Cuba: Communists Convene

By William M. LeoGrande*

(From left to right) Miguel Díaz-Canel, Homero Acosta, Salvador Valdés, Ramiro Valdés, and Roberto Morales Ojeda/ Cubadebate/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) will convene its Eighth Congress on April 16‑19 to choose new leadership and assess policies intended to address longstanding economic and political challenges – with no indication of bold new departures. After all, Raúl Castro’s heir apparent as party leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has adopted as his favorite hashtag #SomosContinuidad. The meeting will have three major agenda items: selection of a new First Secretary to replace 89-year-old Raúl Castro and – perhaps – the replacement of other elderly party leaders; an assessment of progress implementing economic policies adopted at the Sixth Congress in 2011; and a review of the party’s political work, as mandated by the First National Party Conference in January 2012.

  • The Cuban leadership is undergoing a generational transition from “los históricos,” who founded the revolutionary regime, to a new generation born after 1959. Castro has affirmed his intention to step down as First Secretary in favor of Díaz-Canel, who succeeded him as President in 2018. However, Castro has not publicly ruled out remaining a member of the Political Bureau, and neither have the four other veterans of the struggle against Batista on the 17-member body – including reputed conservatives Second Secretary José Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdés. The generational transition will not be complete until they depart; it’s hard to imagine Díaz-Canel would truly be in charge if he is still surrounded by these powerful old-timers.

Pummeled by President Trump’s tightened sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic that closed the tourist industry, Cuba is suffering the worst economic crisis since the “Special Period” of the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed. The central theme of the Party Congress will be an exhortation to the party faithful to go full speed ahead on economic reforms, overcoming the bureaucratic resistance that has impeded them until recently.

  • When Raúl Castro introduced the reforms in 2011, he said it would take a decade to put them in place. Ten years later, they are far from finished, although the pace of reform has accelerated over the past nine months. The number of permitted private-sector occupations has increased from just over a hundred to more than 2,000. The dual currency and exchange rate system that created crippling distortions in the economy has been scrapped. And state enterprises have been put on notice that they have 12 months to become profitable or close their doors. In the short term, however, the economy remains hobbled by inefficiencies and unable to satisfy many basic needs.

The Congress will also review the party’s “political work” the task of building public support for the government. In 2012, Raúl Castro criticized the party’s poor performance. Endless meetings degenerated into “formalism,” in which no real criticism was ever voiced and little was accomplished, thereby “spreading dissatisfaction and apathy” among the membership. These failings weakened the party’s ties to the broader public, for whom it seemed remote and inaccessible. Another indicator of the party’s tenuous standing was an 18 percent decline in membership from 2011 to 2016 – the first decline since the party was founded in 1965.

Cuba’s party congresses always convene on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion – 60 years ago this April –  to commemorate Cuba’s successful defeat of Washington’s imperial designs. The focus of the upcoming Congress, however, will be on how the party can steer its way past the shoals of Cuba’s internal challenges and “update” its economic model of socialism through reforms that it nominally embraced years ago but has failed to fully carry out. With popular discontent at a peak because of the desperate economic situation and with critics mobilizing through social media to challenge state policy, the party has its work cut out for it.

April 5, 2021

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

Cuba: Private Sector Gets a (Tentative) Boost

By Ricardo Torres*

Morning Street Market in Trinidad, Cuba/ Bud Ellison/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The Cuban government has announced measures that represent a significant shift in its treatment of the private sector, but the reforms will not have the desired impact without supporting legislation and other steps. In one of its more important announcements on reform, authorities abandoned their focus on listing permitted categories of work, and instead issued a list of prohibited activities – leaving open the rest of the economy for private individuals.

  • On February 11, the Labor Ministry issued for public discussion a list of 124 activities, based on an international classification of job categories, that will remain off-limits for cuentapropismo (self-employment). Among the most prominent professions that will remain under state control are journalists, lawyers, accountants, architects, and engineers – as well as some positions in the value chain in tourism.
  • The reasons for these restrictions range from political and social sensitivity; poor coordination and improvisation among various agencies that were working on the initial drafting of the list; and the protection of the narrow interests of various industries, such as in some parts of tourism.

