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.

Cuba’s Limited Absorptive Capacity Will Slow Normalization*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the U.S. embargo – the main obstacle to expanding U.S.-Cuban economic ties – is relaxed by presidential regulatory action and eventually lifted by Congress, limits on Cuba’s own willingness and ability to conduct trade, absorb investment, utilize information technology, and even accommodate tourists risk putting a brake on the normalization of economic relations.  Five decades of embargo and failed socialist models have rendered key sectors in Cuba ill-equipped to take advantage of the surge in U.S. business interest in the island.  In some areas, the political will to open up and reform is crucial.  These problems do not translate into a rejection of normalization but rather into a slower timeline than many on and off the island would hope for.

The advantages of economic engagement are well known.  Foreign investment will help provide the $8.7 billion Cuba wants for its “Portfolio of Foreign Investment Opportunities” – some 246 projects in energy, tourism, agriculture, and industry.  Havana also wants growth rates to rise to 4-5 percent per year (from an estimated 1.5 percent in 2014), fueled by at least $2 billion in annual foreign investment.  Trade, investment, and tourism are all potentially powerful engines for growth and employment in Cuba.  Private farmers have long out-produced their state competitors and many cooperatives, making them ideal for engagement under current U.S. regulations if the Cuban government facilitates it.  The small private sector, currently employing over a million people, could – with a more supportive infrastructure – provide many more vital goods, services, and employment that the Cuban government years ago admitted it could not provide.  Sectors utilizing Cuba’s specialized and skilled human capital, such as biotechnology, could also benefit quickly and generously from the new U.S. relationship.

Cuba has a lot going for it – such as its deep reserve of potential human capital – but it is also is held back by a variety of problems, many of which are prolonged by political caution.

  • Cuba is updating laws governing investments, property, and labor – a new foreign investment law in March 2014 and related regulations are steps in the new direction – but the multi-year, incremental process has been too slow to keep ahead of burgeoning opportunities. Regulations on how foreign firms select, pay and release Cuban employees are also antiquated.  Paperwork for approving foreign direct investment remains formidable and must pass through multiple levels.  The country lacks the basic institutions necessary to license import and export transactions for beneficiaries outside government ministries.  Much of the bureaucracy – chronically underpaid and, during periods of party dominance, neglected – has yet to grow into a new, more professional role.
  • Unifying Cuba’s two national currencies is absolutely essential but, despite the government’s repeated declarations of intent, it has still not been done. The existence of a different, lower exchange rate for state enterprises creates distortions that will worsen as demand for imports rises.  The financial system, moreover, is too over-burdened, secretive, and lacking in agility, and continued blocks to Cuba’s access to IMF, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funds deny it important breathing room to reform.
  • Cuba lacks an information and communications technology (ICT) framework capable of harnessing and nurturing its human capital and driving growth and efficiency – which will retard progress in a number of priority areas.
  • De-industrialization over the past 25 years has further reduced Cuba’s absorptive capacity. Many key sectors – including textiles, clothing, metals, machinery, transportation equipment, and more – have contracted between 50 and 100 percent.  Much of the infrastructure is dilapidated.  The transportation sector is in dire need of repair and modernization; and the construction industry is inefficient and poorly resourced.

Cuba’s challenges in taking advantage of new opportunities are not insurmountable – with political will and time.  The pace of reform and corresponding expansion of Cuba’s absorptive capacity may be maddeningly slow for many Cubans and Americans alike.  But insofar as the U.S.-Cuba normalization process is irreversible, so too is the conviction in Cuba on the need to “update” the system through reform in order to take advantage of the opportunities it brings.  Cuban national pride and the Communist Party’s fear of losing control could very well be assuaged as the island experiences the benefits of engagement.  Foreigners, especially the United States, who push too hard, too fast, and too haughtily could fail and even delay this aspect of normalization, just as Cubans who move too passively, too slowly, and too skeptically could stymie the process as well.

October 27, 2015

*This blog post is excerpted from the third in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.  Read the full brief here.

