Cuba: Implications of U.S. Tourism

By Emma Fawcett*

Tourists on beach in Cuba

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

U.S. regulations still technically ban tourist travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, but the Obama Administration’s policies have already spurred significant growth in visitor arrivals to the island – with implications for Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors.  Over the last year, Cuba has experienced a 17 percent increase in total visitors, and a 75 percent increase in arrivals from the United States since Washington expanded the categories of permitted travel and, according to observers, relaxed enforcement.  An agreement to begin commercial airline operations between the two countries promises even more travel.  Other elements of the embargo continue to complicate U.S. travel: most U.S.-issued credit cards still do not work on the island; phone and internet connections are limited; and visitors often face persistent shortages of food items, consumer goods, and hotel rooms.  But the surge almost certainly will continue.

The onslaught of U.S. tourists challenges the Cuban tourism industry’s capacity.  Cuba has one the lowest rates of return visits (less than 10 percent) in the Caribbean; on the other islands, 50 percent to 80 percent of tourists make a return visit.  It has serious weaknesses:

  • While Cuba’s unique appeal may draw in millions of first-time visitors, the still relatively poor quality of service apparently discourages tourists from making the island a regular vacation spot. Sustaining arrivals requires higher marketing costs.  Average spending per visitor, moreover, has been on a fairly steady decline since 2008.
  • About 70 percent of Cuba’s tourists come for sun-and-beach tourism – a sector under state control – but private microenterprises have already demonstrated more agility in responding to demand than the state-owned hotels or joint ventures. The government reported last year that 8,000 rooms in casas particulares, or bed-and-breakfasts in Cubans’ homes, were for rent, and the number is growing steadily.
  • Cuba’s “forbidden fruit” factor may have a limited shelf life as visitors sense the imminent end to Castroism and the arrival of McDonalds, Starbucks, and their ilk. Questions remain about how long Cuba’s current environmental protections will continue when tourist arrivals increase.  Nicknamed the “Accidental Eden,” Cuba is the most biodiverse country in the Caribbean because of low population density and limited industrialization.  But rising visitor arrivals (and the effects of climate change) are likely to increase beach erosion and biodiversity loss.

Ministers of tourism in the other Caribbean countries have downplayed fears about competition from Cuba, but their optimism is sure to be tested.  A successful Cuban tourism sector could conceivably spur region-wide increases in visitor arrivals, but it could also cause other Caribbean countries to lose significant market share.  The official Communist Party newspaper, Granma, has suggested the government’s goal is to almost triple tourist arrivals to 10 million per year.  President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic, the most visited country in the region (at about 5.5 million tourists a year), has also set a goal of reaching 10 million arrivals by 2022 – setting that country to go in head-to-head competition with Cuba.  Jamaica, the third most visited country in the region, has instead pursued a multi-destination agreement with Cuba, designed to encourage island-hopping and capitalize on Cuba’s continued growth.  Previous attempts at regional marketing and multi-destination initiatives have had mixed success.  But as Cuba’s tourism sector continues to expand, Caribbean leaders – in what is already the most tourism-dependent region in the world – undoubtedly sense that Cuba is back in the game and could very well change rules under which this key industry has operated for the past six decades.

July 25, 2016

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.  Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

The Zika Virus and a New Debate on Reproductive Rights

By Rachel Nadelman*

Zika Women

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson and PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

The call by half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean governments for women to put off pregnancies – as the World Health Organization warns the feared Zika virus is “spreading explosively” – is stimulating a new debate on reproductive rights in the region.  El Salvador’s Health Ministry has urged women to “avoid becoming pregnant this year and next,” and Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, and others are issuing similar advisories.  A mosquito-borne disease spreading rapidly in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, Zika is blamed for causing devastating neurological birth defects in newborns whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy.  The U.S. Center on Disease Control has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to the more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries now hosting the disease.

