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.

Cuba: Getting Serious about Reform?

By Ricardo Torres*

Miguel Diaz Canel_Cuba

Cuban President, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez/ Cubadebate/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The economic reform proposals that the Cuban government announced on July 16 sound promising, but they feel very similar to past efforts, and authorities have yet to demonstrate commitment to implement them in a manner that matches today’s serious global and national conditions. The measures come at a time that Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 30 years. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), the country’s imports fell 41 percent in the first five months of 2020 – more than any other country in the region except Venezuela. The commission predicts the island’s gross domestic product will decline 8 percent this year – a conservative estimate in view of its dependence on tourism, remittances (almost all from the United States), and distant trading partners.

  • The announced measures are too general to permit a detailed analysis of their potential impact, but a substantial number of them represent a more flexible interpretation of policies agreed upon during the Seventh Party Congress in 2016. They feature a 180-degree shift of focus on the private sector and cooperatives, which just two years ago the government was taking steps to severely limit. The greater use of the U.S. dollar – an inevitable consequence of the severe balance-of-payments crisis – is also noteworthy.

The political and economic moment calls for measures that are bold enough to change expectations – reduced because of past non-performance – and produce real results. After years of false starts, the government’s willingness to make the reforms a reality remains in question. The biggest doubts deal with how far the authorities will go toward restructuring state enterprises – an unavoidable step for any true transformation. The government faces five immediate challenges to managing the current crisis and ensuring a positive impact from the package of reforms.

  • Convincing domestic and foreign public opinion that this time reform is for real and will be sufficient and permanent. Decisions over the past four years have been erratic, undermining the conceptualización that then-President Raúl Castro announced in 2016 as an “updating” of “the theoretical bases and essential characteristics of the economic and social model.”
  • Creating and consolidating new, agile, and effective mechanisms for decision-making. The country lacks a system for guaranteeing that the best ideas for transformation reach the highest levels of government, are examined, and are adopted in a timely fashion. Ensuring that bureaucrats do not distort the policies is also essential.
  • Avoiding the hidden traps of some measures that have already been tried, which will remind Cubans of the worst moments of the Special Period in the 1990s. The dollarization scheme implemented back then, for example, was complicated by rule changes the government made midstream. Authorities also rejected the necessary restructuring of the enterprise system and public sector. Cuba survived – collapse was avoided – but emerged without a sustainable economic model. Genuine development was not achievable.
  • Achieving a critical mass of changes that become self-reinforcing and overcome trenchant ideological resistance and create enough momentum to refloat the economy. In the 1990s, Cuba benefited from a world economy that was growing – radically different from today. The current situation requires much greater internal efforts.
  • Adding social justice as a priority in the reform package. Although a central talking point in official discourse, it is either totally missing from the new strategy or implemented in ways that are not relevant to the new social structure of the island. Cuba needs a debate about modern social policies to address its multidimensional inequalities.

So far, the big winners in this new scenario are the private sector and cooperatives as well as people who have access to U.S. dollars. But the entrepreneurs face obstacles, such as the requirement that they use government-controlled enterprises in all foreign trade. The idea that the state intends to create its own micro, small, and medium enterprises also detracts from the reform message.

  • Expanded dollarization will further segment the productive sectors, but this time it probably will allow producers to purchase capital goods – an essential step in any process of stimulating production over the long term. The potential impact will be greater if combined with the promised, but often delayed, move toward a sustainable monetary and exchange scheme. The big question remains, however, if the government is serious about making it happen this time.

August 17, 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.

Cuba: Dealing with the Global Pandemic

By Ricardo Torres*

Cuban nurses carrying the Cuban flag

COVID-19 Response: Over 100 Cuban Nurses Arrive Barbados / Flickr / Public Domain

Cuba faces a “perfect storm” – a global health crisis – that poses the latest in a long list of challenges to its government, but a systematic destabilization of the country is highly unlikely, if not remote, for now. The COVID‑19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to the world economy, the devastating effects of which no country has escaped. The Cuban economy is critically dependent on tourism and remittances, two areas that have been deeply affected. Those countries from which visitors and cash flow to Cuba are greatest – the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and China – have been hit hard.

