Cuba’s Limited Absorptive Capacity Will Slow Normalization*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the U.S. embargo – the main obstacle to expanding U.S.-Cuban economic ties – is relaxed by presidential regulatory action and eventually lifted by Congress, limits on Cuba’s own willingness and ability to conduct trade, absorb investment, utilize information technology, and even accommodate tourists risk putting a brake on the normalization of economic relations.  Five decades of embargo and failed socialist models have rendered key sectors in Cuba ill-equipped to take advantage of the surge in U.S. business interest in the island.  In some areas, the political will to open up and reform is crucial.  These problems do not translate into a rejection of normalization but rather into a slower timeline than many on and off the island would hope for.

The advantages of economic engagement are well known.  Foreign investment will help provide the $8.7 billion Cuba wants for its “Portfolio of Foreign Investment Opportunities” – some 246 projects in energy, tourism, agriculture, and industry.  Havana also wants growth rates to rise to 4-5 percent per year (from an estimated 1.5 percent in 2014), fueled by at least $2 billion in annual foreign investment.  Trade, investment, and tourism are all potentially powerful engines for growth and employment in Cuba.  Private farmers have long out-produced their state competitors and many cooperatives, making them ideal for engagement under current U.S. regulations if the Cuban government facilitates it.  The small private sector, currently employing over a million people, could – with a more supportive infrastructure – provide many more vital goods, services, and employment that the Cuban government years ago admitted it could not provide.  Sectors utilizing Cuba’s specialized and skilled human capital, such as biotechnology, could also benefit quickly and generously from the new U.S. relationship.

Cuba has a lot going for it – such as its deep reserve of potential human capital – but it is also is held back by a variety of problems, many of which are prolonged by political caution.

  • Cuba is updating laws governing investments, property, and labor – a new foreign investment law in March 2014 and related regulations are steps in the new direction – but the multi-year, incremental process has been too slow to keep ahead of burgeoning opportunities. Regulations on how foreign firms select, pay and release Cuban employees are also antiquated.  Paperwork for approving foreign direct investment remains formidable and must pass through multiple levels.  The country lacks the basic institutions necessary to license import and export transactions for beneficiaries outside government ministries.  Much of the bureaucracy – chronically underpaid and, during periods of party dominance, neglected – has yet to grow into a new, more professional role.
  • Unifying Cuba’s two national currencies is absolutely essential but, despite the government’s repeated declarations of intent, it has still not been done. The existence of a different, lower exchange rate for state enterprises creates distortions that will worsen as demand for imports rises.  The financial system, moreover, is too over-burdened, secretive, and lacking in agility, and continued blocks to Cuba’s access to IMF, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funds deny it important breathing room to reform.
  • Cuba lacks an information and communications technology (ICT) framework capable of harnessing and nurturing its human capital and driving growth and efficiency – which will retard progress in a number of priority areas.
  • De-industrialization over the past 25 years has further reduced Cuba’s absorptive capacity. Many key sectors – including textiles, clothing, metals, machinery, transportation equipment, and more – have contracted between 50 and 100 percent.  Much of the infrastructure is dilapidated.  The transportation sector is in dire need of repair and modernization; and the construction industry is inefficient and poorly resourced.

Cuba’s challenges in taking advantage of new opportunities are not insurmountable – with political will and time.  The pace of reform and corresponding expansion of Cuba’s absorptive capacity may be maddeningly slow for many Cubans and Americans alike.  But insofar as the U.S.-Cuba normalization process is irreversible, so too is the conviction in Cuba on the need to “update” the system through reform in order to take advantage of the opportunities it brings.  Cuban national pride and the Communist Party’s fear of losing control could very well be assuaged as the island experiences the benefits of engagement.  Foreigners, especially the United States, who push too hard, too fast, and too haughtily could fail and even delay this aspect of normalization, just as Cubans who move too passively, too slowly, and too skeptically could stymie the process as well.

October 27, 2015

*This blog post is excerpted from the third in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.  Read the full brief here.

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