Mexico’s Petroleum Sector: Not Yet Out of the Woods

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Photo Credits: Ian Burt and Alex / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credits: Ian Burt and Alex / Flickr / Creative Commons

The September 30 awarding of three contracts on five oil production blocks that the Mexican government opened for bidding has raised hopes that the Peña Nieto administration’s efforts to reform the country’s energy sector are back on track, but many challenges remain.  In contrast, an auction of leases on 14 blocks in July was a huge disappointment as contracts could only be issued for two of them.  The auctions are part of Mexico’s effort to reverse years of declining petroleum output by permitting private sector and foreign participation in an industry monopolized for decades by the state oil company, PEMEX.  Foreign and private sector firms are now allowed to enter into both profit- as well as production-sharing agreements with PEMEX and thereby retain a percentage of the gains on the oil they extract.  In some cases, outright concessions – termed “licenses” so as not to run afoul of the Mexican Constitution – are permitted.

A careful examination of the successful bids last month, however, leaves doubts as to whether the auction marks a change of fortune.  To entice a better response, the Mexican entity responsible for the auctions, the National Hydrocarbons Commission (CNH), relaxed many rules in a way that may be difficult to repeat and can be challenged politically.  Noticeably absent from the list of winning bidders are the major multinational oil giants.

  • The Italian state oil company, ENI International, won the block that attracted the most bids, while an Argentine-led consortium headed by Pan American Energy won a second block. They are well-known players in several South American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela – where the rules of the game are constantly changing and lack of transparency is a major issue.  The third block had only one bidder, a consortium made up of the U.S.-based Fieldwood Energy and Mexican Petrobal (whose director is PEMEX’s former director of exploration and production, Carlos Morales Gil).
  • The blocks awarded on September 30 are for already discovered shallow water fields, meaning lower geological risks for private operators. In order to make the auction attractive, the CNH lowered the fees required to bid and added the right to explore for new oil as well as pumping oil from existing reserves.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto came to office in 2012 with an ambitious reform plan to revitalize the Mexican economy by focusing on structural reforms, including education, finance, telecommunication, transportation infrastructure, and energy.  While there have been noticeable changes in all five areas, the results have not yet led to significant improvements in Mexico’s economic performance.  The optimistic reform scenarios of three years ago are further clouded by corruption scandals – including one touching the President, his wife, and a finance minister who had houses built by prominent contractors who had won lucrative government contracts – the lack of progress investigating the Iguala Massacre (involving 43 students who disappeared), and high levels of citizen insecurity.  The real test for the Mexican energy reform – and the credibility of President Peña Nieto’s reform policies – will come next year when offshore deep water blocks in the Gulf of Mexico and extra-heavy oil fields are put up for auction.

October 19, 2015

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

Honduras: Charter Cities Lurch Forward

By Fulton Armstrong

Choluteca, Honduras Photo Credit: Jonathan D. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Choluteca, Honduras Photo Credit: Jonathan D. / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Honduran government expects to get the green light this month from a Korean consulting firm for a master plan to hand governance of several small communities over to private investors to develop them, but concerns about the plan run deep and appear unlikely to fade.  Called ZEDEs – the Spanish acronym for “Employment and Economic Development Zones,” the specially designated areas are also called by their proponents charter cities, model cities, and startup cities.  The first tranche of towns facing conversion are in the southern Honduran departments of Valle and Choluteca, with a new port built on the Gulf of Fonseca.  The government says that the affected communities will remain an “inalienable part of the Honduran state,” but amendments to the Constitution, laws, and regulations permit their governing body – which is unelected – to establish “policies and regulations” and their own police and other public services.  Called the “Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices,” the board is dominated by representatives of Honduran millionaires and an even greater number of non-Hondurans of predominantly libertarian ideology.  Among them are American anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; former President Reagan’s son Michael; and Michael Strong, chief executive of Radical Social Entrepreneurs.  The ZEDEs’ guiding principle is to liberate communities from government taxation, oversight, and corruption in order to attract investment and stimulate prosperity.