Named for the Uganda forest where it was discovered in the late 1940s, Zika is carried and transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, best known as the vector for life-threatening viruses like yellow fever and dengue.  Within the Western Hemisphere, the Aedes population has increased drastically in recent years, linked by scientists to changes in climate.  Yet Zika’s arrival in Latin America last year, first documented in Brazil, and subsequent expansion did not attract major attention until the pattern of birth defects emerged.  Zika’s symptoms are sometimes imperceptible or typically mild, including fever, joint aches, and conjunctivitis, so health officials did not consider it a major threat to the general population.  Although definitive clinical proof is still lacking, Zika is now linked to microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes children to be born with small heads because of abnormal brain development in the womb or immediately after birth.  The emergence of Zika in Latin America has coincided with a more than 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly.  (Brazil has reported 4,000 cases in the past year, a drastic increase from just 150 in 2014).  The babies suffer from poor brain function and reduced life expectancy.  Doctors are finding traces of the virus in the brains of microcephaly-inflicted babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Warnings and advisories offer no help to the millions of women who live in afflicted countries.  Governments are launching fumigation programs to reduce the Aedes mosquito population and thereby limit disease transmission.  Asking populations to refrain from having children appears a bit facile, if not cynical, in a region with low levels of access to birth control for reasons that range from religious dictates to economic obstacles.  Severely restrictive abortion laws also complicate potential parents’ options.  Five Latin American countries (including Honduras and El Salvador, hard hit by Zika) ban abortion without exception, even to save the mother’s life.  Others criminalize abortion with few allowances.  According to the Guttmacher institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Zika’s link to these devastating birth defects has generated unprecedented public discussion throughout Latin America about women’s and families’ rights and responsibilities for taking control of reproduction.  It is far too early to know if the health advisories will have practical impact on the incidence of microcephaly – or on attitudes toward reproductive rights over the longer term.   

February 1, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

Preparing the West Indies for the Demise of PetroCaribe

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

ariwriter / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

ariwriter / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The English-speaking Caribbean nations – whose heavy dependence on imported diesel and fuel oil to generate electricity has placed them among the most heavily indebted countries in the world (on a per capita basis) – will face massive headaches if PetroCaribe collapses.  They eagerly signed up for the Venezuelan initiative, which sells them petroleum with one- or two-year grace periods and long repayment schedules ranging from 15 to 25 years at 1 or 2 percent interest.  Participating countries can even pay with products or services in lieu of hard currency.  In the case of Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Eastern Caribbean mini-states, PetroCaribe’s financing scheme represents an estimated 4 to 7 percent of their annual GDP.  The worsening economic turmoil in Venezuela, however, raises serious concerns about PetroCaribe’s future.  According to recent media reports, PdVSA, the Venezuelan national petroleum company, is shortening repayment periods and increasing interest rates.

No doubt this is one reason why the Obama administration launched the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative (CESI) in June.  CESI seeks to diversify the Caribbean’s energy matrix away from its current heavy reliance on fossil fuels by using Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) loans and credit guarantees to encourage private sector investment in renewable energy.  It is premised upon the Caribbean’s huge potential to generate energy from the sun, wind, geothermal sources, and maritime currents.  In the past, the principal bottlenecks to harnessing these abundant resources have been hefty startup costs and small populations that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the private sector to recover profits within a reasonable period of time.  Although the initial capital investment for solar- and wind-based technology has dropped considerably in the last few years, it is unrealistic to expect Caribbean nations to make a full switch to renewable energy resources anytime soon.  A more realistic, short- to medium-term alternative is to make greater use of natural gas.  Although still a fossil fuel, gas is more efficient – and therefore the generated electricity is less costly – than fuel oil and diesel.  Moreover, electricity generated from natural gas emits 70 percent as much carbon dioxide as oil, per unit of energy output.