The benefit of these prohibitions is questionable from the perspective of national economic development. The Cuban economy appears likely to continue shifting toward specialization in services, but the next stage in that process will require expansion into areas that are more complex, more deeply integrated into the productive system, and more focused on foreign markets. This stage will require the skills of Cuban professionals, many of whom today, seeing few good prospects at home, are leaving the country frustrated in search of opportunities to use their talents and build a good life for themselves elsewhere. For a country with a demographic profile that’s already adverse, the brain drain will be even more damaging.

  • The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that, in medium- and high-income countries, companies with up to nine workers represent 32‑38 percent of all employed persons, while another 42 percent work in entities that have between 10 and 49 employees. Cuban labor, in sharp contrast, is divided into state enterprises (with an average of 800 workers); agricultural cooperatives (94 workers); urban cooperatives (typically 39 workers); and cuentapropistas working alone or with one partner. This labor structure is simply not adequate for future needs.

The new measures raise other questions about the objectives of the reforms. Of the 600,000-plus cuentapropistas, some 100,000 are de facto companies – without full legal personality and its protections. Cuba lacks a solid framework for the development of the private sector. Consideration of the small and medium enterprise law promised by the government years ago is still in limbo, with no clear date. Cuban law also does not clearly distinguish between subsistence production and dynamic undertakings, nor between owners and workers. It does not establish the formal channels necessary for communication with the sector, nor how to apply laws dealing with social rights, environmental protection, and similar requirements. There is also no sign of specific legislation permitting work by truly independent workers and cooperatives.

The challenge ahead lies in the fact that the political documents for these and other reforms over the years – such as Conceptualización (during the 7th Party Congress in 2017) and “Plan 2030” present only a narrow, schematic concept of private-sector development. The omissions and ambiguities in them are huge. Without effective follow-up, the full intent of even these new steps will not be realized – and progress will yet again be delayed. A holistic vision of reform and its objectives is necessary now more than ever. No one knows, however, if the Cuban leadership has the appetite and political space within the party and government bureaucracy to make it happen.

March 15, 2021

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

Dominican Republic: Remittances Showing Strong Rebound Despite COVID-19

By Gerelyn Terzo*

Tower and Auditorium of the Central Bank of the Dominican Republic/ Rafael Calventi/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

The Dominican Republic’s economy has not escaped the slowdown caused by coronavirus, but one of its most important engines of growth – remittances from expatriates – has shown a strong resurgence in recent months.

  • The DR’s economy has been on a rollercoaster since the onset of the pandemic. The World Bank projects it contracted 4.3 percent in 2020, with the fallout continuing to reverberate throughout the country this year and next. This comes after decades of expansion, including annual growth of 6.1 percent between 2015 and 2019. Much of the country’s growth for decades has been fueled by personal remittances, hovering around 8.3 percent of GDP as of 2019.

Remittances plummeted more than 20 percent in March 2020, when the shock of the pandemic first hit, but they rebounded soon after, and a broader turnaround in the second half of 2020 appears to be helping the Dominican Republic toward a course of recovery. Families depend on funds from family members abroad for consumption, savings and investing.

  • By May, money transfers into the country from the United States rebounded nearly 18 percent, thanks to a Dominican diaspora that sent approximately $638.7 million home to their families. That was close to double the amount sent the previous month. Remittances have shown particularly strong growth since July, when transfers surpassed $827 million, 29.3 percent over July 2019.
  • Since then, the Dominican migrant community has not disappointed – more than compensating for the dip in remittances during the early COVID period. The Central Bank announced in December that “the flow of foreign currency continues to improve.” It pointed to a 27 percent year-on-year increase in remittances in November 2020, when they reached $707.5 million. For the January-November 2020 period, remittances climbed to nearly $7.4 billion compared to roughly $7.1 billion for all of 2019.
  • Nearly 85 percent of the flows over the past eight months originated from the diaspora in the United States, where unemployment among Latinos dropped about a half percent per month in late 2020. Other major sources are Spain and Italy, where Dominican migrants number 158,000 and 43,000, respectively.