The ZEDEs initiative has been plagued by opposition since its inception, however.  Numerous reports underscore that the affected communities were never consulted, and demands for a referendum have repeatedly been rebuffed.  Honduran implementation of the model has been rejected by the U.S. economist who proposed it, Paul Romer (formerly of Stanford University; currently at New York University).  He withdrew because of the lack of Honduran transparency, including secret deals with interested U.S. parties.  The Honduran Supreme Court initially voted 4-to-1 against a Constitutional amendment allowing creation of ZEDEs in 2012, but the Congress impeached the four dissenters and replaced them with supporters who voted unanimously in favor.  There are numerous reports of intimidation of local civil society leaders, who deem them credible in view of clashes between wealthy businessmen and campesinos in other areas resulting in hundreds of deaths in recent years.

Honduras has a desperate need for economic growth – two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line – and its model of national governance, riddled with corruption and non-transparency, is indeed in crisis.  But there’s no evidence that fighting one form of corruption with another non-transparent system will help anyone but the big investors.  Indeed, Honduras has ranked among the most violent countries in the world for several years, with the term “failed state” looming darkly over it – making it perhaps the worst place to experiment with provocative new models of governance without popular consultation or support.  Critics seem to have a good case: real reform and economic stimulus would focus on cleaning up the government and holding accountable the elites that have brought the country to ruin and now are trying to impose this model on their fellow citizens, rather than usurping the affected communities’ sovereignty.

March 19, 2015

Haiti: Another Crisis on the Anniversary of a Crisis

By Emma Fawcett*

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Haiti recently marked the five-year anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake and missed yet another deadline for reaching an agreement on the country’s long-overdue elections.  On January 12, the parliament was effectively dissolved as the terms of all but 10 senators expired.  Without quorum or a new electoral law, President Martelly now rules by decree.  Many in the opposition, whose protests in the last several months forced the resignation of Prime Minister Lamothe, now also seek Martelly’s resignation.  Martelly has asked protesters to be patient, but some claim the electoral impasse is part of the president’s larger strategy for consolidating his power.  The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has expressed commitment to continue working with him and “whatever legitimate Haitian government institutions remain,” and hopes that Martelly will use his “powers responsibly to organize inclusive, credible and transparent elections.”  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Martelly by phone, reiterating support for his administration and acknowledging his “efforts to work with the Haitian parliament and political parties to resolve outstanding issues.”  On Sunday, the UN Security Council concluded its three-day visit by urging politicians to work together to ensure elections can proceed, and refrained from commenting on whether the planned cuts to UN peacekeeping forces would take place in June.

Although there is continued handwringing over how $13.5 billion pledged in earthquake relief has been spent, there are some signs of economic growth.  Capacity in the apparel and hospitality sectors has increased dramatically, priming the pump for further private-sector development, but the results to date are weak.  Caracol Industrial Park (in the northeast) and the Lafito Industrial Free Zone (outside Port-au-Prince) are moving forward, though Caracol has thus far generated just 5,000 of the 65,000 jobs it was expected to create.  Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin has pushed tourism hard to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).  Tourism was a natural outgrowth of earthquake recovery: hotels rooms were urgently needed first for relief workers, now for engineers and businesspeople, and eventually (Haitians hope) for tourists.  Pétionville, located in the hills above Port-au-Prince and home to much of the country’s elite, has received a remarkable facelift.  It now boasts several renovated or newly-constructed international class hotels, though guests remain elusive.  Some of the tent cities have been cleared.  In Jalousie, one of the slums above Pétionville, concrete homes were painted in bright tropical shades, designed to evoke the work of Haitian artist Préfète Duffau.  (Critics of the project pointed out the neighborhood has more pressing needs than cans of paint, and wryly noted that while Port-au-Prince’s hillsides are covered in slums, only those overlooking Pétionville’s wealthiest residents received cosmetic treatment.)