The shale gas boom in the United States generated by innovations in hydraulic fracturing has led to calls to lift restrictions on U.S. natural gas exports to those countries with which it does not have a free trade agreement.  The Caribbean is potentially a major target market of this natural gas in liquefied form (LNG), but this would be a big mistake.  Lifting restrictions on exports will inevitably raise natural gas prices in the U.S., thereby hurting consumers and putting the nascent revival of domestic manufacturing at risk.  It would also require building expensive LNG offloading and regassification facilities in the West Indies, which would run up against the same economies of scale limitations (except in Jamaica and Hispañola) that have undermined a mass transition to renewable energy.  A more realistic alternative is to revive plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Trinidad and Tobago to Barbados, and then up through the Eastern Caribbean.  Proposed back in the early 2000s, it was scuttled with the appearance of PetroCaribe in 2005.  Trinidad and Tobago has ample reserves of natural gas; at one point before the shale gas revolution it was the largest source of imported LNG in the United States.  The pipeline would link islands with populations of under 100,000, where LNG is economically unviable, with the more densely populated French dominions of Guadalupe and Martinique.  It would also help revive the floundering Caribbean Common Market and Community (CARICOM).

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.

Caribbean Integration: Necessary but Elusive

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas*

The dream of Caribbean solidarity has never been in greater peril.  Norman Girvan, who died on April 9, was committed to the cause of Caribbean integration all his adult life, including during his time as Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States.  Born and raised in Jamaica, he saw no contradiction between Jamaican nationalism and Caribbean solidarity.  After steady progress from CARIFTA (a free trade area formed in the 1960s by a number of former British colonies) to CARICOM (a customs union formed in 1973 by all British ex-colonies and many colonies) to a commitment starting in 2006 to build a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), regional integration has gone backwards.  The CSME was never completed; a ‘pause’ in its implementation has been introduced by the Heads of Government and the famous Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM) – itself formed to promote Caribbean unity in international agreements but then largely dismantled.  Suriname (in 1995) and Haiti (in 2002) have joined CARICOM, but the Dominican Republic is still outside after 25 years of discussions.  Cuban membership is still a distant dream, and the only non-independent state that participates today is the British colony of Montserrat, with a population of 5,000.  CARICOM may in theory represent much of the Caribbean population, but Haiti – its largest member by far – is not in the CSME.

Countries outside the Caribbean have reacted in very different ways to the region since the end of the Cold War.  The European Union (EU), three of whose member states – France, Holland and the United Kingdom – still have territorial ties to the Caribbean, has negotiated an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with CARIFORUM (CARICOM plus the DR) that will in due course give the EU unrestricted access for almost all goods and services.  The agreement has generated very little enthusiasm in the CARIFORUM states despite the improved access for some of their goods and services in the European market.  Venezuela has persuaded most oil-importing countries to join Petrocaribe, but only a handful (Antigua & Barbuda, Cuba, Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines) have been attracted by the more ambitious ALBA.  The United States, a colonial power itself in the region thanks to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, still offers asymmetrical trade privileges through the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and its related acts, but some of these provisions will end in 2020, and it is far from clear what will replace them.  Canada, which established CARIBCAN (similar to the CBI) in 1986, is negotiating its own version of the EPA with a broadly similar set of countries, but the negotiations have stalled recently.  Only China appears to have made huge advances in the region through increased exports and major foreign investments despite several of the countries that still recognize Taiwan.

All integration schemes, as Norman Girvan would have been the first to recognize, involve a balance between widening and deepening.  Through its premature commitment to a CSME, the member states of CARICOM took deepening too far.  At the same time, widening – necessary to negotiate with outside powers – has not gone nearly far enough.  It is a scandal that the Dominican Republic remains outside and that so little has been done to embrace Cuba despite the good political relations all states have with the island.  And the non-independent territories, as numerous as the independent states, should not be overlooked.  France and the UK have dropped their objections to closer ties between their territories and CARICOM, and the Dutch territories are largely autonomous already.  Even the U.S. territories would welcome closer links.  And when relations between Cuba and the United States are normalized, as could happen quite soon, it would be in the Caribbean’s interests to have fully embraced Cuba first.  That is an outcome that Norman Girvan would have strongly welcomed.

*Dr. Bulmer-Thomas is a professor at the University College London Institute of the Americas, fellow (and former director) at Chatham House, and author of numerous books, including The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars (2012).