  • The shock is compounded by a drop in Cuba’s average annual growth from 2.7 percent in 2010‑15 to 1.4 percent in 2016‑19. The causes of that decline include the economic crisis in Venezuela; the cancellation of medical services agreements in Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador; the end of the international tourism bonanza; and the effect of new U.S. sanctions. Washington’s actions have complicated trade, foreign investment, and travel. The measures have limited remittances, reduced Cuba’s ability to import fuel, and clamped down on foreign firms operating in Cuba, such as through the first application of Title III of the “Helms-Burton Act.”
  • Another factor has been the disappointing results of Cuba’s internal economic reform, which has been wrapped up in political contradictions and a lack of clarity of its objectives. One costly flaw in these circumstances has been the government’s inability to stimulate industries that provide essential products, particularly food. Combined with the international challenges, including fresh, tough sanctions by the United States, this problem has contributed to a situation in which the Cuban people face growing shortages of all kinds of products, including food, medicines, and fuel.

The government’s response to COVID‑19 has evolved from caution to the gradual imposition of increasingly radical measures.

  • In mounting a medical response, the centralization and verticality of the Cuban model allows authorities to adapt plans and resources in the face of new priorities. The Cuban health system, for example, is known for its national coverage and access to resources (including 848 doctors and 5.5 beds per 100,000 inhabitants), and it has experience dealing with epidemics. Decisions have been taken around the concept of epidemiological vigilance, including closing the borders on April 2 and bolstering research, although the inability to carry out massive testing has been a weakness. The government has also guaranteed workers’ income and employment, except for parts of the private sector and informal economy, and expanded food-rationing to a broader list of products.

The economic impact in the medium term should not be underestimated. GDP growth will enter negative territory. Financial problems will surely deepen. Shortages of an array of basic necessities are going to worsen. Restructuring of foreign debt is necessary.

  • Internally, Cuban policymakers are going to have to take into consideration the new socioeconomic structure of the country and the need to focus support where it’s needed most. The crisis provides a good opportunity to give substance to longstanding rhetoric about improving agricultural production. Greater flexibility in regulating private businesses is also an obvious policy option. Accelerating and broadening digital access throughout society should also be a priority under the wisdom of “not putting off till tomorrow what can be done today.”

The Cuban Government is not presiding over a terminal crisis, however. Even considering the system’s weaknesses before the pandemic, this perfect storm is not its responsibility. For the medical challenge, Cuba is prepared and probably will overcome some of the criticisms made abroad about its medical missions, as brigades of Cuban doctors deploy to 19 countries. The country’s biotechnology industry also stands to make advances. It’s too early to say whether Cuba will be able to profit from these opportunities, but Havana may benefit from its willingness and ability to be a responsible international partner.

  • Washington’s policies also put it in sharp contrast with China, which continues to provide help during these difficult times. If the pandemic has made anything clear in Cubans’ minds, it’s that the United States is disqualifying itself as a positive force for change on the island.

April 17, 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.

 

Cuba: Facing a Tough New Year

By Eric Hershberg, William M. LeoGrande, and Max Paul Friedman*

Intensified U.S. sanctions and the crisis in Venezuela are forcing renewed belt-tightening in Cuba and hindering the government’s ability to undertake even its modest economic reform agenda, but the country is not entering a new “special period” and significant instability does not appear likely in 2020 despite some increased social tensions. The big losers from U.S. sanctions are the small private-sector businesses — B&Bs, restaurants, and entrepreneurs — providing services to U.S. visitors, an estimated 638,000 a year before the Trump Administration clamped down over the course of 2019. But the government has also been forced to make major cutbacks.

  • To cope with fuel shortages caused by U.S. sanctions against oil companies shipping Venezuelan oil to Cuba, the government reduced production in many factories to maintain energy supplies to consumers and avoid overly straining the power grid. Public transportation also faced drastic cuts, largely because of a lack of diesel fuel needed to distribute gasoline. Only some of the affected bus routes have since been restored.
  • Shortages of an array of necessities — from bread, coffee, meat, and many basic medicines to all energy products — have been severe and show no sign of abating as the economy sputters. Domestic demand for products that Cuba can produce, including electric bicycles and appliances, is strong, but financing is too tight. The government is phasing out the convertible peso (CUC) that it artificially pegged to the dollar and is establishing new hard-currency stores to capture dollars now flowing abroad as Cubans buy both consumer goods and inputs for domestic private enterprises in Panama and elsewhere at the rate of $25 million per month — hard currency the government desperately needs. Those dollars the government captures will supposedly be made available for domestic producers to import essential inputs. Cubans expect the CUC to become worthless paper sooner as some vendors now accept only foreign currency, and the street value of a dollar is now more than 1.15 CUC (compared to the official rate of 0.87 CUC).