Despite the political uncertainties and stalled reconstruction efforts, there is a sense among Haitian and international private-sector actors that moving forward is “now or never.”  Many point to Martelly’s unprecedented focus on attracting FDI and willingness to create incentive frameworks.  In field interviews, investors in Haiti and neighboring countries speak of hope that the country’s natural, cultural, and historical resources will make it a viable destination – as well as hope that U.S. and other foreign backing continues to expand the apparel and tourism sectors.  There are enormous challenges ahead, to be sure, compounded by the political crisis and potential for instability.  The government-led strategic planning process has been described as “opaque” and “accelerated” without much room for consultation with either the private sector or local communities.  Carnival Cruise Lines’ plans to build a new port on Ǐle de la Tortue have become mired in land tenure issues.  And inclusive growth – strategically targeted and yet expansive enough to lift Haitians out of poverty – will be hard to come by without improved institutional capacity, made all the more difficult by the events of the last three weeks. 

January 29, 2015

* Emma Fawcett is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at American University.

Cuba: Can Official Labor Meet the Needs of Private Workers?

By Geoff Thale*

Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

As Cuba embraces a new but still undefined economic model, it’s unclear whether or how the country’s old labor laws and regulatory systems will be adapted to accommodate the interests of employees in the growing private and cooperative sectors, or in the newly autonomous state enterprises.  The trade union structure cannot play the social role it played in the past with the emergence of businesses owned by both individuals and cooperatives, a growing role for foreign investment, and increasingly decentralized state enterprises.  During a recent trip to Cuba, our research team met with representatives and staff from a range of officially recognized trade unions.  We met with the national labor federation – the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) – and with national and local officials from some member unions, including the national president of the health care workers’ union; local trade union officials in the hotel and restaurant workers union in the tourist sector in Old Havana; and local officials representing self-employed and small-business owners who have joined the union for retail and commercial workers.  A Labor Code approved by the National Assembly in December 2013 changed some aspects of the legal framework for labor relations.  It continued to privilege the CTC as the sole labor federation, while also taking some steps to recognize the new issues that confront workers in the emerging sectors of the economy.  It established a maximum number of hours of work (44) for private-sector employees, required the self-employed or small-business owners to pay into a social security fund and ensure social protections – health care, pensions, etc. – for employees.  And it guaranteed private-sector employees seven days paid vacation per year (though less than the one month given to state-sector workers).

Our interviews, however, turned up more questions than answers.  Newly autonomous state enterprises have greater latitude in setting wages, incentives and working conditions, but it remains unclear how these decentralized enterprises will handle labor relations issues, and what kind of negotiations might take place on compliance with regulations on workplace safety and protection, wage requirements and employment opportunities.  Indeed, it is unclear how the current worker organizations will represent workers in these decentralized enterprises.  The growth of the private sector presents another challenge.  The CTC has sought to organize the self-employed into the unions in the industries in which they are functioning – the food service and restaurant union, the retail and commercial sector union, and so on – but it is unclear how the union will represent the interests of both owners of independent small businesses – cuentapropistas – and the 15 percent of “self-employed” who are actually employees in those enterprises.  Similar queries are popping up in the cooperative sector and in enterprises run as joint ventures with foreign corporations or as wholly foreign-owned companies.

Cuba’s new labor policies are clearly a work in progress, but they signal recognition that there is an emerging stratum of non-state sector employees – and that they need social protections.  It also reflects a balancing act between ensuring stable employment and benefiting from the flexibility that private sector employment models provide.  The new Labor Code requires, for example, that employers sign year-long contracts with employees while guaranteeing them access to health care, parental leave and other benefits during that period.  New challenges will emerge, especially in terms of the structures that represent the interests of these groups and advocate for them.  But for now, there appears to be progress in establishing a system of social protections for the self-employed and for their employees under the new labor code.  Concerns about the burden of compliance appear likely to be muted for at least the near term because, as it was clear to us during our visit, the self-employed and their employees are earning substantially higher incomes than are workers in the state sector.

*Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in October led the research team’s fifth visit to Cuba examining the impact of economic change on workers.

