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    Reforms in Cuba: The Last Utopia?

    Reforms in Cuba: The Last Utopia?
    September 2, 2013
    Emilio Morales* (Cafe Fuerte)

    HAVANA TIMES – When Raul Castro initiated reforms aimed at transforming
    the Cuban economic model, Cuban and foreign experts hoped that they were
    finally glimpsing a change on the horizon following more than five
    decades of mistaken policies.

    However, despite having further reach than those changes effected in the
    nineties, Raul Castro’s reforms have turned out to be limited, shallow,
    slow and contradictory.

    One of the things that should be noted as unique to this process is that
    the changes are being implemented by the historical leadership of the
    revolution. This represents a peculiarity never before seen in history,
    not even in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union
    where the ones that carried out the reforms were the emerging political
    forces. In the Cuban case, we have the paradox of the historical
    leadership finally finding themselves prisoners, trapped by their own

    Obsolete Structure

    The reforms rise out of obsolete structures that have not been
    dismantled, with the goal of conserving socialism. From there on, they
    become a contradiction in themselves.

    In the current context, the economic situation on the island is chaotic;
    the accumulated errors and failures of more than half a century comprise
    a heavy obstacle stifling the development of any real economic and
    financial transformation.

    The economy of the country functions like a bankrupt business, surviving
    only thanks to outside support: the Cuban Diaspora and the aid from
    Venezuela are the two factors that today stave off the system’s collapse.

    The Cuban emigration data from the last ten years demonstrates that over
    half a million Cubans have left the country permanently to try their
    luck in other latitudes.

    In 2012, two years after the beginnings of the reforms, migration
    reached its highest peak in a decade: a total of 56,207 Cubans
    immigrated to other countries. This statistic could be interpreted as a
    signal that the reforms haven’t awakened interest in the possibilities
    of change on the island. On the contrary, the urge to emigrate has
    apparently increased.

    The life-raft

    Currently, there are around 2.1 million Cubans living outside of Cuba
    and 11.2 million on the island. Proportionally that means 15.3% of
    Cuba’s population living outside the country, or one Cuban living
    outside the country for every five inhabitants.

    Nevertheless, this high rate of Cuban migration has become,
    paradoxically, one of the fundamental financial supports of the national
    economy in the form of family remittances.

    Thanks to the measures implemented by President Barack Obama freeing up
    the restrictions on travel and on sending money, around 2.6 billion
    dollars in cash arrive in Cuba annually, and another 2.5 billion in
    merchandise. Provisions sent include clothing, food, medicine, small
    appliances and other products that Cubans who live outside the island
    send to help their family members. In the last four years the cash
    remittances have increased over a billion dollars, a truly unusual rise.

    The total balance of this family aid comes to 5.1 billion dollars, more
    than the sum of the gross income from the four most important branches
    of the country’s economy: tourism (2.6 billion); nickel (1.4 billion);
    exports of medicine ($500 million) and sugar exports ($393.1 million)
    which together add up to 4.9 billion. Furthermore, after deducting the
    costs of production, operations and marketing from these figures, the
    net earnings from these areas is left at around one billion dollars, a
    sum five times less than the contribution of the Cuban Diaspora.

    Venezuelan Mega-support

    Parallel to this, the aid from Venezuela constitutes the other
    mega-support of the Cuban economy, with an estimated value of 6 billion
    dollars per year.

    Nonetheless, the current crisis facing the economy of that South
    American country, added to the negative effect that the death of Hugo
    Chávez may have on the continuity of power, lead to predictions that it
    may prove difficult to maintain this level of aid in the future.

    The numbers speak for themselves of a very real problem scenario for
    Venezuela, something that raises its own alarm signals for Cuba.

    When Chavez came to power in 1999, there were 16 ministries; today
    (2013) there are 36, an increase of 125%.

    In 1999 the State had 900,000 public employees; today there are
    2,300,000, a 55% increment.

    In 1999, without any exchange controls, the exchange rate for the former
    Venezuelan currency was 573.86 Bolivars to a dollar. Today, with a
    controlled exchange rate its 6.30 new Bolivars (6,300 of the old
    currency) equaling a devaluation of 997.83%. This doesn’t take into
    account the higher price on the government’s currency auction for
    importers, and much less the price of a dollar on the street.

    In 1999 the price of oil was US $10.57 dollars/barrel. Today it’s
    $109.45 dollars/barrel, an increase of 935.48%

    In 1999 oil production was 3,480 million barrels a day; today it’s at
    2,357, a 32.27% reduction.

    In 1999 oil exports were 3.000 million barrels a day (MMB/d). In the
    last years it’s been 2,200 MMB/d, which represents a decrease of 26.67%

    In 1999 the payroll of the Venezuelan state-owned petroleum company
    (PDVSA) included 40,000 employees; today they have around 120,000,
    representing an increase of 300%.

    In 1999 the financial debt of the PDVSA was 6 billion US$. Today it’s
    around 40 billion US$, a growth of 567.10%

    In 1999 the external debt was 39 billion US$, while today it’s
    approaching 104 billion US $, a growth of 161.78%.