Lockdowns and travel bans have ravaged the tourism industry, which customarily accounts for another 7‑8 percent of GPD. The number of visitors in November was one quarter that of the same month a year ago – making remittances an even more important input for the DR economy. Migrants living in the United States are likely working jobs that are considered essential during COVID in sectors of the economy such as healthcare. Regardless of how tough times get abroad, moreover, migrants from the Caribbean and Central America know that conditions are likely to be even more difficult back home – and these expatriates are more prone to sacrificing meals for themselves to ensure families back home can survive. A Santo Domingo local on social media suggested constructing a statue – similar to one in San Salvador in honor of Salvadoran expatriates – to honor the Dominican diaspora, who “against all odds” got the money through. The trajectory of COVID is still unknowable, but migrants’ commitment to helping family back home is already clear.

February 18, 2021

* Gerelyn Terzo is an analyst and writer on remittance flows and cryptocurrencies. This article is adapted from one she wrote for Sharemoney.

Biden’s North American Reset?

By Tom Long and Eric Hershberg*

Map of North America/ Public Domain/ Creative Commons License

A North American approach to regional cooperation could make a comeback under the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Though promoted with little enthusiasm by President Obama and derided by the Trump administration, the utility of North American cooperation is suggested by a combination of factors: the desire to turn the page on Trump’s transactional approach to neighbors, interest in “near-shoring” as a result of the pandemic and frictions with China, and the growing salience of shared transnational challenges.

  • Trump played on anti-NAFTA and anti-Mexican sentiments in his rise to power. He followed his divisive campaign with dramatic standoffs over the border wall, tariffs on Canada and Mexico, and nativist immigration and asylum policies. Policy statements from the Biden campaign, Democratic Party platform, and transition team suggest the new president will be eager to signal his rejection of such policies, making a pro-North American stance attractive in the broader context of a return to multilateralism. To be sure, elements of the Democratic Party long harbored skeptical views of North American cooperation (especially NAFTA), but the anti-North American stance is now thoroughly associated with Trump, and Democrats have found themselves defending the concept during the last four years.
  • The pandemic and rising tensions with China have raised questions about the desirability of far-flung supply chains, at least for sensitive products like medical and telecommunications equipment. Revelations about forced-labor practices in China have also put human rights back on the trade agenda. This is an issue for Canada, too, given its tensions with China over electronics giant Huawei. At the same time, it presents an opportunity for Mexico.
  • Transnational challenges including public health, migration, and security have long provided a rationale for greater policy coordination in North America. Many of these issues have grown from irritants to major problems given the neglect and perverse U.S. policies of the last four years.

Under President Biden, these factors may give North American cooperation a new lease on life. As a regional policy framework, “North America” could give renewed stimulus to North American economic integration, which had stagnated due to China’s rise, increased border controls after September 11, 2001, limited investment in coordination or infrastructure, and various migration and security crises along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump’s rhetorical and policy barrage has awakened powerful interests to defend economic integration at the same time that it has motivated civil society organizations to defend North America’s integrated transnational communities.

Progress is likely even if the phrase “North America” is slow to return. NAFTA was officially replaced in July 2020 by a new pact that preserved most of its features but stripped “North America” from its name. (The three signatories have named the deal differently – USMCA in the U.S., TMEC in Mexico, and CUSMA/ACEUM in Canada – but none includes “North America.”) The separation of “North America” from the pact creates, counterintuitively, an opportunity to expand the understanding of the region and related policy frameworks.