One leading economist deemed 2019 to have been the worst year since 1993 — with growth essentially flat — and said the forecast for 2020 looks no better. State-owned enterprises are failing to perform efficiently despite years of rhetoric about rationalization and improvements. Foreign purchases, long hindered by a lack of hard currency, have been made even harder by the U.S. sanctions, as suppliers increasingly fear Washington’s scrutiny. The government has not responded to growing pressures by accelerating the sorts of meaningful reforms that have long been needed to increase production and efficiency.

  • Its strategy focuses on import substitution, according to a senior economic official, to reduce the need for hard currency by producing more consumer goods and inputs domestically. The tourism sector has boomed over the past decade, but more than half the hard currency revenue it generates goes to imported inputs. Cuba spends some $2 billion importing food while more than half its arable land lies fallow.
  • Financing investment needed to make import substitution a viable strategy is difficult. Cuban government officials speak of doubling domestic investment, now only 11-12 percent of GDP, but without increasing indebtedness — a huge task for such an inefficient economy. In addition to encouraging tourism enterprises to substitute local for imported inputs, the government hopes to improve conditions during 2020 by implementing a decades-old proposal to establish a closed dollar-based system in which companies retain a portion of revenues to finance investment and imports.
  • Foreign direct investment is the other potential but a largely elusive source for capital. Government fact sheets continue to emphasize the importance of the Mariel Special Export Zone, which has some 50 promised users, $2.5 billion in promised activity, and 7,000 promised jobs. Actual activity in the Zone, however, falls far short of that. The Trump administration’s activation of Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (“Helms-Burton”), which allows the previous owners of property expropriated after the 1959 revolution to sue anyone benefiting from it, has made new investors hesitant.

While the economic outlook looks difficult indeed, there are few signs that the government is anxious about social frustrations and tensions becoming a serious challenge, much less an existential threat. The government continues to resist obvious (and relatively easy) reforms, such as allowing cuentapropistas licenses for multiple lines of business. Allowing the CUC to disappear gradually may be a precursor to addressing the years-old distortions caused by the country’s multiple currencies and exchange rates, but there’s still no sign that the government is ready to implement a unified peso. Havana apparently calculates that the country is hardly the pressure-cooker that U.S. policy aims to create by, as U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo reportedly told EU diplomats recently, “starving” the population so as to bring about a regime collapse.

  • Young independent journalists say that public organizing via social media is at times successfully pressing the government, which they deem largely ignorant of popular concerns, to revoke unpopular measures. Yet growing access to the internet may also serve to distract youth from more threatening forms of organizing. Giving people a sense of input on issues like the arts, animal rights, and sexual identity that do not threaten core government policies and processes is probably taking an edge off discontent.
  • The new year is likely to be difficult, particularly as the Venezuela crisis drags on, but, as observers say, “Cuba does ‘bad’ pretty well.” Hope is never a plan, but virtually everyone in Havana expresses hope that U.S. elections in November might bring back a pro-engagement U.S. policy that helps grow Cuba’s private sector and relieving pressure on sources of financing for Cuba to move ahead with its modest reform strategy.

January 7, 2020

*AU Professors Hershberg, LeoGrande, and Friedman traveled to Cuba in December.

U.S.- Latin America: Policy Shifts Ahead?

By Fulton Armstrong

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks to reporters on events occurring in Venezuela Tuesday, April 30, 2019, outside the West Wing entrance of the White House.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks to reporters on Venezuela in April 2019/ Tia Dufour/ White House/ Wikimedia Commons

The sudden departure of President Trump’s outspoken national security advisor, John Bolton, is unlikely to result in changes in U.S. policy objectives in Latin America but could lead to the same sort of swings in tactics – harder or softer – that characterize other U.S. policies around the world. The continued weakness of the State Department’s input, aggravated by erratic staffing in its Latin America offices, further suggests that it will not play a balancing role.

