By Ricardo Torres*
The economic challenges that Cuba currently faces probably do not signal the beginning of a new Período Especial – the profound crisis Cuba experienced in the 1990s – but they are a painful reminder of the country’s chronic structural problem: the inability to generate enough hard currency to develop the economy and the failure of efforts to overcome that obstacle so far. The immediate predicament was caused by a combination of internal and external factors, including the Venezuelan crisis and the low prices for certain Cuban exports. (Ironically, oil byproducts from a refinery in Cienfuegos, which Cuba jointly owns with Venezuela’s PDVSA, have become a leading export.) Venezuela is affecting income from services that Cuba sells there (in particular that of medical doctors) as well as a drop in the supply of oil products, which has covered about a half of Cuba’s needs. This has placed extreme stress on Cuba’s external finances and forced a significant economic adjustment. The government has imposed restrictions on energy consumption and a reduction in imports and investments – with important recessionary effects on an economy that desperately needs growth. The energy rationing has fueled fears that the country could repeat the deep shortages of the early 1990s and again experience one of the most powerful symbols of that period: blackouts.
The situation is serious, but a crisis on the scale of the Special Period does not appear to be on the horizon. Cuba today has a more diversified economy and produces a significant portion of its own energy, and the majority of the population has other sources of income to cushion themselves during bad times. Most creditors and suppliers have shown confidence in their ability to move ahead. In July, important contracts were announced for French companies to expand and operate Havana’s airport, which has been overwhelmed by the increase of international visitors (one of the few bright spots in the economy this year) in tandem with the improvement in relations with the United States. Early this month, Cuban officials made presentations to firms from around the world on the government’s timely interest in renewable energy. They emphasized the great opportunities that exist, not just current problems.
Once again, a close partner’s difficulties have put Cuba in a bind – too many times in too short a period. Moreover, these problems arise at a politically sensitive moment. Cubans are discussing the new model and development strategy through 2030, and – while Cubans are expecting results after six years of reform – President Raúl Castro has little time remaining in office. The current complications can further delay essential monetary and exchange reforms. Cuba needs to fix its foreign trade to supply oxygen for dynamic activities, such as its booming private sector. Its development potential can’t rely just on its mystique as la Perla del Caribe. Today’s challenges are an opportunity to remove the obstacles to changes that already have been announced, such as by accelerating the heretofore slow and ineffective implementation of agreed policies on foreign investment. Some multilateral financial institutions can help, but Havana’s recent agreement with the Corporación Andina de Fomento (CAF), while a positive signal, is not enough. The short-term answer is clear: Only a combination of structural measures can guarantee that this latest economic crunch will be the last.
September 12, 2016
*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.