  • Politically, “North America” could provide a useful space for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has shown little interest in Biden’s initiatives for bilateral cooperation and has provoked tensions with Washington through his handling of the Cienfuegos case, to provide leadership.
  • Practically, many deeply “North American” issues, particularly migration, suggest a wider understanding of the region to include parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Tensions about Central American migration will be high on the new administration’s agenda, but addressing these challenges through a North American lens offers a constructive contrast to Trump’s narrow nationalism.
  • Economically, given the contrast between countries of South America that have been more deeply reliant on exports to China versus those that are still most closely linked to the U.S. market, a broadened North America could provide a forum – larger and more diverse than NAFTA but smaller and more focused than the Summit of the Americas – to address regional policy challenges.

President Biden inherits an old trilateral region that seemingly has no name and a badly damaged economic partnership, but the gravitational pull of the U.S. market, new rhetoric and policies from Washington, and other underlying drivers should restore the economic and political importance of the region, offering an opportunity to rethink the boundaries and purpose of North America.

January 21, 2021

* Tom Long is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Chair of the Robert A. Pastor North American Research Initiative at American University. Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University.

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.

Regionalism in the Time of Coronavirus: The Only Way Forward?

By Leslie Elliott Armijo*

Coronavirus Latin America

Map of the COVID-19 outbreak in Latin America as of 30 April 2020/ Pharexia/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

To overcome the multiple challenges of the COVID‑19 crisis, Latin America’s leaders will need to build regional cooperation around pragmatic solutions – an elusive goal for countries with a legacy of disunity and weak collaboration. The coronavirus has hit at a moment of economic vulnerability. Regional growth averaged only 1.9 percent in 2010-19, worse than in the “lost decade” of the debt-crisis 1980s (2.2 percent). Labor productivity, which in 1960 was almost 250 percent of the world average, has fallen steadily in every subsequent decade, and in 2019 sat at a mere 90 percent of the global mean. Persistent squabbling among Latin countries has meant that major global trading states, including the United States and more recently China, could dictate the terms of bilateral trade and investment agreements in ways that favored these larger powers.

  • In negotiating global trade, Latin America and the Caribbean have shown little shared identity or cohesion, whether as a region or as sub-regions. As of late 2018, as global value chains coalesced around three regional hubs – China/East Asia, U.S./North America, and Germany/European Union – Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean were linked to the U.S. but lacked bargaining power to seize more advantageous positions vis-à-vis the United States. South America has deindustrialized since the turn of the century, returning to its historic role of commodity exporter to all three hubs. Intra-regional trade as of 2017 was only 22 percent of all Latin American trade and had fallen since 2013.
  • This is a shaky foundation from which to face the health and economic challenges of COVID‑19. The IMF’s scenario, which assumes an optimistic return to business mostly-as-usual in the third quarter, predicts a contraction of GDP in 2020 of 5.2 percent in the region, driven by brutal collapses in the two largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, of -5.5 and -6.6 percent respectively. The extra-regional markets for Latin America’s exports certainly will shrink due to both short-term reasons of global depression and longer-term ones of enhanced economic nationalism abroad. Remittances and tourists from the U.S. and elsewhere will not return to their previous numbers for a long time.

A coronavirus-solidarity virtual summit last month showed that some regional leaders realize the need for joint action. Nine of 12 South American presidents participated, although Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – who has made intemperate and dismissive remarks about his fellow leaders – gave his seat at the video conference to his foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo.

  • Argentine President Alberto Fernández participated despite Bolsonaro’s snub (including on previous occasions) and his previously chilly relations with the sponsoring body, PROSUR, founded in 2019 by center-right Presidents Iván Duque of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile as an explicit counter to the pre-existing regional body, UNASUR, which leaned left during the presidency of Bolivia’s Evo Morales (now in exile in Argentina). In so doing, Fernández demonstrated the pragmatism and understanding that Latin American and Caribbean leaders often eschew: if you want to solve policy challenges, you must maintain dialogue with people with whom you disagree.

If there is any light at the end of this tunnel, it could be psychological, as crises tend to focus minds. The disruption in international relations beyond Latin America probably will accelerate the move away from the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” and fuel domestic economic nationalism that will shake up the three major global trading hubs – a reorganization in which the region could redefine its place. In this scenario the best defense for Latin America is a strong offense. As Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), said recently, the region’s resilience likely depends on “investment in strengthening regional production chains” to create “complementarities in production structures and regional integration.”