December 9, 2014

More Cracks in the EU’s “Common Position” on Cuba

By William M. LeoGrande*

eu cubaThe visit of Dutch Foreign Minister Timmermans to Cuba earlier this month marks yet another crack in the European Union’s 1996 Common Position on Cuba, which conditions normal relations with the island on democratic reforms. Days later, EU Commission President Barroso acknowledged that a number of member states were pressing for a reevaluation of the Common Position, and Spanish Foreign Minister García Margallo announced that the issue would be taken up at the EU foreign ministers meeting on 10 February – adding, however, that any new policy “would have, as a determining factor, respect for human rights.” Amending the Common Position will require unanimity among the EU’s member states, something conservative governments – especially in the former socialist countries – have thus far blocked.

The Common Position has severely constrained the ability of Brussels to respond creatively to rapidly changing conditions in Cuba today, but various European governments have expanded their bilateral economic and political ties with Cuba despite its strictures. Trade between Cuba and Europe, at 2.5 billion euros annually, has roughly tripled since 1996, and official development assistance to Cuba has quadrupled to nearly 60 million euros annually. Policies of engagement have proven more successful than policies of hostility and confrontation.  In 2010, quiet diplomacy by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s government enabled Spain to play a crucial mediating role between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church, leading to the release of more than a hundred political prisoners – the largest such release since the 1970s.

Cuba today is moving in directions that the EU has long favored.  The “updating” of the Cuban economic model, begun in 2011, entails greater economic openness, reduced government regulation of private markets, and a larger role for private sector businesses. At the same time, although challenging Cuba’s one-party system or its socialist society is still out of bounds, there has been a very gradual opening of political space to debate the shape of Cuba’s future.  Replacing the Common Position does not mean that European states, individually or collectively, would abandon their commitment to encouraging greater human rights and democracy in Cuba.  But a warmer political climate would enable them to express their concerns more effectively through quiet diplomacy. What offends Cuba’s leaders is not that other states have different views on these issues; it is that the Common Position makes normal relations contingent on Cuba conforming to European norms, a litmus test that no other Latin American country is required to pass.

*Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.  This article is excerpted from an essay (click here) he wrote for the London School of Economics and Political Science blog.

Prospects for U.S.-Latin American Educational Exchange

By Aaron Bell

Picture3Regional educational exchange has become an important talking point for U.S. administrations in recent years, but data is still lacking to judge it a success or failure.  In 2011, the Obama administration announced the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, intended to promote a north-south multilateral exchange of 100,000 students by 2020.  The State Department casts it as a means for students in the hemisphere to develop the relationships and skills necessary to meet four contemporary challenges: citizen security, economic opportunity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability.  The organizations tasked with fulfilling the program’s goals include the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, whose 60-plus years of advocacy on behalf of international education is based on the belief that “international education leads to a more peaceful world.” Whether such lofty aspirations are possible is subject to some debate, but the more-easily measured effect of 100,000 Strong will become clearer when the Institute of International Education releases its report later this year on international study to and from the United States during the past academic year.

Latin American countries as diverse as Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador have student exchange programs of their own, with the U.S. a leading destination.  Mexico sent the most students to the U.S. of any Latin American nation in 2011-12, but its 13,000 students were only the ninth largest source of international students in the U.S.  The most commonly touted example of U.S.-Latin American exchange is cooperation with the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program, part of the Brazilian government’s plan to send 100,000 students abroad by 2015 to study in key science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.  Responding to the weakness of these fields in many Brazilian universities and to the growing demand for highly qualified graduates in high-tech industries, so far over 7,000 Brazilian students have studied at over 200 U.S. universities and interned at 300 companies, with another estimated 3,900 now in such programs.  Cooperation in education exchange is not limited to high-tech fields.  In Washington, for example, Georgetown University administers leadership training to “disadvantaged communities” and “historically underserved populations” from Latin America through the State Department’s Central America Youth Ambassadors Program and the USAID’s Scholarships for Economic Education and Development (SEED) Program.

