Cubanálisis El Think-Tank
ARTÍCULO ESPECIAL EN EL THINK-TANK DE CUBANÁLISIS
And eventually, perhaps, in one currency, as the tempo of reform accelerates
At 9.01am one morning earlier this month, Marino Murillo, a member of Cuba’s ruling Politburo, strode on to the stage at the International Press Centre in Havana, gave a concise account of the government’s economic plans, and took questions for 45 minutes. What would have been routine elsewhere was remarkable in communist Cuba, for three reasons. Gone is the interminable waiting around for the late-night rants of Fidel Castro: punctuality is one of the hallmarks of the government led since 2006 by his younger brother, Raúl. And after internecine political battles over liberalising economic reforms, the government is confident enough of its message to have invited a small group of foreign journalists to hear it—the first such initiative in many years.
Third was the message itself. Mr Murillo, a burly economist who is in charge of implementing economic reforms (officially dubbed “updating”), stressed that the core of the system remained “social property”. But he also talked of “wealth creation” and the need for “price signals” and “market factors”. “Life has shown that the state can’t do everything,” he said. “Success will lie in how to maintain macro balance while giving space to the market and wealth creation.”
Under 313 “guidelines” approved by a Communist Party Congress in 2011, Raúl Castro is trying to revive the island’s moribund economy by transferring a chunk of it from state to private hands and by streamlining a cumbersome central-planning system. So far the changes have centred on farming and small business.
The government has handed over, on ten-year renewable leases, nearly 1.5m hectares (3.7m acres) of land to private farmers or co-operatives, who now occupy 70% of farmland. Farmers can sell almost half their output to the highest bidder, rather than handing all of it over to the state as in the past. About 400,000 Cubans work in the budding private sector of small business and self-employment, up from 150,000 three years ago. Cubans can now buy and sell houses and cars freely and travel abroad. From last month, they can surf the internet at what will soon be a network of 118 telecoms centres, though the price of $4.50 an hour is about a quarter of the average monthly wage for a state worker.
The tempo of reform is accelerating. Over the next 18 months, Mr Murillo said, the government will loosen two of the economy’s most crippling shackles. Starting next year, state enterprises will be allowed to keep half their post-tax profits, to reinvest or distribute to their workers. Their managers will be given much more autonomy. Companies that post persistent losses will, in theory, be liquidated.
Mr Murillo is also preparing to unify Cuba’s twin currencies, the source of convoluted distortions and hidden subsidies. Most wages and prices are set in Cuban pesos (CUPs), 25 of which buy a dollar. The tourist economy operates with “convertible” pesos (or CUCs), set at par to the dollar. In fact, CUCs are not freely convertible, because state companies are allowed to pretend that each of their CUPs is worth one CUC. The upshot is that ordinary Cubans are paid a pittance (the average monthly wage of 466 CUPs is worth just $19). Income inequality is rising sharply as more Cubans obtain CUCs, either as remittances from relatives abroad or because they work in tourism or the growing private sector. And since scarce foreign exchange is assigned by government fiat, companies have had no incentive to export or substitute imports.
The logical step would be to unify the two currencies by devaluing the CUC and revaluing the CUP, though this would trigger inflation and boost demand for imports. Instead, officials say that within the next few weeks several industries -starting with sugar, biotechnology and shellfish- will be allowed to start experimenting with different exchange rates. Pavel Vidal, a former official at Cuba’s Central Bank now teaching at the Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia, thinks that these companies will get 12 pesos to the dollar for exports, will pay for imports at seven and book oil imports from Venezuela, Cuba’s main benefactor, at four to the dollar.
This experimental devaluation should generate opportunities as well as costs. Since companies need management autonomy to take advantage of them, Mr Vidal thinks it is “positive” that currency and enterprise reform are happening together. But he points out that multiple exchange rates tend to generate corruption and hidden subsidies -vices that officials have pledged to fight.