  • Diplomacy enables states to share knowledge and engage in collective action to meet real cross-border challenges, including those of the current crisis. Regional solidarity does not require headquarters buildings, formal treaties, and summit pageantry, nor even similar domestic political systems. The considerable achievements of the loose, informal clubs known as the G7, the G20, and the BRICS prove the value of cooperative models that need not boast costly institutional scaffolding. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), formed in 1967 by 10 countries that were at least as mutually suspicious of one another as they were of China, provides another lesson about somewhat effective regional cooperation that Latin America would do well to note.

April 30, 2020

* Leslie Elliott Armijo is an associate professor at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Her most recent book, coauthored with C. Roberts and S.A. Katada, is The BRICS and Collective Financial Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Argentina: Yet Another Generalized Default?

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Argentine President Alberto Fernández during a working meeting with governors last week/ Casa Rosada/ Creative Commons

The Argentine government’s current attempt to force investors to accept a punishing debt-restructuring plan puts the country at risk of yet another sovereign default on foreign-law, foreign-currency debt. The attempt validates the massive loss of confidence that took place last August, when local and foreign investors ran for the exits in the wake of the unexpectedly strong performance of the Alberto Fernández-Cristina Fernández de Kirchner ticket in the country’s presidential primaries.

  • Confidence had already been set back in early 2018, after a series of disappointments with how then-President Mauricio Macri was running overly loose fiscal and monetary policies that encouraged excess government borrowing and facilitated capital flight. Macri’s decision to turn to the IMF for a huge bail-out loan in exchange for a modest fiscal and monetary belt-tightening shored up confidence, but the prospect of Peronism’s return to high office undermined investor confidence anew, causing a steep plunge in Argentina’s stocks, bonds, and the currency from which it has not recovered.

Fernández had a window of opportunity to provide confidence to local and foreign investors – following the example set by Brazil’s Lula da Silva back in mid-2002, when his pulling ahead in presidential polls sparked the beginning of a market rout in that country. However, all that Fernández has done is blame Macri for all that was going wrong, denying that mistrust of Peronism was also a factor in deepening the financial and economic crisis.

  • Absent any reassurance, investors have been reluctant to show up at auctions of new peso- and dollar-denominated treasury bills, preferring to cash out of positions whenever those obligations matured. Therefore, even before Fernández took charge in December, Macri was forced on one occasion to unilaterally postpone repayments of treasury bills falling due.
  • Fernández has institutionalized the practice of deferring by decree the majority of payments coming due each month, thus defaulting time and again on most peso and dollar obligations subject to Argentine law and jurisdiction. Until very recently, however, he and the Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, Axel Kicillof, were honoring their obligations contracted under New York law and jurisdiction.

The coronavirus disrupted a less investor-unfriendly alternative devised by Fernández to avoid a repeat of the massive default, financial isolation, and bruising legal defeats (in New York courts) that his predecessors had suffered during 2002-2015. The idea was for federal and provincial governments to develop debt-restructuring proposals and present them to bondholders by mid-March, in order to obtain by mid-April creditor approval of a deferral of payments coming due during 2020-23.

  • To cushion the blow of the pandemic, the debt-restructuring plan, delayed to mid-April, included terms and conditions that were substantially worse for bondholders. Investors holding $66 billion of bonds are being asked to write off some principal and most interest payments throughout the decades-long life of new bonds to be issued in exchange for existing ones, in a proposal that would impose (net present-value) losses on bondholders averaging at least 60 percent. The Province of Buenos Aires has presented a similarly aggressive debt-restructuring plan.

A critical mass of investors has spoken out against the government’s proposal, including outright rejections by three groups of bondholders who could block any deals. To ratchet up the pressure, the federal government skipped a $503 million payment due on April 22, setting the clock running on what could easily turn into Argentina’s ninth sovereign default on foreign-law, foreign-currency debt.

