Despite the almost subsistence-level wages of most Cubans, they are generally much better off than citizens of many other developing countries because their meager salaries are supplemented with free education, subsidized medical care, housing, and some subsidized food. In terms of the Human Development Report’s human poverty index (HPI), which focuses on the proportion of people below a threshold level in basic dimensions of human development — living a long and healthy life, having access to education, and a decent standard of living — Cuba ranked an impressive fifth in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2003.
Cuba has a dual economy, with two distinct systems operating side by side. The socialist peso economy applies to most Cubans, providing them with free education, free health care, universal employment, unemployment compensation, disability and retirement benefits and the basis necessities of life: food, housing, utilities and some entertainment at very low cost. The free-market dollarized economy operates in the tourist, international and export sectors, and substantially sustains the socialist economy.
In power for five decades, Fidei Castro converted Cuba into a Marxist-Leninist society with no individual freedoms or private property and with a Soviet-style centrally planned economy (see Glossary) run by a vast and cumbersome bureaucracy that has stifled innovation, productivity, and efficiency. Despite massive Soviet aid, the Cubans sank to unprecedented levels of poverty, aggravated further by the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In the early 1980s, the Cuban Revolution reached a critical stage in its development. Persistent structural and managerial problems in the economy, low prices for Cuba's export products, and an inability to break away from economic dependence on the Soviet bloc forced a reexamination ofbasic goals. Because production in most key sectors had fallen short of expected targets, emphasis was placed on increased planning with more modest goals. The regime adopted Soviet economic methods, decreased emphasis on moral incentives, and attempted to create more efficient economic organizations. In the process, the Cubans suffered more austerity, with greater rationing offood and consumer goods, and, therefore, harder times.
The collapse of communism in the early 1990s had a profound effect on Cuba. Soviet economic subsidies to Cuba ended as of January 1, 1991. Without Soviet support, Cuba was submerged in a major economic crisis. The gross national product contracted by as much as one-half between 1989 and 1993, exports fell by 79 percent and imports by 75 percent, the budget deficit tripled, and the standard of living of the population declined sharply. The Cuban government refers to the economic crisis of the 1990s and the austerity measures put in place to try to overcome it euphemistically as the “special period in peacetime.” Minor adjustments, such as more liberalized foreign investment laws and the opening of private (but highly regulated) small businesses and agricultural stands, were introduced. Yet the regime continued to cling to an outdated Marxist and caudillista (dictatorial) system, refusing to open the political process or the economy.
The international dimensions of the Cuban government's strategy for survival required the active cultivation of foreign investment and, therefore, of better political relations with market-economy countries. To resist the increased United States economic and political pressures on Cuba, Fidel Castro's government needed to find some international support.
Fifteen years after the demise of the Soviet Union the Cuban Government found in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela a new benefactor. The politically motivated preferential relationships with this country have replaced tourism as the main engine of growth for the Cuban economy since the second half of 2004. Its main component has been the exchange of medical services for oil at indexed prices and with long-term financing of up to 50% at subsidized interest rates. The transfer of financial resources from Venezuela to Cuba has also materialized in credits for projects at concessionary interest rates, the creation of joint ventures and a large number of cooperation projects.
As a whole, the preferential economic relationship with Venezuela allowed the Cuban Government to more than double its import capacity, which had historically been closely related to GDP growth, and to carry out multibillion dollar investments both in infrastructure and productive sectors. This factor, together with almost tripled nickel prices in the world market between 2004 and 2008, explains the high growth rates registered in this period, but also allowed (now former) President Fidel Castro to start reversing some of the liberalizing and decentralizing reforms introduced in the 1993-2003 period.
In the fall of 2008 three hurricanes severely battered the island's economy prompting many to speculate that the system could not recover from the devastation. However, nearly all observers have been amazed at the steady progress the GOC has made in restoring the miserable but adequate quality of living in place before the disasters. The government faces serious challenges but its ability to muddle through cannot be underestimated. The Cuban people under the numbing effects of decades of repression, have long been accustomed to adapting, often with remarkable ingenuity, to whatever new deprivation comes their way. There is no reason to think that a new round of ration reductions or rolling power outages will change this fact.