Trump and Bolton’s statements over their 17 months together indicated no disagreement on objectives and tactics in Latin America, including immigration, close relations with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, efforts to rescue the Argentine economy, and Venezuela. They had identical positions on the waves of sanctions against Venezuela, U.S. commitment to remove President Nicolás Maduro, and unstinting support for National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Presidency, including backing Guaidó’s flopped coup in April. They both also explicitly linked taking down Maduro with achieving regime change in Cuba.

  • Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, widely seen as his top referent on Latin America and related political matters, are trying to signal that after Bolton’s departure the Administration is going to turn up the heat on Venezuela and Cuba. In apparently coordinated tweets between them, Trump said, “In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” This complements rumors that Trump has been frustrated that Bolton’s strategy in Venezuela, particularly the fact that Maduro supporters had tricked him into false confidence in Guaidó’s failed coup, has not removed Maduro from office. (It is unclear if one of his concerns is that U.S. sanctions are worsening the refugee flow challenging neighboring countries.)

Most Washington-based observers believe, however, that Latin America is the least important of the five issues that, according to press, caused friction between Trump and Bolton. The President’s personal involvement has been much greater with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in efforts to achieve regime change in Iran, in talks with the Taliban for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in maintaining good relations with Moscow despite the complex situation in Ukraine.

  • Trump has appeared to lack deep interest in Latin America policy and sees it as primarily a domestic political tool for consolidating his base – among anti-Maduro and anti-Cuba voters in Florida, an important state in his re-election calculus, and among supporters for his wall on the Mexico border and other anti-migration measures. Long ago he essentially handed the Venezuela and Cuba issues over to Senator Rubio, and the National Security Council brought a Rubio ally, lobbyist, and blogger, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to the White House to work the issue. They appointed Elliot Abrams, despite baggage from the Iran-Contra era and the Bush-Cheney Administration, to handle diplomatic operations on Venezuela for them.
  • By all appearances, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has subordinated his own Latin America team to the White House operators, essentially stifling a traditionally important voice at the policy table. When Assistant Secretary Kimberly Breier resigned last month, only nine months after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she said it was to spend more time with her family, but her bureau’s marginalization left questions about her policy impact. Her acting successor, veteran State Department lawyer Michael Kozak, who has spent much of the last 10 years managing “democracy promotion” programs in Latin America and elsewhere, is not likely to challenge Rubio and Claver-Carone unless Pompeo takes the lead, which he shows no sign of doing.

The new national security advisor will have more urgent problems to deal with than wrestling with Rubio, Claver-Carone, and their allies. Indeed, Trump may even give them a green light to escalate provocations even further. For example, Administration allegations that Colombian guerrillas and narcotics-traffickers receive crucial aid from Caracas – buttressed by invocation of the Rio Treaty last week – are logical ways of laying the political groundwork for some sort of military action, perhaps jointly with Colombia, against alleged camps in hopes that the Venezuelan military finally tells Maduro that it’s time to go. 

  • President Trump’s trademark approach to thorny problems has been unpredictability and experimentation with wide-ranging alternatives, including face-to-face negotiations and deal-making with opponents that pose much tougher challenges to U.S. interests than do Venezuela and Cuba. Such flexibility notwithstanding, with the U.S. elections just 14 months off, Trump’s electoral calculus strongly suggests he’s going to stay the course with policies toward Latin America that he’s told are popular in South Florida.

September 17, 2019

U.S.-Cuba: You Can’t Get There from Here

By William M. LeoGrande

ventas en cuba

Small Business in Cuba / Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / https://www.flickr.com/photos/albertoyoan/8775169259

U.S. President Donald Trump’s new economic sanctions against Cuba, imposed earlier this week, include limits on travel and family remittances aimed at crippling the Cuban economy and causing regime collapse, but the biggest losers are the small entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists who have been agents of change on the island. Senior administration officials, foremost among them National Security Adviser John Bolton, have been explicit that the goal is to rid the hemisphere of “socialism,” starting with the government of Venezuela and proceeding to Cuba and Nicaragua. Bolton previewed the new sanctions in Miami on April 17  – the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Now we know the details.