While governments like Brazil’s have financed their international study programs, the U.S. has asked the private sector to take the lead in expanding pre-existing programs like Fulbright.  Two years ago, 64,000 Latin American students studied in the U.S., compared to 40,000 U.S. students in Latin America, of which one third stayed only for a summer.  If part of the purpose of 100,000 Strong is to improve regional relations through personal contact and exposure to the region’s sociocultural diversity, educational exchanges will need to flow north-south on a more equal footing.  It remains to be seen if the U.S. private sector is willing to meet such a commitment.  There is also the perennial question of whether educational exchange programs enhance economic development and mobility in Latin America or instead contribute to “brain drain.”  The development of high tech industries in places like Brazil offers a more promising future for returning students, but their absence in poorer regions like Central America is a source of concern.  Finally, 100,000 Strong and similar programs should be judged on how they respond to the largest challenges facing universities throughout the Americas: affordability, providing quality education for students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and in Latin America specifically, making local universities appealing settings for internationally-trained intellectuals and experts.

Cuban National Assembly Takes Modest Steps on Reforms

Photo by Nathan Laurell via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/nglklm/7146331353

Speaking to the two-day semi-annual session, President Raúl Castro reiterated the leadership’s commitment to undertaking the reforms outlined in the Sixth Party Congress last year.  He didn’t explicitly address concerns reported in international media that implementation of the reforms has been halting, but he announced several concrete steps to be undertaken this year.  Among them is the creation of non-agricultural cooperatives – allowing a new form of private enterprise in 222 business areas and announcing government loans for them – and greater decision-making autonomy for state enterprises.  The Assembly passed a new tax law, details of which have not yet been published.

Castro was a little defensive about the lack of an “updating of migration policy” – widely understood to include lifting the requirement for exit visas – while “ratifying the will of the Party and State leadership to carry out the reformulation.”

From the beginning of the current round of reforms, Raúl Castro and the Communist Party have cautioned that the changes will be introduced gradually and adjusted during implementation.  The credible reports of frustration with the pace of change notwithstanding, the National Assembly appears to have validated that getting the reforms “right” is more important than doing them fast.  The government probably calculates that the new cooperatives and tax law are important elements of an infrastructure for change, but slow or partial implementation will undermine them.  The perennial question remains whether the government’s concern with control discourages important energy among the individuals it is counting on building the new limited private sector.

Nicaragua: Government-Private Sector Tactical Cooperation

Leaders of Nicaragua’s private sector and political opposition have teamed up with the government to press Washington not to go overboard with sanctions in response to flawed elections last November.  Their traditional allies in Congress, including the Cuban-Americans who dominate the Obama Administration policy toward Latin America, are pressing for suspension of two waivers to U.S. laws that suspend bilateral and multilateral aid to Nicaragua.  One waiver depends on progress on fiscal “transparency,” and the other on the resolution of property disputes from the 1980s.  The former, which would affect several million US dollars in bilateral aid (apparently for an AIDS program), is doomed, according to insiders.  But a decision on the property waiver – suspension of which would require the United States to oppose Nicaraguan loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and IMF worth more than $200 million in 2011 – has not yet been made.

In public and private appearances, leaders of the Nicaraguan business community and political opposition, including Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance standard-bearer and Presidential Candidate Eduardo Montealegre, have forcefully stated their differences with the government of President Daniel Ortega, particularly regarding the conduct of elections and the lack of “institutionality” – i.e., the politicization of government institutions.  But the business community has pleaded for U.S. flexibility.  They estimate that suspension of the property waiver would threaten $1.4 billion in development assistance, deal a serious blow to their own prospects, and thrust Nicaragua into deep crisis.  Montealagre said he would lobby “neither for nor against” the waiver, but his participation in the delegation signaled a clear preference for Washington to be cautious.  Ortega’s personal emissary for foreign investment, Alvaro Baltodano, has emphasized the growing commercial links between the two countries and the benefit it provides directly to the Nicaraguan people.

The private sector and opposition are in the odd position of trying to persuade their own friends in Washington to be practical – not to be more anti-Sandinista than they.  Suspension of the property waiver would not only hurt them in the pocketbook; it would give a propaganda boost to President Daniel Ortega and make the population even more dependent on his social programs, heavily subsidized by Venezuela.  All of the U.S. aid and most of the multilateral aid provides direct benefit to the Nicaraguan people.  Ortega’s opponents do not want U.S. sanctions to close the business and political operating space they have enjoyed in recent years, despite Ortega’s excesses.