In his 2008 inaugural address, Raul Castro said the Cuban Government would "advance in an articulate, sound and well-thought out manner" a series of measures that would raise the Cuban standard of living and tie individual prosperity to individual initiative and work performance. Castro also referred to excess "prohibitions and regulations," the simplest of which the Cuban Government would start removing "in the next few weeks." Ever since, at every opportunity, Castro has emphasized the need, even urgency, of enacting economic reforms. Since 2008, the government has authorized private farmers to work small plots of fallow public land; eliminated some subsidies, including food rations and subsidized lunches in workplace cafeterias; allowed a limited number of traders to operate privately; allowed used cars to be sold; and expanded access to certain previously restricted consumer goods (like cell phones, computers, and home appliances), among other things.
Under Raul, a series of limited reforms were implemented, such as the highly-touted lifting of restrictions on the entrance of Cubans into hotels and restaurants that heretofore had been open only to tourists. With little change in the average Cuban's disposable income, however, reforms such as these were more symbolic than real. Of greater potential impact was a provision to allow for greater private use of vacant land, essentially establishing a sharecropping system with the state as the landlord.
At the same time, the government used the crises created by the multiple storms of 2008 to crack down on ordinary citizens as well. Citing the need to protect scarce resources, the government shut down scores of small businesses upon which Cubans depend for services and supplies not provided by the government. The activities of these businesses were indeed "illegal," since in Cuba only the state has the right to carry out commercial activity. But, just as the failure of the government to deliver these services helped create the vast and complex black market that exists here, its enforcement of the law created immediate and almost total absence of many goods and services. In announcing the measures in the spring of 2008, Raul Castro said he planned to end many of the "absurd prohibitions" that characterize life in Cuba. Post-storm efforts to maintain internal order have brought those prohibitions back with a vengeance. Individuals were arrested for having a single bag of cement or for possessing cake dough (to make cake dough one would have to have more than the legal allotment of eggs, milk and flour so, ipso facto, possession of cake dough is an offense that makes one subject to arrest).
In April 2010, President Castro announced that there were more than 1 million “excess” workers in Cuba. In September 2010, the Cuban Government announced that more than 500,000 state workers, 10% of the workforce, would be laid off by the first quarter of 2011. To absorb these workers, the government said it would reduce regulations on private sector employment and expand the cooperative sector. In October 2010, the Cuban Government published new rules regulating the self-employment sector, including new activities (increasing the number of activities authorized to 178), opening the door for self-employed workers to hire labor, and introducing a new tax scheme to include taxes on sales, profit, payroll, and social security. By the end of 2010, the Cuban Government announced it had granted 75,000 new licenses for self-employment activities, which represented more than a 50% increase from the number authorized in 2009.
In April 2011, the Communist Party held a party congress for the first time in 14 years, and endorsed reforms previously introduced by President Raul Castro. Most notably, these reforms included allowing the purchase/sale of private property and possible credit mechanisms for small businesses and cooperatives. In late 2011, the Cuban Government announced that it would allow the donation, sale, and purchase of homes for the first time since the early days of the revolution.
The reality of economic reforms to date has not matched the government's urgent language, and the government has so far unveiled limited measures that have fallen short of true market liberalization. The government continues to hamper private sector growth with tight restrictions on the supply of goods and labor, high taxation that discourages hiring and profits, a ban on professional entrepreneurs, limited access to transportation and credit, a monopoly on importation, legal uncertainty and lack of transparency, and a host of other disincentives and restrictions. The reforms introduced so far, at a very slow pace, have been insufficient to reverse the deep systemic crisis first brought to light with the departure of Soviet economic support and exacerbated by a liquidity crisis that peaked in 2008-2009.
Exports of professional services, mainly doctors and nurses to Venezuela, has been the main source of hard currency revenues for the Cuban economy since 2005.