  • Remittances, which were unlimited under President Barack Obama, will be limited to $1,000 per recipient household every quarter – enough to supplement a family’s meager state salary, but not enough to start and sustain a business. The new limits will hit Cuba’s nascent private sector hardest because funds from the United States were the start-up capital for many small businesses, and their supply chains reach back through Miami.
  • Trump has eliminated the people-to-people category of educational travel, which Bolton denounced as “veiled tourism.” This category covered educational tours not involving academic credit – tours run by organizations like National Geographic, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Smithsonian. Authorized originally by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, people-to-people travel was eliminated by President George W. Bush in 2003, in response to complaints from conservative Cuban-Americans in South Florida. President Obama restored it in 2011. Trump, like Bush, appears to be pandering to the Cuban American Republican base in Miami in the run-up to the next presidential election. Last year, 638,000 U.S. residents who were not Cuban Americans traveled to Cuba – at least two-thirds if not more under a people-to-people license, mostly on cruises, which Trump also banned. These new travel restrictions will cost Cuba upwards of $300 million dollars annually in lost revenue.

Cuba’s private sector will suffer disproportionately from these measures. In addition to losing start-up capital and access to supplies, these businesses will lose their principal client base. U.S. travelers arriving by air are more likely stay in Airbnb rentals and eat at private restaurants than the Canadians and Europeans who come on tourist vacation packages and stay at the big hotels on the beach. Trump’s first restriction on people-to-people travel in 2017, banning individuals from designing their own people-to-people trips, caused a 44 percent slump in private B&B occupancy. The new restrictions will wipe out many of them.

  • U.S. business and people will take a hit too. In 2017, Engage Cuba, a coalition of business groups favoring trade, released an analysis concluding that U.S. visitors to Cuba generated $1.65 billion in revenue annually for U.S. businesses and accounted for more than 12,000 U.S. jobs in the hospitality sector, most of which would be lost if Trump cut off travel. Most importantly, the new restrictions deprive most U.S. citizens of their constitutional right to travel, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1958 in Kent v Dulles. The Court said the right should be limited only in cases of dire threats to national security.

As usual, tougher economic sanctions will make life tougher for ordinary Cubans, but sanctions won’t bring down the Cuban government, which has survived the U.S. embargo for half a century. Economic hardship and U.S. hostility will heighten Cuban leaders’ sense of being besieged, making them less likely to reform the economy or allow any expansion of free expression. Economic, professional, educational, and cultural ties between people in the United States and their counterparts in Cuba will be harder to sustain, impoverishing both. Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who could be an engine for economic transformation and who Trump claims to support, will suffer from the loss of business from American travelers. U.S. travel companies will lose access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing tourism markets in the Caribbean. But maybe, just maybe, this latest assault on the liberties of Americans by the Trump administration will motivate Congress to finally pass a “Freedom to Travel” bill, assuring that no president can take away the constitutional right to travel just because he thinks it will help him win re-election.  

June 6, 2019

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.

Cuba: U.S. Sanctions Underscore the Need for Meaningful Reform

By Ricardo Torres*

Cruise ship at Havana Harbor in April 2018/ kuhnmi/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Washington’s new measures to tighten the embargo will hurt the Cuban people, especially the private sector, but Havana has little choice but to double-down on reform and make its economy more efficient and independent. Holding Cuba responsible for Venezuela’s resistance to U.S. regime-change policies in that country, and for alleged “acoustic” incidents harming U.S. diplomats in Havana, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton last week announced steps that, taken together, amount to almost full reversal of the engagement that former Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced four and a half years ago, in December 2014.

  • Among key measures is full enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton law of 1996 – ending waivers that three predecessor administrations had invoked – and allowing even Cuban-Americans who were not U.S. citizens at the time to sue companies involved in business dealings (“trafficking”) involving properties nationalized by the Cuban government since 1959. The U.S. officials have also pledged regulations clamping down on remittances to Cuba (which had already been regulated to ensure that senior government officials did not receive them); prohibiting dollar transactions through third-party financial institutions; and stopping “non-family” travel to the island. Details will not be known until the regulations are published, a process that usually takes several months.

