Cuba: Pursuing Halfway Economic Reforms

By Ricardo Torres*

A sample of the 10 or 20 staples available in a “Bodega” depending on the weekday in Havana, Cuba./ Jorge Royan/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

The Cuban government is once again introducing only partial economic reforms – while preparing for the total reform of the monetary system – but its fear of the impact of these and other changes continues to prompt a rhythm of transformation that can actually worsen the contradictions that plague the economy.

  • Officials last July announced a strategy to deal with the current crisis, including reform measures that had long been postponed as well as new initiatives. Since then, the government has authorized the private sector to carry out certain foreign trade operations; introduced 15 adjustments to rules governing state enterprises; loosened regulations governing the distribution of agricultural products to incorporate new actors; and announced that currency reform was imminent. These steps all were taken in the context of deepening shortages and expansion of the use of the dollar in retail sales.
  • COVID‑19 and other exogenous factors have further fueled the deterioration of the Cuban economy, magnifying the need for reforms, but implementation of promised measures has fallen short of expectations, and the structural measures needed to lift the economy from its decades-long lethargy remain undone. Deeper changes, such as the flexibilization of cuentapropismo (self-employment) and approval of private small and medium enterprises remain mired in technicalities and interminable bureaucratic delays.

Overhaul of the monetary system is, without doubt, the measure of greatest potential impact in the short term – and the most complex. Cuban authorities grasp that it is an essential step needed to maximize the power of other changes, but – from a purely technical perspective – Cuba has a lot of work to do before monetary reform will work. After postponing this major change for two decades, only a minimum of the right conditions have been met.

  • When it takes the plunge, the government’s continued control over the productive sectors and distribution of most essential products will give it some ability to control inflation. But it won’t be able to ignore the real costs. People without stable incomes will face the most severe adjustment as higher prices and more widespread shortages will deepen economic uncertainty. That will be a challenge for a government that already faces political discontent, as exemplified by the recent protest in front of the Ministry of Culture. The emphasis on a careful communications strategy regarding impending economic changes is prudent, but delaying implementation of reforms once announced only worsens things. Indeed, as a direct result of perceptions mismanagement, prices are already going up, even before the monetary reform takes off. Lacking the appropriate instruments to manage inflation, authorities are responding by capping prices, which in turn exacerbates scarcity and threatens a vicious cycle.

As always, the Cuban government is giving priority to caution and stability over bold options – working hard to project legitimacy and self-confidence at home and internationally. Lacking direct external support, such as from the international financial institutions, Cuba has few options for reviving its moribund economy without radical changes. It is well established that partial reforms in centrally planned economies only lead to stagnation, external imbalances, and deterioration of macroeconomic indicators. Cuba suffers from all of these at this moment. But less ambitious and carefully managed reform reduces the risks of losing control, of fueling instability, and of diminishing the government’s ability to deal with the certain unforeseen consequences of the changes.

  • U.S. policies have steadily hardened in recent years, feeding Cuban policymakers’ perception of operating under a state of siege and giving them an excuse to divert attention from internal shortcomings while delegitimizing groups that demand political change. The U.S. pressure also harms the private sector, which is very dependent on foreign clients. The cuentapropistas and entrepreneurs can play a central role in the event of serious economic restructuring by creating jobs and forming a new productive fabric that is necessary for the future. Instead of accompanying these private players on their journey toward a potentially genuine transformation, Washington has taken its cue from immigrants of Cuban origin in suffocating the private alternative as well as the state-dominated economy.

December 9, 2020

*Ricardo Torres is a Professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

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