If they succeed in their aim of boosting productivity, these reforms are likely to lead to job losses. Raúl Castro originally said that the state would lay off 1.1m workers by 2014. He was forced to backtrack, because many feared losing the little they have (and the opportunity for pilfering that state jobs offer). Instead, the government is quietly easing workers off the state payroll. It is encouraging -or obliging- them to form co-operatives.
The constitution was recently changed to allow co-operatives outside farming; 197 have so far been authorised, according to Carlos Mateu Pereira, an adviser to the Labour Ministry. State-owned restaurants are to become co-ops; many transport businesses will go down the same route. So will some wholesale markets. There is talk that professionals, such as architects and lawyers, may be able to form co-ops -something which reformist economists favoured from the outset.
But the reforms remain limited and cautious. The characteristic methodology is that change is first piloted in selected provinces or industries before being rolled out across the island. This reflects the leadership’s fear of social -and potentially political-instability. “We cannot have a mass of people without jobs,” says Mr Pereira. But it also restricts the benefits of change.
Reform has powerful enemies. Numbers two and three in the Communist Party’s pecking order, José Ramón Machado and Ramiro Valdés, are elderly Stalinists. The defence establishment still has ties with such disreputable regimes as North Korea’s. On July 16th Panama announced that it had seized 240 tonnes of arms, including two anti-aircraft missile batteries and two MiG-21 fighter jets, concealed beneath a cargo of sugar on a North Korean freighter bound from Havana. Cuba’s government said they were “obsolete defensive weapons” being sent for repair. Although this is a breach of United Nations sanctions, Cuba’s quick acknowledgment suggested that it does not want the incident to inflame its relations with the United States.
“Having been told for 50 years that communism is the way, there’s a natural resistance to change,” says Orlando Márquez, the spokesman for Havana’s Catholic archbishop. Bureaucrats fear losing their jobs; for some, ideology is more important than the economy, he says. Many mid-ranking officials still spout the language of central planning.
There is also much inertia. Take Héroes de Yaguajay, a long-established agricultural co-operative an hour south of Havana. It has leased an extra 200 hectares of land, doubling its size. But it continues to submit its production plan for approval by the authorities. In an oxymoron of which he appears unconscious, its president, Alfredo Acosta, says: “We are autonomous, but always within the decision of the country.” He says he chooses to continue to sell 80% of the co-op’s output to the state. Mr Acosta has been the president for 25 years.
Responding, slowly, to price signals
While Mr Murillo insists that Cuba needs foreign investment, the government seems paralysed by the issue. As part of an anti-corruption drive, it purged some of its cleverest officials and locked up several foreign businessmen (in horrible conditions), though two were recently freed. The government is drawing up rules for a free-trade zone next to a new container port at Mariel, 40km (25 miles) west of Havana, built by Brazil’s Odebrecht and due to open in December. Brazilian pharmaceutical firms and a glassmaker have expressed interest in setting up export plants there.
Cautious though they are, the reforms are producing social changes. “I’m seeing a very gradual and very slow rebirth of a middle class,” says a teacher in Havana. Many private restaurants, guesthouses and shops have become genuine small businesses, while many farmers are making good money. Private gyms, spas and even cinemas are springing up to cater to this new moneyed group. The teacher reports that the price of a haircut has gone up from 1.20 to 20 CUPs. Gilberto Valladares, a chubby and dynamic man who has set up a beauty parlour in his flat in Old Havana and become a celebrity hairdresser, says he charges up to 10 CUCs a pop.
To those who criticise the slow pace of reform, Raúl Castro rightly points out that “we are moving at a faster pace” than many imagine. But so far the benefits of change are limited. Economic growth is running at under 3% a year. Agricultural production has yet to increase, officially at least. “Until now the government’s proposal has been to create wealth but not wealthy people,” says Mr Márquez. “That’s complicated.” The next couple of years will determine just how much Cuba is ready to change.