The U.S. actions come at a delicate moment for the Cuban economy, will certainly worsen the country’s balance-of-payments situation by increasing the cost of international transactions, and will directly affect key sectors that depend on tourism and remittances.

  • Among the hardest hit will be Cubans engaged in private businesses, who depend on remittances for investment and foreign visitors as customers. At the end of 2018, a little more than 1.4 million formal jobs were in the non-state sector, including the self-employed (cuentapropistas), members of cooperatives, and private farmers – almost equal to the 1.6 million in state enterprises. Many others work in the informal sector to supplement their incomes.
  • The perceived increased risk posed by the U.S. measures will also cause foreign companies to postpone or cancel entirely plans to invest in Cuba.

Trump Administration efforts last year to reverse Obama-era policies, coupled with other challenges – including the weakening of the Venezuelan economy and the shift of a previously key partner like Brazil – are taking their toll on the Cuban economy. In addition, an accumulation of important internal problems has made the country vulnerable. Austerity measures announced as early as in summer 2016, including a reduction in imports and energy rationing in the public sector, have already hurt. Even in the context of a good international environment and improving ties with the United States, the Cuban economy grew slowly over the past decade. The ups and downs in policies dealing with the private sector, agriculture, and in the derailed process of reform in the dominant state sector – as well as setbacks in efforts to attract foreign investment – underscore the economy’s deep structural flaws and damage caused by deficient responses and successive delays.

In these changing times, appeals to “Resist!” are no longer enough. Aggravated by the U.S. measures, the expected worsening of the economic situation will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable of the Cuban people. The external problems could be the argument that the Cuban government needs to push aside obstacles to domestic economic reform. The country has immense internal potential but has been held hostage to the ideological purism that many profess.

  • The government of President Díaz-Canel has already announced new measures to stimulate the development of state enterprises, cooperatives, and the private sector itself. Foreign dependence has proven to be disastrous for Cuba. No foreign power is going to come to resolve the flaws of the Cuban model. Broadening and deepening reform, liberating the domestic productive powers, seems to be the only possible way forward in addition to rethinking international alliances and embracing markets more broadly.

April 23, 2019

*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.

Venezuela: Washington Trying to Tighten the Noose

By Eric Hershberg

Two side by side images of Venezuela's territory comparing the electrical grid on March 7 and March 12, after six days of blackout

Satellite images of Venezuela. Left image taken on March 7, 2019; right image taken on March 12, 2019 during a blackout / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro completes 11 weeks in office since Washington and dozens of other countries recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as “interim president,” the Trump Administration is ratcheting up the pressure. U.S. officials’ rhetoric and actions against both Venezuela and Cuba, which the State Department says is “propping up the former [Maduro] regime,” are escalating. A “senior official” told reporters last Friday that new sanctions would “tighten the noose of financial strangulation of Maduro and his cronies,” while U.S. Vice President Pence, speaking in Houston, reiterated that “all options are on the table.” Pence further focused U.S. regime-change policy on Cuba, citing Guaidó’s wife as the source of evidence that “the only way [Maduro] clings to power is with the help he receives from Communist Cuba.” Pence also said six U.S. businessmen arrested on corruption charges last year “are being held hostage by the Maduro regime,” suggesting another pretext for aggressive action.

  • Last Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department designated 34 vessels owned by PDVSA and two owned by non-Venezuelan companies for sanctions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the move was to block Venezuelan oil exports and cut off supplies to Cuba under the two countries’ “oil-for-repression schemes.”.
  • Press reports on Venezuela’s oil shipments have varied, but Thomson Reuters specialists have reported that Venezuelan oil shipments, after a 40 percent drop in February, remained basically steady in March despite the crisis and electricity disruptions at oil facilities. PDVSA was shipping almost 1 million barrels a day in March, with the bulk going to India, China, and Russia. Reuters calculated that some 65,000 barrels a day went to Cuba.

Electricity blackouts and resulting water shortages have continued for three weeks. While conceivably the result of serious neglect of infrastructural maintenance by Maduro’s Administration, the outages have all the markings of covert sabotage operations. Venezuela has suffered from short power outages many times in recent years, but the latest blackouts have been by far the most extensive, longest, and most damaging. U.S. officials have denied any U.S. role, direct or indirect, in the blackouts. On March 8, Special Representative Elliott Abrams said, “So the United States did not cause those [electricity] problems, the international community did not; the regime caused those problems.”