    The Venezuelan government has intervened in more than 600 farms with a
    total of 2.5 million hectares.

    The government has spent more than $14 billion dollars in the purchase
    of military armaments.

    The labor situation in Cuba

    The internal refoms in Cuba that are taking place within this context
    are not showing encouraging results as far as the quantity of people
    incorporated into private employment. This contrasts with the desire of
    the government to gradually eliminate the state payroll and reduce the

    Currently there are 6.8 million people of working age but only 5.17
    million of them have a job, leaving 1.09 million people without work.

    The number of people who have incorporated themselves into the world of
    independent employment reached 429,458 in 2012. Of these, 77,302 are
    retired and 60,124 are people who also work in the state sector. The
    most current data, issued at the end of July, gives a statistic of
    436,342 self-employed workers.

    In fact, the number of “purely” self-employed workers is closer to
    292,031, representing only 4.29 percent of all people of employable age.
    If we add the approximately 537,000 private farmers to this statistic,
    both groups would total only 12.28 percent of the employable population.

    Why isn’t there more advance?

    Given this – why aren’t the reforms advancing at the rate the government

    The chief obstacle facing the reform process is that the structural
    changes proclaimed by Raul Castro haven’t happened. Instead, the reforms
    are based on the old scheme of economic centralization, backed by
    regulations and a shallow layer of laws.

    We are witnessing more an exercise in the elimination of prohibitions
    and restitution of rights than of structural changes. For example: the
    migratory law, the liberation of home and auto sales, the authorization
    of self-employment in 183 modalities and most recently the contracting
    of Cuban sports figures in foreign professional clubs have all
    overturned prohibitions established half a century ago, but haven’t
    generated structural changes in the economy.

    The ideology that underlies the process remains intact; the same
    ideology that has held the reins of the country for over half a century.
    For this reason a change in strategic thinking and philosophy regarding
    how to manage the country’s economy is very difficult. There is no
    perception of new strategic thinking about transitioning from the
    centralized economic system towards an open and unrestricted economic

    One of the principal barriers is that the privatization of the public
    sector is prohibited by the Constitution, which puts the brakes on
    attracting foreign capital and developing a national private sector.

    The productive forces find themselves prisoners of the rigidity and the
    limitations of the existing laws, and for this reason individual
    initiative and ingenuity are not encouraged. Further, the success of the
    self-employed worker is reflected in the official press as the birth of
    the nouveau riche which reflects distrust on the part of the government
    and fears that the development of a private sector might prove the motor
    force of a change in the social system.

    It’s obvious that a strong resistance to change persists despite the
    fact that the highest circle of government understands that there is no
    other alternative.

    At the same time, the dual currency constitutes a straitjacket that is
    very difficult to eliminate, given the low productivity of the country
    and the high rate of employment in the totally unproductive State sector.

    Aiming for utopia

    The recently opened real estate market has turned out to be more about
    speculation than sales. The prices of the homes are not in accordance
    with the purchasing power of the population. The average price of a
    house in Cuba on a national level is 31,489 CUC, while the average
    annual salary is 216 CUC.

    In this new market context the lack of financial mechanisms for
    stimulating sales and financing mortgages weighs heavily. The low amount
    offered in loans to finance home construction and repair that the banks
    offer has generated a market where payment is only in cash and this
    slows down the process instead of stimulating it.

    The capital investments are discriminatory, as they are only allowed for
    foreign companies or businessmen, not for Cubans living inside or
    outside of the island. The government doesn’t stimulate individual
    initiative or free enterprise, but instead prefers to make incursions
    into the failed road of the cooperatives.

    In agriculture the distribution of land and cultivation rights has been
    a failure. Despite leasing out 70% of the lands they possess (80% of the
    total) the State has to import 60 percent of the country’s food at a
    cost of $2 billion dollars annually. Those who have been granted land
    don’t feel that they are really the owners. They look at the harvests
    they produce more as a survival mechanism than for commercialization and

    Finally, the 183 modalities approved for self-employment have now
    arrived at a limit that doesn’t permit any greater growth of the private
    sector. Meanwhile, the highly trained sectors of society – the
    professionals- have not been included at present in the reform program.

    This is the landscape, as we observe what the next years may bring: if
    the reforms continue to aim at the utopia of shoring up socialism or if
    they will take the direction of a road to transition towards a market
    economy that brings prosperity and development to all Cubans.

    For the moment, everything indicates that we will continue to hitch our
    wagon to the star of utopia. And that may sound very nice, but it’s not
    a signal of change.
    *Emilio Morales is a Cuban economist, ex-head of strategic planning for
    marketing in the CIMEX corporation and author of the books “Cuba: silent
    transition to capitalism?” and “Marketing without Advertising, Brand
    Preference and Consumer Choice in Cuba”, and president of the Havana
    Consulting Group in Miami.

    Source: “Reforms in Cuba: The Last Utopia?” –