Sugar, which was the mainstay of the island's economy for most of its history, has fallen upon troubled times. In 1989, production was more than 8 million tons, but by 2009, it had fallen to barely one million tons. Inefficient planting and cultivation methods, poor management, shortages of spare parts, and poor transportation infrastructure combined to deter the recovery of the sector. In June 2002, the government announced its intention to implement a "comprehensive transformation" of this declining sector. Almost half the existing sugar mills were closed, and more than 100,000 workers were laid off. The government promised that these workers would be "retrained" in other fields, though it was unlikely they would find new jobs in Cuba's stagnant economy. The sugar sector has continued to decline since the restructuring, with output registering a downward trend and averaging just 1.6 million tons during 2003-2009.
Tourism figures prominently in the Cuban Government's plans for development, and a top official casts it as at the "heart of the economy." Havana devotes significant resources to building new tourist facilities and renovating historic structures for use in the tourism sector. Roughly 1.7 million tourists visited Cuba in 2001, generating about $1.85 billion in gross revenues; by 2010 that number was 2.53 million, and had generated $2.4 billion.
According to the Cuban Ministry of the Basic Industry (MINBAS), nickel became the leading export and the top foreign exchange earner in 2007. In 2009, world nickel prices generated $870 million. Cuba's pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry is another emerging sector, ranking third in foreign sales behind nickel and oil products, and ahead of traditional products such as tobacco, rum, and sugar. Exports of pharmaceutical and biotech products were between $300 and $350 million in 2007-2008 and jumped to $520 million in 2009.
Remittances also play a large role in Cuba's economy. Cuba does not publish accurate economic statistics, but academic sources estimate that remittances total from $800 million to $1.5 billion per year, with most coming from families in the United States. U.S. regulatory changes in 2009 and 2010 allow unlimited remittances to family members and religious organizations. The total amount of family remittances that an authorized traveler may carry to Cuba is now $3,000. In January 2011, the United States announced further changes that permit anyone under U.S. jurisdiction to send up to $500 per quarter to someone in Cuba. The changes also authorize unlimited remittances to religious organizations in Cuba.
In 2004, the government mandated that U.S. dollars be exchanged for "convertible pesos" or CUCs--a local currency that can be used only in Cuba and has no value internationally. The Cuban Government levies a 10% penalty on U.S. dollar exchanges that disproportionately affect Cubans who receive remittances from relatives in the United States. However, Western Union announced in December 2010 that it received permission from the U.S. and Cuban governments to remit payments in Cuban convertible pesos, thus avoiding the 10% surcharge. The Cuban Government captures these dollar remittances by allowing Cuban citizens to shop in state-run "dollar stores," which sell food, household, and clothing items at a high mark-up averaging over 240% of face value.
To help keep the economy afloat, Cuba has actively courted foreign investment in targeted sectors. Although majority foreign ownership has been permitted since 1995, it has seldom been allowed. Foreign investment often takes the form of joint ventures with the Cuban Government holding half of the equity, management contracts for tourism facilities, or financing for agricultural crops. The number of joint ventures has steadily declined since 2002 to 218 in 2009. Moreover, a hostile investment climate, characterized by inefficient and overpriced labor, dense regulations, and an impenetrable bureaucracy, continue to deter foreign investment.
In 2010, the government published a new law that extended the leases foreign investors could sign from 50 years to 99 years, exclusively for tourist properties, and said that it was in talks with international firms to build up to 16 new golf courses in 2011. None had moved forward by the close of 2011.
Cuba's precarious economic position is complicated by the high price it must pay for foreign financing. The Cuban Government defaulted on most of its international debt in 1986 and does not have access to credit from international financial institutions like the World Bank. Therefore, Havana must rely heavily on short-term loans to finance imports, chiefly food and fuel, and structured financial instruments tied to more stable revenue sources (e.g., nickel, tourism, and remittances). Because of its poor credit rating, an $18 billion hard currency debt, and the risks associated with Cuban investment, interest rates have reportedly been as high as 22%.
Years of doing without have conditioned the Cuban people to live on very little beyond promises, and quick and decisive government action against anyone who steps out of line ensures that complainers are dealt with. Cubans are losing whatever ability they may have had to accept their lot in life. Generations have faced scarcity of basic goods, and lack of freedom to speak and act as they pleased, but they survived and found a way to "resolver" the problems of daily life. There is now much greater frustration about the government's failure to create the conditions necessary to improve the economy, and willingness to accept the status quo is evaporating.
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