The U.S. sanctions and related operations are having an impact, but Washington’s initial estimations of Maduro’s strength and the timeline for his collapse were not realistic. Meanwhile, denials of involvement in the blackouts are hard to take at face value. The phrase “all options” surely includes covert action. Turning out the lights is a common disruption tactic, and extraordinary neglect in system maintenance makes the power grid a particularly tempting target in Venezuela. Sabotage and disinformation operations have long been core components of American covert operations in the hemisphere. They were essential tools in successful efforts to depose Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954 and Chilean President Allende in 1973. The CIA has also formed armed groups, such as the Bay of Pigs force in 1961 and the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s (where CIA also mined Corinto harbor). These historical precedents may provide some indications of next steps in the administration’s campaign to bring about regime change in Caracas.

April 11, 2019

Cuba: Opening Pandora’s Box?

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuba constitutional reform

Reading about the constitutional reform project in Cuba. / Twitter: @SoberonGuzman

The constitutional reform process that the Cuban government is undertaking — controlled and cautious — and adjustments to one or two regressive regulations may be setting in motion political dynamics that will fuel pressure for more change.  After months of consulta popular, the constitutional drafting committee is preparing a new draft for consideration by the National Assembly during a two-day session beginning December 21.  Current plans are still for it to be subjected to a referendum vote in February 2019.

  • Skepticism about the real impact of the consulta, which reportedly resulted in hundreds of thousands of written comments, is deep, but most non-governmental observers believe that participation was so strong that the popular input had an impact. Debate about Article 68 — establishing the constitutional right of same-sex marriage — was most obvious.  Evangelical churches, with Catholic support, led the push against it, organized demonstrations, and circulated posters easily visible on Havana streets.  Local observers report that government officials were surprised by the mobilization and, fearing the article will spark abstention from the referendum or votes rejecting the whole constitution, now face the challenge of balancing the forces for and against it.
  • Debates are reportedly also taking place, including among senior officials, about the role of the Communist Party. Observers say that the party has accepted its subordination to the constitution and laws of the country, but — while it will remain the “fuerza dirigente superior de la sociedad y del Estado” — there reportedly is no consensus on its exact role and relationship with the government.  Another controversial provision deals with vague limits on the “concentration of property” versus the “concentration of wealth.”

The government’s handling of opposition to regulations announced last summer (but scheduled to take effect this month) has also left opponents — justifiably skeptical about any government signals of compromise — wondering where process and policy are headed.

  • The day before a regulation tightening controls on private sector businesses was to be implemented on December 7, the government rescinded several harmful provisions. Under the original version, Cubans could hold only one business license, and private restaurants could have no more than 50 chairs, but both measures were overturned as a result of private sector complaints, according to Labor and Social Security Minister Margarita González.  In a speech to law students, President Díaz-Canel reportedly emphasized the importance of cuentapropista input as well.  There were also hints of a softening of a regulation increasing government control on artists — requiring their credentials to hold shows be validated by a government office — when the government delayed implementation and said it was subject to further elaboration.  With both regulations, officials tried to appear to be listening to the strong opposition they faced.
  • The government has left in place, however, new controls on private transportation operators, particularly the ancient private vehicles (almendrones) running on established routes where public buses are lacking. The government claimed drivers were overcharging, not paying taxes, and not maintaining their cars adequately.  The measure itself, as well as many private drivers’ work slowdown and surrender of their special transport licenses in protest, have significantly hindered Havana citizens’ ability to get around the city.  The government has announced that it is importing several hundred microbuses to cover the routes but has given no sign of compromise on the regulation.