  • One constructive way for Argentina to break the impasse with its private creditors would be to ask fewer concessions from them by deciding to seek new financing from, or else a rescheduling of debt service due to, the IMF. This would be achieved by requesting support under a longer-term Extended Fund Facility. Because Argentina’s program with the Fund was a short-term standby facility, under which $44 billion were disbursed, the whole amount plus interest is to be paid back in full between now and 2024. These scheduled payments to the IMF amount to more than 40 percent of total foreign-currency payments the government of Argentina is supposed to make during 2020-24.
  • If the Fernández administration were willing to work with the IMF on an economic program that would impose fiscal and monetary discipline to kick in once the coronavirus pandemic is over, the government would not need such large concessions from its private investors. In fact, such a partnership with the Fund would pave the way for a gradual return of investor confidence and the reopening of its domestic bond market for renewed financing on a voluntary basis.

April 28, 2020

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is a Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and a member of the faculty of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

COVID-19 in the Caribbean: So Open, so Vulnerable

By Bert Hoffmann*

rows of empty beach chairs in Jamaica

Beach in Jamaica/ Marc Veraart/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

In the Caribbean, the COVID-19 crisis hits some of the world’s most open, specialized economies, forcing the region to rethink its development model. Eleven of the world’s 20 most tourism-dependent nations are in the Caribbean. The collapse of this sector leaves the import-dependent island states extremely vulnerable beyond the immediate health crisis and beyond the social and economic fallout from the current “shelter in place” rules and lock-down measures.

  • For most Caribbean nations, tourism is by far the most important economic activity. In small states like Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Bahamas, tourism makes up more than 40 percent of GDP. In bigger countries like Jamaica, it accounts for more than half of exports and employs almost a third of the workforce. Many in the tourism industry cling to hopes of a speedy recovery, but this is not likely. Travelers’ confidence in cruise ships and exotic flight destinations will not fully rebound before vaccinations against the virus become readily available. Not only the low season this summer is lost, but also much of the crucial winter season.
  • The pandemic is also going to slash remittances from Caribbean emigrants. Most states have sizeable diaspora communities, and money transfers from abroad are a vital part of their economies. Unlike in the aftermath of hurricanes, migrants in the United States, Europe, or neighboring islands are affected by the same crisis. Many will also cancel visits “home.”

Current social policy measures may be able to mitigate some of the hardship, but foreign exchange buffers are hardly sufficient to maintain these on such a scale over a long time. Largely agricultural countries decades ago, most of the region today imports more than half the food they consume – seven CARICOM countries even more than 80 percent. With global supply chains and food production in the United States disrupted, imported food prices will rise. Reviving local farm tradition passes from a “romantic” niche concern to being a key issue of social policy.

  • In the Caribbean’s non-sovereign territories, the crisis underscores their population’s dependence on the welfare systems of the United States, France, the UK, and the Netherlands. At the same time, it casts a spotlight on persisting inequalities. Puerto Rico, for instance, has only one-fourth of intensive care unit beds per capita than the U.S. mainland, despite its much higher share of elderly residents.

The coronavirus crisis is bringing to the fore a number of long-term challenges for the Caribbean. If left solely to the logic of comparative advantages, the region’s world market integration tends to be one of specialization, not diversification. The downside is a high vulnerability to external shocks. In recent years, “resilience” became part of the vocabulary of Caribbean policymakers in the context of climate change, not to face global economic or health shocks. The current crisis demands thinking of “resilience” as a development goal in an even broader sense.

  • The pandemic also highlights the extent to which the Trump Administration takes the United States out of the game of soft policy approaches, and China finds a field left wide open. Beijing’s shipments of medical supplies and protective wear are a small investment, but they have a big impact in countries of some 100,000 inhabitants. Taiwan is also providing face masks and soft loans to those that still recognize it diplomatically. In contrast, what Washington seems to care about more than anything else is that the Caribbean nations should not accept Cuban doctors in to fight the disease.

April 20, 2020

* Bert Hoffmann is a Lead Researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin’s Latin American Institute.

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.