborn ideology, an obtuse and weighty bureaucracy and the fears of change harbored by Cuba’s leaders all play even more heavily in keeping Cuba’s economy from reaching its full potential. Cuban leaders continue to expect ‘silver bullet solutions’ to their economic woes. The port of Mariel is a perfect example. Pinning hopes of an economic recovery on mega-projects or a few foreign investments take attention away from the core distortions and inefficiencies plaguing the entire domestic economy. Fear of change and ideological rigidity can be clearly seen in Cuba’s eight-month-old foreign investment law. Since the law was passed, Cuban authorities still don’t have any significant major investment projects to report. The foreign investment law was a great missed opportunity to really send a message to the world, and specifically to the United States, that Cuba is ready for business. Such a message would have added great momentum to the anti-embargo movement, which is building momentum in the United States and in Miami. Yet, they chose more of the same, leaving arbitrariness, lack of clarity and burdensome regulations.”
Similar skeptical opinions about the Cuban efforts to develop the Mariel port were expressed by Richard Feinberg, the Brookings Institution’s Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin American Initiative. He said, “the industrial sites are not yet fully leveled nor are they hooked up to basic infrastructure! But the problems run much deeper: previous Cuban efforts to launch free trade zones floundered on the requirement of hiring expensive labor through government employment agencies, and the continuing closure of the most logical export market, the nearby [U.S.]. Cuba’s newly revised foreign investment laws appear to allow investors greater flexibility in setting wage scales, but this potentially promising reform, and its impact on labor costs, remains to be fully tested in practice.”
Finally, Miguel Coyula, a retired Cuban government official on a trip to Washington before returning home to the island, stated ““Mariel is the most promoted place in Cuba, with special development zones for investors. But soon it’ll be a year after the opening of Mariel, and there is absolutely nothing. Even the container terminal in Havana was moved to Mariel to give it a sense of activity, but no one will invest there. For one thing, potential foreign investors in Mariel don’t like the fact that they can’t hire employees on their own, but instead must pay a government employment agency in dollars for that labor. The agency, in turn, pays workers in Cuban pesos. That’s because the Castro government wants to avoid creating a class of highly paid Cubans who work for foreign companies, ‘but inequalities are there whether you like it or not.’”