The road to reform in Cuba is littered with unfulfilled expectations; the skepticism of common folk affected by the revised constitution and various regulations, as well as government opponents, is not unwarranted.  It is impossible that the National Assembly could give the thousands of proposed changes to the constitution draft serious consideration in a two-day session.  But some aspects of the ongoing processes, such as the government’s recognition of affected sectors’ concerns, appear likely to create new expectations of government attentiveness and even civic participation.  Non-fulfillment of those expectations may not lead to destabilizing protests in the short term, but it would be yet another negative signal about the Party’s willingness to allow the country to evolve toward the new and more stable model it has claimed interest in establishing since 2011.  The public statements of former President Raúl Castro, President Díaz-Canel, and others suggest awareness that, in the post-Castro era, legitimacy will come from economic results and improved living standards – which require broader and deeper public inputs into policymaking.  Everyone will be watching whether the recent, partial consultations were a short-term show, an experiment, or a hint of a shift in approach.

December 18, 2018

Cuba: Sticking to the Plan

By Fulton Armstrong

Miguel Diaz Canel

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. / Irene Pérez / Cubadebate / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel passed the six-month mark in office this month, his administration – not surprisingly – continued to produce no surprises.  His rhetoric and policies, similar to the package of constitutional reforms now undergoing consulta popular and scheduled to be approved by referendum next February, are an extension of Raúl Castro’s tightrope walk between continuity and gradual change.

  • Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Díaz-Canel condemned the “selfishness and exclusion” of capitalism as the cause of poverty, instability, climate change, and other ills. He also proclaimed, “The generational change in [Cuba’s] government should not deceive the enemies of the revolution; we are continuity, not rupture.”  He welcomed the almost-friendless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to join one of his biggest public appearances.  Showing his pragmatic side, however, Díaz-Canel also met in New York with U.S. technology companies and icons of U.S. capitalism – Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft, Twitter, and others – declared his hope to “computerize [Cuban] society,” and welcomed the announcement of the first U.S.-Cuban biotech joint venture.  Upon his return to Havana, he launched his own Twitter account.
  • On economic reform, Díaz-Canel has continued the same halting approach toward market socialism as did Raúl. New regulations announced in July, to be implemented in December, seemed designed to restrain the growth of the private sector rather than accelerate the reform program.  New mechanisms to ensure that cuentapropistas pay more taxes and operate within the law will dampen their growth in the short term and aggravate contradictions in current policies – for example, curbing black-market purchases of supplies without creating wholesale markets for them.

Ongoing national discussions on constitutional reforms, launched by the National Assembly in July, are compatible with Díaz-Canel’s approach to change.

  • The new document reaffirms two tenets of the Communist Party’s revolutionary platform – the party’s continued leading role as sole political representative of the Cuban nation, and a commitment to a socialist system in which state property predominates and universal social services remain free. But, importantly, the draft omits the goal in the 1976 constitution of “building a Communist society,” signaling the leadership’s recognition that private property and markets will be a permanent feature of the new Cuban model.  It reconfigures policymaking processes to increase efficiency (such as by formalizing the position of Prime Minister), increases the autonomy of local government, and separates more clearly executive and legislative functions.  An amendment allowing same-sex marriage has sparked heated public debate and given rise to an unprecedented political organizing drive by churches opposed to it.
  • The amended constitution does not significantly expand the space for private enterprise, but it provides a stronger legal foundation for the reforms that have already been implemented in various waves since 1992. The draft also strengthens protections of Cuban and foreign-owned private property and investment, providing guarantees against future expropriation.

When introducing changes over the years, the government has routinely, if not obsessively, emphasized continuity – and Díaz-Canel’s administration is proving to be no different.  The signs of change are often nuanced, whereas hardline positions, which tamp down progressives’ expectations and assuage conservatives’ anxieties, are unmistakable.  Díaz-Canel’s adherence to Raúl’s program gives him both essential political cover emphasizing continuity as well as a platform for continuing gradual change.  That formula doesn’t help him with some major challenges, such as the need to unify the country’s two currencies, that have loomed large for several years.  But Díaz-Canel’s gradualist approach – particularly if enshrined in a new constitution next year – is compatible with the view held by many Cubans that change should be evolutionary, not disruptive, even if they wish it went faster.  Washington’s curtailment of bilateral normalization is depriving the private sector of much-needed resources to drive change, but the country’s continued international outreach and expansion of internet access have given entrepreneurs a moral, if not economic, lifeline.  Cubans have often said they’ll do change “their own way,” and Díaz-Canel, with his abundance of caution, may be leading that process. 

October 31, 2018